National Centre for the Performing Arts 北京国家艺术表演中心

  • Beijing, China
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Principal argument:


Can one accept a project that does not explicitly symbolize China?

Can one accept a project whose character is not an explicit illustration of theater?



An urban project


The urban question must be resolved first. The construction of China’s National Theater will determine the future development of the district in the west and south. Building in an area so steeped in history demands a respectful, unambiguous approach.


The goal of China’s National Theater should be to enhance its prestigious surroundings. It can be neither a pale historical adjunct, nor a disconnected modern creation. The climatic conditions, particularly wind and temperature, should be important parameters in the initial decision-making.


Hence the options retained: China’s National Theater will not extend beyond the orthogonal north-south, east-west grid that dictates the position of the Forbidden City on Tian’anmen Square and the buildings that surround it. The influence of the imperial garden, Beihai Park, its vegetation and lakes, leads us to extend its planted areas and stretches of water around the National Theater and into the public space to the south. The presence of vegetation and water around the new building incorporates it into the urban territory and softens the contrast with the Great Hall of the People and the Forbidden City.


The public space in the south should not be a smaller version of Tian’anmen Square. It should ensure the harmonious collaboration between the Great Hall of the People and the cultural and administrative facilities that complete the front constructed in the south and west. This public space would be a garden that combines minerality and nature to establish an evident relationship with the surrounding architecture.


The four façades of China’s National Theater must be regarded as essential features of the building and must show the character of the cultural institution. Each of the four façades will have an entrance.


The south façade, protected from the wind and bathed in sunlight, will accommodate the foyers, terraced restaurants, and shops. The north façade must respond to the other urban sequences on West Chang’an Avenue, notably the Great Hall of the People and the Forbidden City. It must be extremely rigorous and testify to a certain monumentality, while remaining lower in height than the Great Hall of the People. Horizontality is what characterizes these architectural sequences. The color scheme must not clash with the walls of the Forbidden City and the Great Hall of the People. The rows of trees lining the street must not be interrupted.


The fundamental choice in town planning here is between monolithism and fractional of the plan and the silhouette. Our choice is clear: in the given context, one should fraction in order not to struggle against the scale of the Great Hall of the People and the buildings within the Forbidden City.


A mass of flat terraces or a single roof over the entire program would be disrespectful of the history of the site and the neighboring buildings.



A symbolic project


A grand theater or grand opera-house is always a symbolic representation of the city in which it is built.


When it projects a strong image, it commands respect and in the collective imagination becomes an extremely attractive icon, a place to be visited. What is at stake here is thus a part of Beijing’s identity and its outer image.


China’s National Theater must be a modern symbol of China’s past and present values. Architecture is always the petrifaction of a cultural period, an epoch that it symbolizes for years to come. Modernity means using new knowledge, new awareness, and recent techniques to reinterpret eternal themes.


Being modern means making the best possible use of our memory, connecting recent and age-old information, and making a diagnosis.

  • What symbolizes the identity of Chinese architecture is the roof. We cannot imagine a structure that must symbolize China (i. e. the National Theater), symbolize Beijing, without a roof – in the parallelepipedic anonymity of the international trivial order.


China’s National Theater has a silhouette as easily identifiable as the works of Garnier in Paris, Sharoun in Berlin, and Utzon in Sydney. What characterizes the identity of Chinese architecture is symmetry.


The entrance in the central bay, the bays that always come in odd numbers (3, 5, 7 …), stem from a search for symmetry, balance, and eternity. China’s National Theater is based on these values.

  • The identity of Chinese architecture is marked by color, or rather colors, not only the reds of the walls, but also the greens and blues of the roofs and decorative painting. Symbolically, blue is a color that is particularly appreciated, as attested by blue porcelain and the myth of the blue dragon.
  • Chinese symbols and myths also include the five elements: water, air, wood, steel, and fire. China’s National Theater pays attention to the orientation of the main entrance in the south, to water flowing from north to south, to the proportions of the principal spaces and entrances. China’s National Theater strives to respect traditions that often, like many ancient or religious texts, proffer sensible advice. Chinese architecture often incorporates figurative paintings, carved human and animal figures lined up on the rooftops or over the entrances. These textural roofs, adorned with animals, scales, or bristles, are remarkable. China’s National Theater plays on this abstract-figurative relationship by including three large icons, each respresenting one of the auditoriums: Orpheus for the Opera, Beethoven for the classical concert hall, and a Beijing Opera painted mask for the third theater.
  • China’s National Theater also symbolizes the knowledge that the Chinese people have brought to mankind. The principal reference relates to astrology, the compass, and the mechanical clock. The large external blinds are mobile and follow the course of the sun to protect the glazed surfaces of the foyers. On the ceiling of each foyer there is a cosmogonic painting; a needle, linked to the shaft holding the sail-like blind, illustrates the position of the sun in relation to the stars and a lunisolar calendar.
  • In the south, the three large blinds are evocations of the wind. Symbolically, they represent curtains (stage curtains), sails (wind movement, kites), and flags (National Theater, on symbolic days and to welcome prestigious guests, the sails are clad in red: the golden curtain is therefore lined with a red silk flag). They are also in tulle, printed with images of icons and shadow(graph)s of the public.
  • In the north, three large doors – in gold, black and red, and red – recall the colossal doors of great Chinese monuments. The play of colors and paint symbolizes frames and nails.


This project also symbolizes present-day modernity. Glass, in all its forms, is the medium of the present and future. The various plays of natural light, transparency, translucency, sheen, reflections, and textures make China’s National Theater one of the most cutting-edge works of modern architecture. History and modernity are thus bound together. They are not enemies: what interests us about history is how it bears witness to successive modernities.



A place of emotion


The architecture here is designed to serve opera, theater, and music. Each of the auditoriums must contribute to the sense of communion, emotion, between the spectator and the singer, actor or musician.


Opera is governed by rituals. The quality of the acoustics is fundamental; it therefore dictates the type of auditorium. An operahouse is not a huge, modern-day theater or cinema. It implies conviviality: the spectators should have the impression of being as close as possible to the performers. For this reason, the archetypal Italianate theater with a proscenium has proved the most popular amongst music lovers. As regards China’s National Theater, the question is not to rebuild an Italianate theater as in previous centuries, but to preserve the ritual that inspires the most intense emotion. Our experience and our specialists leave us in no doubt about this. They need the walls to be occupied, so as to draw the public to the edge of the stage. In fact it concerns only one row of spectators. All these seats are eagerly sought-after, because they are among the best acousticwise, the spectators’ ears being very close to the reverberating wall. The first row of the balconies always gives the impression of having a privileged spectator-actor relationship. For the auditorium, the shoe-box configuration has evidently been retained since that is the one all the great conductors, musicians, and music lovers prefer. Clad in different gilded woods, the concert hall has the precision and sensuality of a musical instrument.


The key features of the theater are proximity and a good view of the stage. Influenced by the very simple conditions of Chinese Theater in its infancy, it is a more intimate building.


The typologies of the operahouse and concert hall do not clash with impunity. Theaters are judged when they are full, not empty, during performances or concerts. It is important for the Chinese public to discover Western opera and music in conditions that keep the chance of experiencing emotion, total communion, intact. China’s National Theater should be recognized as having some of the world’s finest auditoriums. For that to happen, it is relying on its traditions being revisited by modernity.


Emotion is also stirred by the ritual of being received: the lobbies, foyers, and the architecture that characterizes them; the entrance via walkways over the water that reflects the gold or red flag; the arrival in a transparent space which reveals the transparency of the other theater lobbies creates a specific situation worthy of interest; the very high-ceilinged foyers beneath immense images of Orpheus,


Beethoven, and the Chinese mask behind the movement of the golden curtain also have a unique character.


The upper foyers with a belvedere over the Forbidden City and Beihai Park were strategically designed to exploit the exceptional location. These views over the heart of China cannot fail to arouse emotion.



A popular project


China’s National Theater will be popular not only because it represents the site on which it is built, but also because it brings China’s eternal symbols into play, because it is the seat of refined artistic emotions; China’s National Theater will also be popular because it is a spectacular and hospitable venue. Its architecture is absolutely unique. Three huge curtains – flags-cum-blinds-cum-sails – 30 meters high and 40 meters wide gently undulate in the wind. They are reflected in the water. The shops on the lakeshore near the subway entrance are completely open to the public, forming a promenade beneath the theater’s immense sails. The belvederes are also highly attractive. This vehicle of expression for architectural modernity, through its use of glass materials (glass bricks, vast glazed surfaces in the south), its interior color scheme, and icons, is intended to attract attention and then provoke comment.


Lastly and above all, China’s National Theater will be popular because of its rates of attendance linked to an alternating program of events in the three auditoriums, which can be seen as a row of enigmatic forms recalling dragons, lions, or other animals associated with the sacred way. This row of forms also expresses the importance and diversity of China’s National Theater complex.


This project is also popular because of the pomp and splendor of the auditoriums and foyers. Pomp is a mood associated with opera and theater. It is a gift to the public, a spectacle for their eyes only. It is a form of respect shown to the public. And pomp is not expensive: the combination of colors, glossy and matt effects are not costly, for the materials and quantities used are just the same.




Jean Nouvel