Guangzhou Opera House: Building a Gated Public Space
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China’s program of state-driven urbanization has explicitly embodied the principles of Keynesian economics over the past few decades, emphasizing large-scale investment in the built environment and infrastructure. From this process, the establishment of new towns and the construction of ambitious government-sponsored projects became common strategies of local authorities to stimulate economic growth, social stability and cultural development. Owing to its experimental nature in political, urban, architectural and cultural levels, this study uses the Guangzhou Opera House as an example to examine the motivation, contradiction and implication of the state’s active intervention into architectural production, revealing how the expectation of politicians, cultural elites, architects and citizens intersect, and to what extent this is a response to China’s reform and opening-up agenda. It argues that the erection of the Guangzhou Opera House demonstrated a “gated public space,” a juxtaposition of inclusion and exclusion, of freedom and control. This gated nature is the product of the dialectical articulation between politics and experimentation in the Chinese political and cultural context.
This chapter is part of a study supported by Research Grant Council, Hong Kong government, project No. CityU 11658816 and by the Fundamental Research Funds for Beijing Universities, Project No. X18237.
My preoccupation with the Guangzhou Opera House originates less from my obsession with theater performance and its building type and more from my interest in the project’s design competition . When I was studying at architectural school in the early 2000s, the debate on the National Theater of China in Beijing dominated the architectural community. To some extent, the French architect Paul Andreu ’s winning proposal ended the long-term debate over formal similarity (xing si) and spiritual similarity (shen si), both of which were related to attitudes towards tradition. While the debate over the National Theater was confined to professional periodicals and elite figures, the design competition for the Guangzhou Opera House transcended the public’s perception of architecture in a number of ways. The proposals submitted by leading avant-garde architects from the West surpassed many people’s imagination, and the report and discussion of these proposals online, such as the ABBS, profoundly increased its influence in the field and beyond. The commitment to creating quality urban public spaces transformed my attitude towards architecture and the city. Fifteen years after the competition and 10 years after its completion, the Guangzhou Opera House deserves critical scholarly evaluation for its singular position in the evolution of architecture in contemporary China and for its significant influence on my own understanding of architecture.
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