Shanghai — In a number of ways, French architect Paul Andreu's glittering Oriental Arts Center is a convenient symbol of the new China -- and the headlong, almost impossibly ambitious way this country is chasing Western-style modernity.
Made up of three concert halls, the center is expensive ($120 million) and bigger than it really needs to be (about 350,000 square feet, much of it wasted in the corners of a cavernous lobby). And like many of the buildings by prominent foreign architects commissioned recently by the Chinese government, it showily anticipates a need -- in this case, for a large, cutting-edge classical music venue -- more than it fills one.
The building, certainly, already has taken its place among Shanghai's growing number of architectural curiosity shops: optimistically scaled, dramatically lighted new buildings where locals and tourists alike gather to gawk at the sheer energy with which this city of 16 million is remaking itself.
The center, which hosted its first concert on New Year's Eve and is now in the midst of so-called soft opening before a full slate of shows begins this spring, is designed to look like an orchid. Andreu has divided its interior space into five petal-shaped sections, sheathed in glass, that bulge (or bloom) dramatically toward the sidewalk. Each of the three biggest petals contains an auditorium: There's a 333-seat space for chamber music, one for opera that seats 1,020, and a hall for symphonic performance with a capacity of more than 1,950.
The building will serve as home base for the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, which was founded in 1879 and performed for many years in a converted movie palace. Thanks to an early programming coup, the Berlin Philharmonic will visit for two concerts in November. Yet the place seems designed to fulfill a totemic as much as a musical purpose for a country, and a city, determined to become a player on the global cultural stage just as it wants to compete internationally in higher education, and biotechnology, and high-end tourism -- and on and on.
Indeed, Andreu seems to have been chosen for the job, despite his firm's lack of experience designing cultural facilities, specifically for his ability to practice the sort of bold, intensely graphic architecture that helps China declare its newfound ambition in unmistakable architectural language. As he shows as well in his grandiose Pudong International Airport on the outskirts of Shanghai, which opened five years ago, details and subtlety are not his strong suits. Both designs are more persuasive in two dimensions than three; the Oriental Arts Center, for its part, is as much a neon sign advertising the presence of a big! pricey! new! concert hall on the site than the real thing.
The China Daily, the biggest of the government-run English-language newspapers, recently called Andreu's building a "gigantic cultural epicenter," a "dazzling" hall with a "chic and modern" look and "the crowning jewel of Shanghai's many performing venues." Like a lot of what passes for architectural criticism in the official Chinese press, such praise is more indicative of government hopes for the project than a clear-eyed appraisal of the finished product.
A larger role
The center has a strong and similarly symbolic urban-planning role to play. It occupies a site on the edge of a big traffic circle in Pudong -- a district of Shanghai that's seen exponential if carefully calibrated growth during the last five years -- and anchors the southern stretch of Pudong's main drag, Century Boulevard. While the northern end of Century runs right by the thicket of new towers that crowd the tip of Pudong, across the river from the famous Bund, the area around Andreu's building still feels a bit drowsy. The arts center and the boulevard (which is eight lanes wide in places) look forward to a volume of foot and car traffic that probably won't arrive for several years.
Visitors enter through a relatively modest set of doors, placed in the middle of a long, scaffolding-like glass wall that sits against the base of the main building. Broad stone stairs lead to the lobby, a high-ceilinged space with harsh lighting and a lack of carpeting (or, for that matter, any softening material). The hard-edged feel is not helped by the unusual wall coverings. For some unfortunate reason, Andreu has chosen to line the outside walls of each of the performance spaces, facing the lobby, with a series of curved porcelain tiles, each about the size of a serving platter, in various colors. Tiles are grouped together in vertical strings that hang in tight rows from the lobby walls.