China Sprouts Gargantuan Music Complexes: Interview

The book jacket of ``Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls'' by Victoria Newhouse. Source: The Monacelli Press via Bloomberg

You may not know this, but Paul Andreu is very big in China.

The French architect, who made news when part of a terminal ceiling at the Paris-Charles de Gaulle airport collapsed, had better luck in Beijing and Shanghai.

Andreu’s gargantuan culture centers stun the eye in Victoria Newhouse’s lucidly written, splendidly illustrated “Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls.”

The immense petal-like shapes of the Shanghai Dongfang Yishu Zhongxin look like they may yet sprout a glass bug late one night.

There is more than China in Newhouse’s illuminating survey. Her global tour includes Los Angeles, Paris, New York and Oslo, before concluding with newer projects by Zaha Hadid in Baku, Azerbaijan, and Herzog & de Meuron’s Elbe Philharmonie in Hamburg.

These complexes devoted to music are our era’s expression of wealth and power, she writes. In that respect, they have replaced museums, which multiplied like mad in the last two decades.

We spoke over lunch at Bloomberg’s world headquarters in New York.

Hoelterhoff: It’s odd that the Chinese are obsessively building opera houses when western opera isn’t part of their tradition.

Newhouse: There are a number of issues, first of all the Cultural Revolution, which wiped out everything connected with western music. So they really had to start from scratch in the late ‘70s when that was over.

Empty Halls

Hoelterhoff: These palaces glitter at night in your photos, but aren’t they often empty?

Newhouse: The Chinese have no tradition of buying tickets. Anybody with the means of buying tickets expects to get tickets free, either because their company has contributed some money or simply because of who they are.

One of the big problems in China today -- and it’s not unlike the West -- is finding money for programs. And then they don’t always know what to program.

Hoelterhoff: So many seem surrounded by lethal highways.

Newhouse: Which they call boulevards, but they are not. Also, there is no marketing. If the place isn’t in the center of Beijing, say, people don’t know what might be playing. Shanghai is a little different because of its western connection.

Odious Ott

Hoelterhoff: Do the cities compete for bizarre and big?

Newhouse: When Beijing started to plan the mega theater because of the Olympics, Shanghai immediately commissioned the same French architect, Paul Andreu, to do their grand theater because they didn’t want to be outdone by Beijing.

Hoelterhoff: I was amazed to see that Carlos Ott of the reviled Bastille Opera in Paris has built a 540,000-square-foot theater in Hangzhou. How do these guys get these jobs?

Newhouse: You have to remember that in China everything is political. It’s a dictatorship and so if some big official sees something in Paris, they can order it up back home.

Hoelterhoff: How do you explain so many new buildings devoted to opera and music?

Newhouse: What’s happening with concert halls and opera houses today is like what was happening when I started writing about museums in the early 1980s: It’s an explosion.

When the Pompidou opened in 1977, nobody went to museums. I mean, it’s hard to imagine that today right? Museums were dark, musty, fusty places and look at what’s happened? Lines around the block.

So maybe these halls will attract their audiences. Concert halls today are certainly more visually appealing.

Hamburg Philharmonie

Hoelterhoff: They actually invite you in. Look at the great redo of Lincoln Center.

Newhouse: It is much more user-friendly, much more accessible instead of being isolated from the sidewalks around it. It now connects with the pedestrian areas. That cafe inside Tully Hall is a great place to have a cup of coffee.

Hoelterhoff: My hometown of Hamburg is building one of the most gorgeous halls, the Elbe Philharmonie on the harbor. How is it coming along?

Newhouse: I think they’re now up to three or four times the original estimate. It’s been a nightmare.

Hoelterhoff: What happened?

Newhouse: It was originally designed to sit on top of a 1960s warehouse. And they discovered very, very quickly that it wasn’t strong enough to hold everything they were going to build on top of it.

They had to add hundreds of pylons to make the place structurally secure. Then they ran into technical problems with the acoustics and had to redo the walls.

Hoelterhoff: It seems to be taking forever. That brings me back to China: Those buildings go up overnight.

Bottom Line

Newhouse: Between the time that I left Shanghai in early 2010, and late last year, they had opened another concert hall that I hadn’t even heard about when I was in the city. It’s right under one of the main squares.

The average longevity of any building in China is a maximum 30 years. Zaha Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera house is already being restored. It was so badly constructed that cladding panels have fallen off.

Hoelterhoff: Beyond Gehry’s marvelous Disney Hall and New World Center in Miami, it seems Americans are more timid in their architecture.

Newhouse: I think the bottom line rules and so people are always terrified to spend a little bit more money to experiment.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

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