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Music in Bloom

Shanghai's Oriental Arts Center, shaped like a butterfly orchid, becomes the city's first truly concert-specific performance venue.

March 01, 2005 |

Shanghai, an ancient city of more than 16 million people, is abundantly rich in heritage and culture. But until recently, the closest thing the city, known as the Pearl of the Orient, had to a music-specific concert venue was the Shanghai Concert Hall, which was built in the 1930s as a cinema. The New Year's Eve opening of the $120 million Oriental Arts Center now gives the city three state-of-the-art music locations in a single 39,694-sm complex.

The center lends status to the city's Pudong district, a new industrial and suburban area across the Huang Pu River from Shanghai's City Center. The OAC is the latest in a string of China projects for French architect Paul Andreu, whose works include Shanghai's Pudong International Airport and the recently completed Beijing Opera House. His $320 million, multi-space National Theater is scheduled to open later this year in Beijing.

Rising seven stories above the lush gardens that surround it, the OAC is comprised of a grouping of five flat-topped oblong glass forms, which from the ground look like a collection of giant kettle drums. But from an aerial view, the building takes the form of a butterfly orchid. The butterfly spreads its wings at night when LED lights on the roof twinkle in rhythm with the music being played within.

The three concert spaces formed by the principal spheres—a 1,979-seat philharmonic concert hall, a 1,054-seat lyric theater, and a 330-seat chamber music hall—are "like three kernels inside a fruit," says Andreu. The main entrance hall and an exhibition hall round out the complex, which also houses music shops, a restaurant, an arts exchange, an arts library, and a multimedia and training center, plus the usual array of backstage facilities, dressing rooms, and lounges.

With the project's private developers and government officials seeking a modern look for the project, Andreu wrapped the entire seven-story facade of the building in glass curtain wall, which gives the public what he calls "a panoramic view" of the gardens and the city around the building.

Perforated sheet metal pressed between thin layers of the outwardly sloped, laminated glass curtain wall gradually reduces the amount of light allowed to penetrate the curtain wall as it rises so that, near the top of the wall, 80% of light is blocked. Sloping the glass outward reduces glare.

Designed to be (in Andreu's words) "as light as possible," the glass facade, which is 26 meters high at its highest points, is supported by what looks like a random pattern of horizontal struts that cross over the public area and tie into the curving concrete outer walls of the main halls. "We didn't want any large beams," says Andreu. "The struts seem random, but they are not."

Covering the outer walls of the main halls, strings of large, handmade red, orange, and beige ceramic tiles were selected because of the material's relationship to many of the important historic buildings in China. They hang "like pearls on cables" from the ceiling, giving the walls a honeycomb appearance. The OAC's developers frowned on the idea at first "because they thought it wouldn't look high-tech," says Andreu. In the end, he convinced them that the team could make the concept work.

The thick concrete walls that encapsulate the music halls are key to the project's acoustics, says Andreu, who collaborated once again with his countryman Jean-Paul Vian as lead acoustician. To adjust the acoustics according to the music being played, sound-absorbing panels in the ceiling are raised and lowered. The variation in sound level is only about two decibels from one location to another. "The results in the first concerts have been good," says Andreu.

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