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Design

China's Attempt at the 'Bilbao Effect'

A curvy new opera house is part of a plan to make Harbin, in northeast China, the “Venice of the East.”
Harbin Opera House, designed by MAD Architects, opened last December.
Harbin Opera House, designed by MAD Architects, opened last December.Benny Shaffer

It’s only May, but the international architectural press has already highlighted the Harbin Opera House, designed by the bad-boy architect Ma Yansong, as one of the year’s most interesting new buildings. On the glossy web pages of Dezeen, ArchDaily, and their equivalents, fantastical images of it proclaim that the future is still coming, and has chosen to stop by the capital of China’s Rust Belt, wintry Heilongjiang province, en route.

But what does this building have to tell us about how architecture and high culture can revitalize regions that seem to be dead in the water? Can cultural infrastructure really offer cities a new lease on life?