To Be Cultural Capital: Grand Theaters in Shanghai

  • Charlie Qiuli XueEmail author


Why and how have so many grand theaters been built so quickly in China? How were those designs selected in the process of decision making? How do these theaters influence the ambience of a city, and how do they provide public space and amenities for a vibrant civic life? What is the design language of the grand theaters?

Why and how have so many grand theaters been built so quickly in China? How were those designs selected in the process of decision making? How do these theaters influence the ambience of a city, and how do they provide public space and amenities for a vibrant civic life? What is the design language of the grand theaters?

This chapter attempts to answer these questions using Shanghai as an example. The author hopes to examine how a grand theater is built with a particular mission in urban renewal and new town construction and how they reflect the ambition of the city and its people in the tide of globalisation. The first section reviews the glorious past of Shanghai. The chapter uses five theaters in Shanghai to align with the salient phenomenon in China’s urban construction in the late 20th century and early 21st century and reveal the development trajectory of Chinese cities. The phenomenon includes Chinese cities’ busily employing international architects to create or enhance their brands, eagerness of expressing features of the time and addressing imminent urban problems.

These five theaters are most expensive, appealing, noticeable and can represent the trends emerging in this century. The process of building performance spaces in Shanghai fits well into the historic process and framework of modern China, as illustrated in the following sections, followed by our query and conclusions. Individual theater was built with special mission and conditions, which together make a jigsaw of Chinese society and architecture in the 21st century. The proper use of tax-payers’ money in public buildings is discussed. This chapter aims to shed light on the rapid development of Asian cities and reveal the problems attached to these prominent cultural landmark buildings.

2.1 Restoring the Old Glamour

As an early “global” city in the eastern China, Shanghai was exposed to Western civilization in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. With the opening of the port, parts of the city were leased to the United Kingdom, the United States, France and Japan as concession areas. Western management and materialistic advancement transformed the city into a modern society, which attracted millions of people from nearby provinces and foreign countries. Between the two World Wars, Shanghai was under the spotlight in the Far East and was nicknamed the “Oriental Paris”: its ports, factories, garden houses, department stores, hotels and apartment buildings were a physical manifesto (Lee 1999). Before the burst of the Pacific War, Japanese troops had occupied many provinces and Greater Shanghai, but the foreign concessions remained untouched. This extended and enhanced prosperity in this “isolated island” from 1938 to 1941. Intellectuals, writers and artists gathered in Shanghai, particularly in the concession areas because of their effective management and safe and clean environment. The city became an early center of film production, symphonies, plays and Chinese opera in the 1920s.

In its heyday, performance halls and cinemas were constructed in the concession areas. For example, Nanking Theater (1929), designed by Zhao Shen and Robert Fan, could accommodate musical performances, including those of symphony orchestras. Majestic Cinema (1939), Cathy Theater (1934) and Grand Theater (1931), designed by Chinese and foreign architects, all adopted Art Deco design features in tandem with their counterparts in Europe and the US. These cultural facilities, together with dancing halls, luxurious hotels and apartment stores, splendidly gilded the city center (Fig. 2.1).
Fig. 2.1

Distribution of main theaters and cinemas in Shanghai in the 1930s. The number represents various cinemas and theaters (drawn by Sun Cong)

During the Pacific War, Japanese troops entered the concession areas and dragged the city into war. After the Communist Party took power in 1949, Shanghai was planned as an industrial base. Sporadic cultural pavilions and cinemas were built together with workers’ residential areas at the city’s periphery. In 1959, the central government built ten “grand buildings” in Beijing to celebrate the ten year anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, at the expense of great famine in other provinces. In the wave of building grand projects to symbolise the strong socialist dictatorship, Shanghai once prepared blueprints for an opera house that could seat an audience of 3000, but the project had to be shelved because of economic difficulties in the early 1960s (Fig. 2.2).
Fig. 2.2

Shanghai concert hall (Nanking Theater), designed by Zhao Shen and Robert Fan, 1929; renovated in 2004

In 1978, China embarked on its open-door policy and began to eagerly learn Western technology and management (Xue 2006). At the time, Shanghai was embarrassingly dilapidated, and its only remaining glamour came from its old 1930s foreign concession legacies, a source of pride for Shanghainese. However, in the early years of the open-door policy, Shanghai was busy housing its residents and building hotels and offices for the burgeoning market business after decades of delay. The city took off again when Pudong, the east bank of the Huangpu River, was developed in 1990. In 1993, the GDP of Shanghai was US$1500 per capita.1 Although the city was still in the lower-middle income stage, the construction of cultural buildings was tabled in the government’s agenda because “Shanghai was seeking to reclaim its pre-communist role as China’s world city”(Rennie-Short 2004, 21). In this process, performing art space was used as means of reclaiming world status as specified in the following five cases.

2.2 Case 1: Shanghai Grand Theater, 1998

When the open-door policy was adopted in 1978, an early experiment with a market economy occurred in southern China, where Shenzhen, the rural custom town adjacent to capitalist Hong Kong, was designated a Special Economic Zone. Shenzhen was synonymous with the “open-door” (to the capitalist world) in the 1980s. The term “grand theater” was coined in Shenzhen when eight cultural projects were proposed in 1984. Five years later, the Shenzhen Grand Theater was constructed on the north side of Shennan Zhong Road, an East–West thoroughfare of the city proper. The grand theater consists of an opera house and concert hall under the same roof, sharing an entrance concourse and an outdoor sunken garden. The grand theater, together with a nearby library and science museum, brilliantly promoted the image of Shenzhen as the engine of economic development and new culture in the period of the open-door policy (Sun and Xue 2017) (see Chap.  4).

When Shenzhen was rising, Shanghai, once the “Oriental Paris”, dimmed. The development of Pudong gave Shanghai the impetus to march forward with bigger steps and lead the trend. In early 1994, violinist Itzhak Perlman and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra toured Shanghai, but the city lacked a qualified professional concert hall, which left Perlman disappointed. The highest-class performing facility was the conference hall of the municipal government, a temporary pavilion remodelled from an old building in the 1950s. The event shocked the government. Huang Ju, the mayor, pointed out that cultural construction must be achieved in tandem with economic construction. The government planned to build a grand theater, “lifting the face for Shanghai people, and being responsible for the future generations” (Yu 2014). The grand theater transcended a cultural performance building to become a symbol of political statement and a power gesture of the “open door”.

Vice-mayors Gong Xueping and Chen Zhili selected a site next to the municipal government, facing the People’s Square. In the socialist period, the capital city, Beijing, built Tiananmen Square, which could accommodate a million people for political gatherings, demonstrations, and festival parades. The other cities followed this model and built their own political centers. People’s Square in Shanghai exactly parallels the function of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. The municipal government occupied the old Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank building in the Bund in the 1950s–1980s. In the years of the open-door policy, the municipal government returned the building to the banking industry, and the new building was set at the central axis, north of the People’s Square. On the opposite side is Shanghai Museum. Both buildings were designed by the Shanghai Civil Architectural Design Institute and completed in the early 1990s. The grand theater stands to the west of the government building, and the Shanghai Planning Exhibition Pavilion is on the east. The siting strategies of the grand theater and museum show the government’s determination to govern the city with soft and cultural power. Grand theaters and museums are given sacred status by placing them in the city’s heart (Yang 2016).

Through the invited consultation for Lujiazui CBD planning in 1992, Shanghai municipal government enjoyed fruitful new ideas of international consultants. For the high class Shanghai grand theater, a good way of obtaining first class design is through design competition. An international design competition was held in early 1994, and the French firm Arte Charpentier Architectes won. Charpentier’s design featured a reverse flying roof supported by a truss, with a crystalized white glass box inserted under the roof (Fig. 2.3). The rear of the site is against the old Jockey Club (which was the city library at the time), so the length is limited. The grand theater consists of a lyric theater of 1631 seats, a drama theater of 575 seats, and a studio theater of 220 seats. The front lobby links only to the lyric theater. The other two small theaters take the back and leftover space. Their entrances are on the side, without a spacious lobby. Therefore, only the lyric theater can cater to all major performances. Under its thick roof are restaurants and cafés. The reverse flying roof resembles a sacred palm gesture toward the sky. As an echo, the Shanghai Planning Exhibition Pavilion, constructed later on the other side of the municipal government, also shows a large frame wing cantilevering 15 m out. After three years of intensive construction, the grand theater officially opened in August 1998 (Fig. 2.4).
Fig. 2.3

Master plan and sketch of Shanghai Grand Theater by Arte Charpentier Architectes (left picture drawn by Chang Wei, the right picture, courtesy of Charpentier Architectes)

Fig. 2.4

Shanghai Grand Theater: elevation, lobby and auditorium

The grand theater in Shenzhen was designed by a local firm in Guangzhou, and the design method is a natural extension of Chinese architecture from the 1980s. However, the Shanghai Grand Theater was selected from an international design competition, and the design stood out from the Chinese architecture at the time. This was the first international design competition of cultural building in China and set an example for other cities. Arte Charpentier Architectes is not an avant-garde firm in France, but good at understanding the needs of clients. The designer Andrew Hobson’s concept of “sky” and “earth” soon captured the heart of Shanghai’s decision makers. These municipal leaders in the 1990 respected French as “high art creator”, and they also liked gesture of “symbolizing” the Chinese culture. The design elaborated the facade facing the People’s Square.

As the client hoped to have more functions with limited budget and space, only lyric theater has a natural and logic connection with the magnificent lobby. The drama and studio theaters are packed in the leftover space, with little publicity. The box office is at the ground floor of the west side. When a person buys a ticket, he or she should go out to walk up from the big steps to enter the lobby at first floor, instead of directly sneaking into the lobby. Under the lobby is the ground floor with coffee, book shops and exhibition. The remodeling in 2014 addressed this problem by making openings between ground and first floors. People from box office can enter the ground floor and go up to the first floor lobby.

The glass curtain was imported from Germany and the white stone-clad columns were brought from Greece. The crystallised glass and white lobby create a noble temperament. The completion of Shanghai’s grand theater began decades of construction of similar grand theaters in other cities, particularly the fiercely debated national theater in Beijing. A year later, the international design competition for the national theater in Beijing was run in three rounds (Xue et al. 2010) (see Chap.  1).

The Shanghai Grand Theater, which opened in 1998, was associated with the Grand Theater in Nanjing Road, a cinema from 1931 designed by Hungarian architect Ladislav Hudec (1893–1958). Separated by almost 60 years, both buildings reached the international standards of their times and lifted Shanghai to a glamorous state. The latter is a reincarnation of the former, an important symbol of Shanghai’s reinstated role in the globalisation era.

Vice-mayor Gong was nicknamed the “cultural mayor” because he set up a visual arts college and many cultural projects during his tenure in the 1990s. When the grand theater project was being constructed in 1996, the city was hit by the economic recession. Many projects were suspended. The grand theater faced cash flow problems. Gong suggested that the Shanghai Bureau of Broadcast and Television take the main stock and further finance it. Gong also decided many important building details. For example, Ding Shaoguang, a Chinese-American artist, hoped to donate a large painting, but the client found that there was no proper wall space on which to hang the painting. Gong and colleagues finally decided to demolish a piece of the secondary floor balcony, and the wall set off Ding’s painting in a grand way. The painting was later replaced by Chu Teh-Chun (1920–2014, Chinese-French artist)’s work. Gong’s colleague Chen Zhili assisted him and was later promoted to the central government as vice-premier.

The grand theater is a notable achievement.2 The Shanghai Grand Theater opened in August 1998 and has accommodated many impressive performances from around the world, including the musicals Les Miserables, Cats, The Lion King, Sound of Music, and The Phantom of the Opera. The once-angry violinist Itzhak Perlman and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra returned to perform, as did the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and many other artists and musical troupes. The theater stages an average of two performances every three days. The vacant day is used for installing and breaking down setting and for rehearsal. In terms of income, the theater receives a yearly government subsidy that accounts for around 8% of its funding. Approximately 70% of its income comes from box office receipts and the rest from site rental and sponsors, such as Buick. Its annual income of nearly RMB70 million (around US$11.5 million) is spent on operation, including performances, staff salaries and maintenance fees.3

2.3 Case 2: Oriental Art Center, 2005

In the ten years since its inception in Pudong, Shanghai has regained the reins of China’s economy. The thrust is from Pudong, the east bank of Huangpu River. The new central business district (CBD) is located in Lujiazui. A tip of Pudong and Central Avenue, 100 m wide, connects the East–West axis of the city across the river and extends eastwards. The Pudong area is even larger than the city proper on the west bank. High-class apartments, Class A office buildings, and technological parks were constructed in the area. When the Shanghai Grand Theater was planned in 1994, it was assigned the performance types of opera and ballet. An Oriental concert hall designed by Japanese architects was planned in Lujiazui of Pudong. The site was found to be too small, and the oriental concert hall was moved to the administrative district of Pudong. By taking this opportunity, the Pudong government hoped to make it more than merely a concert hall (Fig. 2.5).
Fig. 2.5

Master plan of Oriental Art Center (drawn by Zhang Lujia)

The original concert hall was expanded to three performing spaces under one roof and named the Oriental Art Center. Its ground-breaking ceremony was held in March 2002 and was completed in early 2005. It was designed by French architect Paul Andreu (1938–2018), who had already designed the Shanghai Pudong Airport terminal in 1997 and the National Grand Theater in Beijing in 1999. Andreu is fond of symbolic and particularly circular shapes, which the decision makers in China also enjoy. In the Oriental Art Center, Andreu designed a shape of five-petal magnolia, the city flower of Shanghai. The three large hemispheric petals are the concert hall (2000 seats), opera house (1100 seats) and recital hall (300 seats), and the two small ones are the entrance and exhibition hall. The three performance halls are relatively enclosed, and the leftover space is for public use. In other words, the indoor public space serves three performing spaces. This is better than the treatment of Shanghai Grand Theater, where lobby only serves main lyric theater. The performance space is enclosed by a thick concrete wall, from which steel rods support the external curvilinear curtain wall. The external wall is made of bulging glass curtain, and all internal walls are decorated with warm-coloured porcelain panels. A total of 880 embedded lighting fixtures are installed on the rooftop. In the evening, when the sound of music bursts, the bulbs blink like twinkling stars in the sky. Compared to Shanghai Grand Theatre, Oriental Art Centre has stronger iconic effect, which is good for promoting new district.

Almost every important music troupe in the world has performed at the Oriental Art Center. Many high-income white-collar workers live near the CBD. According to a statistical investigation commissioned by the art center, many audience members come from the western side of the Huangpu River, crossing the Yangpu and Nanpu Bridges.4 The high-class performance center, plus the library, sport hall and other facilities, make the area appealing to high-end global residents. The completion of the Oriental Art Center greatly boosted the confidence of the Pudong government. It is a cultural landmark of the city, particularly the Pudong of Shanghai (Fig. 2.6).
Fig. 2.6

Oriental Art Center, building, lobby and halls (first picture, courtesy of Fu Xing)

The Shanghai Grand Theater is located in the old city center, facing the People’s Square and supported by the transportation network. In contrast, as part of the Pudong district government facilities, the Oriental Art Center was planned on vacant land and surrounded by parks and wide roads. The government office building and Science Museum are also in the area. They were beautifully drawn, like independent sculptures, in the master plan, but were not designed for the convenience of pedestrians. The main public transportation is the metro line, whose exit is around 500 m away, and pedestrians are exposed the elements. There are no restaurants or food courts within walking distance, so audience members must eat in other places and then travel to the center. As it is away from the city center and the west bank of Huangpu River, where most residents are concentrated, audiences must rush to catch the last train back home, and thus they must usually leave the theater before the curtain call.

The Oriental Art Center is managed by Poly Theater Management Co Ltd, which manages 63 theaters in 55 cities. The income and expenditures of the Oriental Art Center are similar to those of Shanghai Grand Theater. The difference is that the Oriental Art Center does not receive a government subsidy. All of its money comes from box office receipts, sponsorships and occasional government grants for special project applications.5

2.4 Case 3: Shanghai Cultural Square, 2011

The Shanghai Grand Theater is located in People’s Square, once horseracing course in the British concession area. Shanghai’s prosperity between the Wars was mostly exhibited through French concession, an enclave in the messy port city. Both British and French concessions were managed by Shanghai International Settlement. In the heart of French concession, a greyhound racecourse was built for entertainment in the 1920s. Hotel, dancing hall and cinema were rising up nearby.

After 1949 when the Communist took over the power, gambling was banned. The greyhound racecourse was converted to Cultural Square with a capacity of 15,000 people in 1954, a semi-open convention space for political assembling. From 1954 to 1966, over 600 conventions (mainly revolutionary brain washing) were held and they involved more than two million people. In the Cultural Revolution, the venue witnessed many cruel political struggles when the municipal leaders were humiliated. The Cultural Square was demolished by an accidental fire in 1969. To restore this important assembly venue, a new indoor structure covered with three-dimensional spatial truss was completed in 1973. The stage has a headroom of 19 m. It was hailed as advanced performance space in China. Revolutionary operas from China and North Korea were staged. In the years of open-door policy in the 1980s, large scale performance and revolutionary education were outdated. Cultural Square was used as stock exchange when the stock market in China was restored in 1988. After the stock exchange was moved to Pudong CBD, the venue was used as flower market, which took 70% of the market share.6

When Shanghai Grand Theater was open in 1998, it soon found that a more specialized auditorium for musical might be needed. The municipal government eyed on Cultural Square again. As the site is located in the old French concession and scenery Ruijin Garden, the management hoped that a new theater could give more space to greenery, so as to achieve “green culture”. In an international design competition held in 2005, Beyer Blinder Belle (BBB) from New York City together with Xian Dai Group of Shanghai won the design (Fig. 2.7).
Fig. 2.7

Site of Cultural Square: a changing history (drawn by Zhang Lujia)

Not to disturb the traditional French concession neighborhood, the winning scheme keeps low profile in the vast garden and sinks the main part of building to subterrane. The part above the ground is no more than 10 m, another part of 24 m deep is in underground. An audience member enters the lobby level (±0.00 m), and can directly walk to the third floor balcony. The atrium lobby and entrance to main auditorium of 2000 seats are at the level of −7.5 m. Therefore, audience members mostly go down through grand stairs when entering the big lobby. The most striking design is a huge glass funnel in the center of lobby, where lighting, water and air converge, against the color glass mural on the wall. The theater is surrounded by emergency vehicular access (EVA), ramping down from the streets, they form a sunken plaza, where audience members can enter and exit. Because of its sunken strategies, the building complex with a GFA of 50,000 m2. modestly lies prone in a lush garden, which was converted from a site of old lane house. People in the nearby streets do not feel any building block, but a green garden. The old spatial truss is partly kept at back side to form an open amphitheater for people’s leisure, amusement and performance.7

The Cultural Square supplements Shanghai Grand Theater, especially in musical. Broadway musicals were staged frequently, for example Cinderella, Rent and Kinky Boots. To help the theater financially, Shanghai Automobile Company became the title sponsor in 2016. The garden and theater continue the city’s cultural glory originated from the 1920s. The site’s changing history reflects the city’s political and economic agenda in the past hundred years (Fig. 2.8).
Fig. 2.8

Cultural Square: a strategy of low profile in garden

2.5 Case 4: Concert Hall, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra, 2013

Shanghai established the earliest philharmonic orchestra in China, by the International Settlement in 1922. Before the orchestra had its own concert hall, the musicians packed into a small house to practice, where noise from street and next door was inevitable. When music was recorded, even in the summer, the air-conditioning had to be shut down. In 2009, Shanghai government gave the old Shanghai diving pool to the orchestra to build its concert hall. The site is in the city center, where Metro Line 10 passes underground. The client first found the acoustic consultant Yasuhisa Toyota from Japan, who had designed concert halls for Suntory in Tokyo and Disney in Los Angeles. An architectural design by Japanese architect Isozaki Arata was selected from four competitors, and Tongji University design institute assisted as the local architect.

A 2000-seat concert hall and a 300-person recital hall (also a recording studio) are arranged longitudinally in a box along the road. The long lobby serves the two halls and links them to a sunken garden. The auditorium in the concert hall is designed in a vineyard pattern, with the terraces warmly cascading to the stage. To prevent noise, double concrete walls, each 250 mm thick and 400 mm apart, were poured. As mentioned above, Metro Line 10 passes under the site. To isolate the concert hall from the train noise, 168 short concrete posts were built from the foundation, upon which were installed dampers produced in Germany. The floor and the building are actually suspended atop a raft of springs and thus will not shake when a train speeds through beneath. To revitalize the old city of high density, design must be carried out like surgeon operation (Fig. 2.9).
Fig. 2.9

Master plan of symphony orchestra concert hall

The Shanghai Symphony Orchestra moved into its new home in 2013. The venue is near the Conservatory of Music, so the art teaching/learning and performing can include more interactive communication in walking distance. Not only does the orchestra rehearse and perform in the concert hall, but it also hosts touring international music troupes. The building enhances the status of Shanghai’s symphony orchestra, which is able to attract better musicians and more sponsorships8 (Fig. 2.10).
Fig. 2.10

Symphony orchestra concert hall, building and lobby

Designer Isozaki Arata has been famous for his changing face/method since the 1970s and is categorised among the “post-modernists”. He has been active in China since the 1990s. In 2001, he won the first job in China—Shenzhen Cultural Center, consisting of a library and a concert hall. He designed the art gallery for the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (2008), Himalaya Center in Shanghai (2011) and Harbin Concert Hall (2016), and most of these works were implemented from his Shanghai studio organised by his partner Hu Qian. His postmodernist method appeals to the clients’ eagerness to create a new image. The concert hall possesses high-quality acoustics and architecture and is intimate for people and pedestrians.

2.6 Case 5: Poly Theater, Jiading, 2014

While the city proper was busily building subways, skyscrapers and cultural buildings, the suburban towns were making their own way towards modernisation. Dr. Sun Jiwei, graduated from Tongji University, was responsible for the town planning and construction in Qingpu and Jiading, both old rural towns in Shanghai, in the 21st century. He believes that excellent architecture can light up the old city. During his time in Qingpu, he created many opportunities for elite architects to build experimental architecture in his district. The rural towns have more land than the crowded city and thus more freedom for designers’ creativity. When he moved to Jiading, he planned a new CBD, parks and landscapes for the district and invited famous architects from home and abroad to design public buildings. When the land for a theater was leased to the Poly Group, the Group committed a design. However, as a district planner, Sun hoped to have a world class architect who could ‘light up the area’. With this thinking, he and the client invited Japanese architect Tadao Ando, who was said “to understand China’s construction conditions and be flexible enough” (Ma 2015) (Fig. 2.11).
Fig. 2.11

Master plan of Poly Theater

Tadao Ando began his China venture in 2004 and has designed nearly 20 projects in various cities. He is highly esteemed and eagerly sought after, and his designs have won enthusiastic applause from municipal leaders and clients. The Poly Theater is located at the end of a road axis facing a large park and lake. The basic building form is a square 100 m on each side. A 1575-seat theater lies diagonally in a 34-m-high square box. The central axis of the auditorium extends to the main entrance in the corner. Four groups of cylinders, 18 m in diameter, are inserted into the box. They interconnect and form a complicated interior space and are reflected on the external wall. Through the dramatic holes on the external wall, people from the park can peep into the internal space, like a “cultural kaleidoscope”. The lake is extended to the theater, and an open stage projects into the water. The huge double-curved surface is cladded with aluminium strips, which have a timber-like texture after heat treatment. According to Ando, wind and light in these complicated spaces are making another play.9 The fare-faced concrete wall is veneered by a second skin curtain wall, which soften the external wall in daytime and lighten up by flooding light in the evening. He continues his design language of fair-faced concrete and curtain wall. Ando’s design may look too strong in a city environment, but displays a sculptural effect in a big park of suburban town.

Many world cities will welcome designs from such a Pritzker Architectural Award laureate. An old rural town between Shanghai and Jiangsu Province, Jiading has hosted a Volkswagen production line, “German Town”, a Formula One racecourse and some ancient heritage.10 The Jiading New Town is one of the three new towns planned to upgrade suburban Shanghai, and it will house up to one million residents. During its rapid development, it has had Tadao Ando’s name to lift its face. Tadao Ando had not previously designed a grand theater and grasped the opportunity to make this statement and add to his already brilliant portfolio. Although far (28 km) from the city center, Poly Theater has served residents with its own performing niche in the nearby areas since its opening in 2014. One business of Poly Group is real estate. Many of Poly’s residential estates were built around the theater. Residents and office workers can enjoy the nice environment of the park, theater and CBD. Together with the library designed by Mada Spam, Poly Theater will assume a greater role as a landmark in the Jiading new town. Another business of Poly Group is theater management. Through its network of show planning, performing troupes in China and abroad can circulate among various cities, including the suburban location of Jiading (Fig. 2.12).
Fig. 2.12

Poly Theater, building and lobby

2.7 Whose Theater?

In less than 20 years, Shanghai has restored the old concert hall and built nearly ten grand theaters, a dance theater, a play house, a concert hall and a circus city. The north part of Suzhou Creek was traditionally a poor area, and the classy theaters and cinemas were concentrated on the south part. In 2014, Daning Theater opened in the old industrial district of Zhabei. Not far from the symphony orchestra, an opera house of the Shanghai Conservatory of Music is under construction. The Shanghai Grand Opera House, initiated in 1958, is located on the waterfront of the World Expo 2010 site. Snøhetta, the designer of the Oslo opera house, is committed to the design. As said above, the performance spaces were mostly in the south bank of Suzhou Creek. With the city’s gravity moving to the east bank of Huangpu River, more grand theaters crossed the river and settled in Pudong. Districts are actively planning their own theaters and cultural facilities. The number of performing art facilities and total seats are well over those of Hong Kong, whose GDP per capita is twice that of Shanghai11 (Fig. 2.13).
Fig. 2.13

Distribution of major performing space in Shanghai (drawn by Sun Cong)

Four of the five theaters mentioned above were the result of direct investment by government, either municipal or district. Poly was built by the Poly Group, a private corporation with a government and military background, and the land was provided by the government. In return, Poly gained a concession price of land in nearby sites to construct office and housing blocks. The five theaters, like most grand theaters built in China, were directly or indirectly funded by government. It is true that taxpayers’ money should benefit more people. However, most of these theaters shut their doors during the daytime and are only open to ticket holders in the evening. The management does not fully use the possibility of publicity given in the design stage.

The Shanghai Grand Theater faces the People’s Square. An iron fence surrounds the outdoor grassland. Passers-by can only appreciate the crystalline sculpture-like theater at a distance. Many residents in the surrounding areas never have a chance to enter the theater. The management has explained that there are too many people in the square. If the theater removes the fence, tourist buses will park in front and damage the pavement. Opening the lobby to the public is unthinkable.12 In the Oriental Art Center, people can enter the box office only after passing through security guards and an X-ray bag check. After buying tickets, people are allowed to enter the lobby, which connects to the three performing spaces. As it is far from the city and the Metro line, and because of the strict entrance security check, very few people will be in the mood to stroll through the lobby during the day.

The garden surrounding the Cultural Square is lovely and open to the public, however, the theater is open to the ticket holders only 45 min before the show. The situation is similar with the Poly Theater. The lobby opens to the public on the second Sunday every month, but only for four hours. The concert hall of the symphony orchestra is aligned with other buildings in the street of the old French concession area. It is among the very few theaters that open to the public their lobby and exhibition gallery, where musical instruments and interactive sound devices are displayed. Because it partly sinks into the underground, pedestrians can hardly find its full face in the tree-lined road. Both Cultural Square and the symphony orchestra concert hall are modest and intimate and not as glamorous as the other grand theaters.

In these theaters, a ticket is usually priced RMB80 (US$13) to RMB1800 (US$300), according to the location and the class of performance. The average admission ticket at Shanghai Grand Theater is RMB207 (US$34.50) in 2015.13 Although the theaters make every effort to obtain sponsorship funding to reduce prices, a ticket is still expensive for most working class residents, whose monthly salary is around RMB5000 to RMB10,000 (US$833 to US$1666).14 Compared to the state-run museums and libraries, which are freely open to the public, the theaters can serve only a handful of middle- and upper-class people. If the indoor and outdoor public space can be open to the public free of charge, the theaters will display better social functions and enliven civic life.

2.8 Conclusion: Quest for City and People

This chapter briefly reviews the production of five theaters in Shanghai in the past twenty years. By discussing the various theaters’ situations, we can answer the questions raised in the beginning.

Many grand theaters were initiated and built, mainly for the city’s imperatives of enhancing their domestic and international status, producing an ideal environment for (foreign) investment and providing a venue for high art (Sassen 2001). After the major theaters, other cultural buildings and the subway network (580 km long) are completed, Shanghai plans to jump from an “international metropolis” by 2020 to a “global city” by 2040 that possesses a configuration of international resources, influence and high competitiveness (Shen et al. 2016). Such cultural venues are indispensable for a city with this global ambition. In terms of per-capita GDP, China is still a developing country.15 However, first-tier cities like Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen are catching up with Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo.16 They have sufficient resources to build cultural facilities, which are regarded as the city’s calling cards in the official and mass media.

Rapid urbanisation promotes economic growth and gathers more people into the city. More and more of these people become affluent each year, and they demand cultural vitality.17 The conceptual cultural buildings are constructed to substantiate the city’s claims to global significance. The increasingly strong wave of post-industrial consumerism supports the operation of cultural spots and allows them to thrive. These changes are similar to the gentrification process described by Zukin (1993). However in China, they are the results of government-led gentrification. The author’s team has investigated more than 10 Chinese cities, and observed averagely 80% theatre occupancy.

In Unitarian China, there is one more characteristic in addition to the cultural building production and consumption in capitalist cities. The central government hopes to maintain the strong momentum of economic development and the local governments compete for resources. “Global cities” and “perfect urban and cultural facilities” are important indexes to win in the competition among cities. With the leadership of the Communist Party, decisions are made from the top down with little opposition at the civic level, which makes site selection, excavation, preparation, design and construction relatively smoother than in the “democratic” societies, whose public expenditures are scrutinised by a voter-elected council or congress. Even in difficult financial circumstances (as in the case of Shanghai Grand Theater and Cultural Square), the government can motivate social forces (mainly state-owned corporations) to solve the problem. Social watchdogs, public opinion and financial procedures are bypassed. The grand theaters are new spectacles in Chinese cities, wrought by absolute ambition, power and money, as David Havey pointed out: “it is a right to change and reinvent the city more after our hearts’ desire… when people are remaking the city, they are indirectly remaking themselves as well” (Havey 2012, 3–5). When the provincial or municipal leaders decide a direction, they can make it.

This Chinese characteristic is making miracles and mirages. The Sydney Opera House took 17 years to complete. The West Kowloon Cultural District of Hong Kong has been discussed for 20 years and has gone through several rounds of planning and Legislative Council debate. The first building, Xiqu Theater, took six years for construction (Xue 2016). In contrast, the grand theaters in Shanghai and other Chinese cities were usually completed in 3–4 years. The implementation ability of the Chinese government and developers are unchallengeable.18 Some may be rough in construction, but most theaters reach international standards and are praised by the international artists, musical troupes and architects.19

In our case studies, three theaters’ designs were acquired through design competition. French and American architects won for their innovative design, especially in the building image and association with romantic symbols. With these international design competitions, Shanghai acquired designs whose forms graced the city. The Shanghai Grand Theater was the first of more than 100 grand theaters constructed in China in the 21st century. The concert hall of the symphony orchestra was committed to a Japanese acoustic expert because of his track record in designing concert halls. Poly Theater invited a world-class architect, and both the client and the government felt fortunate to have such a big name and extraordinary work. The design adds colour to the theater and the area. Regardless of whether a design competition is held, the selection of a design emphasises unique qualities in a particular location and the long-term impact of the building. The traditional shoebox form was wrapped with post-modern and post-industrial cloth, which is expected to express the client’s pride and the government’s achievement and vitalising the city or suburban area. It has partly accomplished these goals. In an assessment of the image of Shanghai’s cultural space, Shanghai Grand Theater was rated No. 6 and the Oriental Arts Center No. 8.20

With the completion of these theaters, Shanghai has hosted more domestic and international art exchanges and performances, and local artists, students and musical troupes have ample opportunity to practice and exercise their roles for an audience. Shanghai Grand Theater alone hosted 367,000 people to see performances during fiscal year 2015–16.21 Although the design schemes considered public use and accessibility, most theaters’ social function extends only a couple of hours before the show, as the lobby opens at 6.30 or 6.45 p.m. for the audiences. The theaters run open days and other outreach activities once or twice per month. More people can attend the seminars and view exhibitions on those days. Compared to the huge investment they require, the magnificent space and prominent status they present in the city, and the citizens’ high expectations, theaters’ social functions need to be better and more fully displayed.

A relatively good example may be the concert hall of the symphony orchestra. The building is located in the old city area, instead of an isolated sculpture on vacant land. It is a natural extension of the street facade, and pedestrians can easily enter the courtyard and lobby during the day. The building consolidates the original street function of continuity and encourages pleasant civic and street life.

Table 2.1 summarises the public space and design language of the five grand theaters in Shanghai. The five prominent theaters were all designed by international architects and firms, which is more expensive than using local architects.22 This shows the city’s determination to join the global cultural exchange and acts as a gesture of mind-opening. The design and building quality of the five theaters is completely different from the trajectory of Chinese architecture. They set trends and examples for Chinese architects in the design of cultural buildings. Each, both, or all can be aligned with phenomena in Chinese architecture; for example, a symbolic form with a story, the use of a cultural building to vitalize an area, respecting the old neighborhood, form determined by technology and the use of star architects to promote a remote area. The aspiration of being “global” is partly realised through the concerted efforts of government, developers, designers, theater managers and audiences in a consumerist society. Shanghai’s path of building cultural buildings realizes its dream of “Oriental Pearl” and represents the development trajectory of Chinese cities. However, Chinese cities and their people also deserve more enjoyment and sharing of cultural facilities and their affiliated public space. In the end, governments should be held accountable for the use of taxpayers’ money, a public building should serve people and a city should make people’s lives better.
Table 2.1

Summary of the five theaters in Shanghai


Urban and public space

Theater and design language

Phenomenon or significance in urban architecture

Shanghai grand theater

Limited by the site, the lobby is short. Little consideration of outdoor public space in the design. The side garden is open to the public, but the front square is fenced. It is part of a space of power in the city

The theme is embracing ‘Heaven and earth’. A light-white sculpture sits on the lawn. The stage and audience have excellent sight-lines and acoustics. The lobby is elegantly decorated. It is noble and beautiful but keeps a distance from ordinary people

The first grand theater in China, whose design was acquired through an international design competition. One hall satisfies multiple functions of concert and opera. Expression of the Chinese characteristics

Oriental art center

There is no consideration of outdoor space. The lobby connects to three theaters and is lively in the evening before the show

The theme is magnolia petals—the city’s flower. The shape can be best appreciated from sky, not from ground level

Symbolic form ‘to be like something’ to please the decision maker. Cultural building is used to vitalise the new district

Shanghai cultural square

Big garden in the old French concession open to the public. Beautiful lobby only opens to the ticket holders

Curvilinear form with funnel. Partly radical and iconic

Respecting the traditional neighborhood. Prioritizing the greenery coverage and providing park for the crowded city center

Symphony orchestra concert hall

The entrance courtyard, lobby and exhibition gallery are open to the public during the day

The roof is curved. The vineyard-patterned concert hall achieves good acoustic effects

Technology dominates the building design. Building fits into the old fabric of the city

Poly grand theater

The building enjoys a superb park landscape. There are many views of the forest and lake from the building. However, the theater does not open to the public outside of show times

The huge tubes and their intersection create abundant spatial effect. The theatrical treatment of building volume plays with lake

Star architects and their imagination to boost the remote area by cultural buildings


  1. 1.

    The figure of Shanghai’s GDP is from Shanghai Statistic Annual Report, 2012.

  2. 2.

    The construction history of Shanghai Grand Theater is mainly referenced from Yu (2014). Some situations and facts are taken from the authors’ on-site investigation.

  3. 3.

    The operation fee of Shanghai Grand Theater is from its annual report of 2015 and from the interview of general manager Ms Zhang Xiaoding, engineer Wu Zhihua and executive officer Pan Lan on July 2, 2017.

  4. 4.

    The situation of Oriental Art Center was established in an interview with Ms Li Yan, deputy manager of the Center, on July 4, 2017; and from the authors’ on-site investigation.

  5. 5.

    The details of the operation of the Oriental Art Center were learnt in an interview with Li Yan, deputy manager, on July 4, 2017.

  6. 6.

    The history of Cultural Square is partly from the author’s experiences, and partly from website,, Accessed on July 22, 2018.

  7. 7.

    The design of Shanghai Cultural Square is partly from Liu Xin, “Shanghai zuishen de dixia juchang—Shanghai wenhua juchang sheji” (The deepest underground theater in Shanghai—Cultural Square), Shanghai jianshe keji (Shanghai Construction Science), No. 6, 2010, pp. 1–4, and the website of BBB,, Accessed on July 21, 2018.

  8. 8.

    The facts of Concert Hall, Shanghai Symphony Orchestra are from I. Arata, ‘Shanghai Symphony Orchestra Concert Hall’, id + c (interior design + construction), Feb 2015, 94–100; F. Xu, X. Hou, C. Ma and X. Lv, ‘The Urban Box—design of the Shanghai symphony hall’, Time + Architecture, 31(1), 2015, 106–113.

  9. 9.

    About the design of Poly Theater, see T. Ando, ‘The challenges of creating a cathedral to culture’, A + U, Special Issue on Poly Grand Theater, 3, 2015, 24–27; and also J. Chen, X. Qi and J. Chen, ‘Multi-collisions in the kaleidoscope—a review of Shanghai Jiading Poly grand theater’, Time + Architecture, 1, 2015, 120–125.

  10. 10.

    “German Town” is one of the “One City Nine Towns” launched by Shanghai government in 2001. Along with German Town designed by German architects, the other towns are Thames Town designed by British architects, Italian Town, Holland Town, Scandinavian Town and etc. See Xue and Zhou (2007).

  11. 11.

    According to authors’ preliminary statistics, Shanghai has more than 18,000 theater seats, and Hong Kong has more than 15,000. The GDP per capita of Hong Kong was US$43,600 in 2016. See Gross Domestic Products, Census and Statistics Department, Hong Kong Government, 2016.

  12. 12.

    The management situation is taken from the interview of general manager Ms Zhang Xiaoding, engineer Wu Zhihua and executive officer Pan Lan on July 3, 2017.

  13. 13.

    The average price of Shanghai Grand Theater is from its 2015–16 Annual Report. The other prices are taken from the authors’ record of theaters’ online ticket sales from 2014 to 2017.

  14. 14.

    The salary level is taken from Shanghai Statistic Annual Book, 2016.

  15. 15.

    China Statistic Annual Report, 2015.

  16. 16.

    In 2015, Shanghai’s GDP per capita was over RMB100,000, that was around US$16,600, according to Jiefang Ribao (Liberation Daily), March 1, 2016., accessed Aug 23, 2017.

  17. 17.

    In 2016, per capita annual disposable income of China’s urban residents was US$5054, with an Engel coefficient of 30.1%, which declines by 0.5% from 2015 and approaches the 20–30% standard of affluence specified by the United Nations. China Statistic Annual Report, 2017.

  18. 18.

    This statement is true not only in China, but also in China’s aid building projects in Asia and Africa, see L. Beeckmans, ‘The Architecture of nation-building in Africa as a development aid project: Designing the capitols of Kinshasa (Congo) and Dodoma (Tanzania) in the post-independence years’, Progress in Planning, online May 10, 2017.

  19. 19.

    See Yu (2014), and the websites of the relevant theaters.

  20. 20.

    This is taken from an investigation made by Shanghai Investment Consultancy Ltd. in 2014. From Shen et al. 2016. No. 1–5 of impressive cultural spaces are Oriental Pearl (TV tower), The Bund, Yu Garden, Shanghai Museum, China Arts Palace (China Pavilion in the World Expo).

  21. 21.

    The data are taken from the 2015–16 Annual Report of Shanghai Grand Theater.

  22. 22.

    It is estimated that the design fees of international architects are around four times higher than those of local architects. Organising an international design competition involves compensation fees for the shortlisted firms, logistics for meetings and a jury panel. See Xue (2010).



This chapter is part of a study supported by Research Grant Council, Hong Kong government, project No. CityU 11658816. The author heartily thanks Huang Wenfu and Li Shuan for their referring of Shanghai Grand Theater; the introduction and leading visit of Zhang Xiaoding, Pan Lan and Engineer Wu from Shanghai Grand Theater and Li Yan from Shanghai Oriental Art Center. Thanks to Professor Zhang Liang for his advice on the Shanghai Grand Theater.

During the Cultural Revolution (19661976), Shanghai and the other Chinese cities were engulfed by political turbulence. Cinemas remained open, but were filled mainly with documentary films such as “Chairman Mao meeting foreign guests” or dull, formulaic feature films about the revolution. Foreign movies with exotic flavour were admired, but these were imported only from China’s comrades, North Korea, Romania, Albania and Yugoslavia. As a primary school pupil, I went to see a film every month or two. No matter how banal the topic (from today’s viewpoint), seeing a film was an event for me in those years. An admission ticket could excite kids for weeks. Most of the cinemas in Shanghai were built in the 1930s, some in the art deco style. During the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, cinemas were maintained as organs of revolutionary propaganda. Before a film formally started, several slides were presented, with the last slide showing the word “Jing” (silence) with a full moon hung above still water. The ambient lighting was dimmed and your heart was haunted.

Factories and the countryside replaced school in the revolutionary years. In rural threshing grounds, a white cloth was suspended from two bamboo posts when the sky became dark. On his bicycle, an itinerant projectionist carrying old films brought happiness to the remote rural villages. The stories were old and known to everyone, but the films relieved the fatigue of intense rural labour.

When the Cultural Revolution ended and China returned to normal life, Chinese and foreign films/plays filled cinemas and theatres. As I entered the university and worked toward my professional goals, seeing films was one of my many pastimes and social activities. I had a chance to join a team to design theatres and film studios, and I studied this building type attentively. In Texas, I participated in the renovation of a large, old church with choir and musical functions. During the past 10 years, I have paid attention to China’s newly built grand theatres and visited dozens of performing arts venues in more than 10 cities. In these palace-like grand theatres, I have viewed ballets, symphonies, dramas, musicals and quartets by both Chinese and foreign artists. A ticket can still arouse my excitement for weeks and even months. Walking into these theatres, the sacred feeling in my heart is no less than it was in childhood. The theatre is a noble palace indeed, and it elevates our life.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Architecture and Civil EngineeringCity University of Hong KongKowloonHong Kong

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