A Contemporary Chinese Opera House

December 31, 2012
Bing Thom has a confession to make about his design for Hong Kong's new Xiqu Centre.

"I broke the rules," says the 72-year-old Canadian architect, who was in the city earlier this month to unveil his winning proposal for the 1,780-seat, HK$2.7 billion (US$350 million) center for Chinese opera, set to be the first of 17 West Kowloon Cultural District venues when it opens in late 2015.

That rule-breaking may well have been why Mr. Thom and his Hong Kong-based partner, Ronald Lu, won out over 50 other firms competing for a piece of the cultural district.

The original brief called for two opera theaters, a 280-seat teahouse and educational facilities. Mr. Thom added a large public courtyard with open access from each corner of the building, which he says will make the Xiqu Centre a space for the kind of rich street life that he feels is becoming increasingly rare in major cities.

"In today's society there is a tendency towards specialization and a tremendous amount of balkanization," he says. "There is no opportunity for the accidental meeting of things that are different."

By contrast, Mr. Thom's design for the Xiqu Centre is meant to foster serendipitous encounters, with people moving between its venues by means of shortcuts.

"The transition between the spaces is what's important," he says. "It's the space between the notes that makes the music."

The loose, informal feel of Mr. Thom's "spaces in between" will extend to the design of the theaters. Cantonese opera is traditionally performed in temporary bamboo structures on the street, where audiences chat and mingle during performances that can last up to several hours.

Mr. Thom's proposed interior will pay homage to the form's roots: by day, a series of green spaces inspired by Chinese gardens will recreate an outdoor atmosphere, while at night, "the curtains come down to create a more formal atmosphere," he says.

Meanwhile, the building's billowing exterior is meant to evoke a theater curtain being pulled open. The center will be clad in translucent vertical strips that during the day will flood its interior, including the performance spaces, with natural light, and allow it to glow like a lantern after dark.

The Xiqu Centre will be Hong Kong's first theater designed specifically for Chinese opera, an art form whose popularity has dwindled since its mid-20th-century heyday, when it enjoyed mainstream success both on stage and on film.

"There are no contemporary xiqu theaters. We're going into unknown territory," the architect says. "We're trying to capture the soul and the essence of what this art form is about, while giving it this contemporary expression of ambiguity."

The Xiqu Centre will set the tone for the West Kowloon Cultural District, whose other venues have yet to be designed. According to Michael Lynch, the district's chief executive, a similarly ambitious design can be expected for M+, a 60,000-square-meter contemporary art museum that will be completed in 2017.

"We are in a position to adopt some out-of-the-box thinking, but we won't be going for gimmicks," says Mr. Lynch, who previously ran London's South Bank Centre and the Sydney Opera House. A shortlist of proposed designs for M+, unveiled at the same time as the winning proposal for the Xiqu Centre, includes major international firms like Japan's Shigeru Ban, Italy's Renzo Piano and Swiss-based Herzog & de Meuron. The winner will be announced in June.

Mr. Lynch notes that the district's Foster + Partners master plan will help keep excesses in check.

"We're trying to resist each building screaming for attention," he says. "We have 15 [other] cultural venues and some of them will be quite functional."

A Contemporary Chinese Opera House
By Christopher DeWolf - Wall Street Journal