Beyond Buildings


An Aria or a Stutter? The Guangzhou Opera House

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Courtesy Aaron Betsky


Does it matter if a building is poorly constructed? Of course it does, if for no other reason that it means that resources were probably wasted during construction and more will be when untimely repairs are necessary. Beyond that, will anybody notice other than architects? Only if the building is so bad or the faults so immediately evident that they overwhelm its other qualities. Ultimately, I would say it is more important what a building does than how it looks.


I was thinking of this when I recently visited the beautiful Guangzhou Opera House, designed by Zaha Hadid, Hon. FAIA. I was in the company of three architects, and all four of us became completely obsessed with the shoddy way in which the building, especially on the inside, had been put together. From extra pieces of steel jutting out at odd corners to drainpipes snaking down the inside façade of the lobby to the plaster lines that waved not according to the snaking logic of the architectural intent, but rather because of the wavering hand of the applier, the building was filled with what to us were fingernails-on-the-blackboard moments.


Courtesy Aaron Betsky


Yet, when I came home and showed my photographs to friends and family, all I got was oohs and aahs. I had to point out those details, and then received shrugs. The building is such a strong form and delivers so many exhilarating spatial experiences that only nerds such as me and my fellow visitors focused on the details. What we should be have been seeing was the ways in which this buildings flows, reaching out into the public plaza that highlights a giant swath of public space reaching right down the middle of Guangzhou’s downtown to the Pearl River. We should have admired these movements that draw you into a lobby that swerves around while canting up to encompass the swell of the main auditorium, which itself is a pool of gold studded with thousands of lights. Everything moves to move you in, around, and toward the spectacle.

Courtesy Aaron Betsky


The singularity of this gesture entrains everything. The subsidiary spaces support it, while the building’s form traces the gathering forms. You would be hard pressed to find the back-of-stage pieces, often larger than the public elements, that are a necessary part of the modern concert venue and that, in the Oslo Opera House, for instance, can give lie to the public gesture of the part non-actors inhabit. If I would criticize the building at this level, it would only be that this very strength turns it too far inward, hiding the back-of-the-stage too much, divorcing the Opera House from views of the river or the city and making the entrance into no more than a preparatory stage, rather than an event onto itself.

Courtesy Aaron Betsky


But is the devil to this architectural diva in the details? Will the public, once they have spent a few minutes in the lobby waiting for the orchestra to tune up, turn their eyes away from the swirling heavens and toward the mismatched handrails? Will the sandbags piled in far corners proliferate, and will more tiles come loose from the faceted façade? Perhaps, and repairs will be necessary. Modern architecture also does not hide its sins behind cornices and other devices that obscure connections, and this kind of architecture exasperates the problem through its very complexity. It is those very convolutions, however, that give power to the Guangzhou Opera House’s shapes. Hadid’s office should have controlled the design development and construction process much better, and the client should have demanded better fit and finish. Now all parties will have to continue investing in this structure to maintain and improve its effect. Unlike the vast majority of structures I visit, however, those investments will be more than worth it.




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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.