East façade of Jean Nouvel's winning design
Ateliers Jean Nouvel East façade of Jean Nouvel's winning design

Reviewing the results of big competitions has long given us a chance to assess the state of the art—or states of the art—in architecture. The recently awarded commission for the Shenzhen Opera House, a prize claimed by the studio of French architect Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA, is a case in point. Though perhaps lacking the breakthrough content of the competition that led to the construction of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, or the sheer variety produced by the one for the Amsterdam Opera House and City Hall, this commission gave the finalists, almost all of whom are among the most notable and recognizable firms in the world, a chance to respond to a program and a site that practically scream for a big statement. Whether or not they should have all succumbed to the temptation to go big and bold, and whether the jury should have rewarded that decision, is the real question.

Whether the Nouvel scheme deserved to win is difficult to tell just from the renderings. After all, we do not have access to all the drawings and information the competitors presented. Certainly, the winning proposal is dramatic, responding to its site—the edge of the bay that separates Shenzhen from Hong Kong—with what appears to be a completely aqueous structure. The waves of tubes and bullnoses, the arched foyer, and the sublimation of function in favor of these overlapping and cresting movements of structure and cladding bring to mind similar designs for cultural buildings around the world, not to mention the vast halls of modern airports. It is an approach to architecture that subsumes function and differentiation in favor of overall form.

South façade of Nouvel's design
Ateliers Jean Nouvel South façade of Nouvel's design
West façade
Ateliers Jean Nouvel West façade

The renderings show off this drama, presenting the proposed building as translucent and coherent from a distance, while close-up and interior views reveal vast, shimmering spaces, covered with net-like grids, that seem to have no visible support. We will have to see, of course, how much of this imagery remains once the structure is filled in both with an actual program and with the columns and trusses that will be necessary to make such spaces real.

Several of the other finalists took a very similar approach. In fact, as an outside observer, I wonder whether the Nouvel studio, which has distinguished itself through a very different practice of form-making, decided that the overlapping waves trope was the trend to surf (even though, as I have pointed out recently, it already seems passé). The strategy comes more naturally to some of the other shortlisted firms, such as Zaha Hadid Architecture and UNStudio, each of which duly presented variations on this theme, as did several, lesser-known firms. To my eyes, the UNStudio approach seems like a more successful attempt to unfold the shoreline and meld together the various programmatic elements.

Foyer of the opera in Nouvel's design
Ateliers Jean Nouvel Foyer of the opera in Nouvel's design
Foyer of the opera in Nouvel's design
Ateliers Jean Nouvel Foyer of the opera in Nouvel's design

The Dutch firm Mecanoo took another currently popular approach, one that I am more sympathetic to: It proposed a landform that opens up underneath a publicly accessible park. Though I wonder whether the little box popping up above these human-made dunes is really large enough to contain the fly-tower for a 2,800-seat opera auditorium, the concept has an ease and gentleness that belies the necessity for the kind of design gestures most of the other competitors made. Notably, Mecanoo chose as its “money shot” not the drone view from the bay but a perspective from land. This points out another problem with many recent large cultural projects: The architects are so focused on form and the main public approach that they forget about the rest of the building. Even Snøhetta’s fjord-side Oslo Opera House, with a fairly similar site and program, is, for all of its astonishing beauty inside and out, an unappealing block when you see it from the rear.

Mecanoo's submission

Snøhetta’s entry

Snøhetta itself seems to have recognized that issue in its previous design, and the firm’s Shenzhen proposal instead abstracts the adjacent hillock that is the site’s most prominent land feature. The firm went with the shard approach to develop its design as a human-made mountain, as did MVRDV, and the result seems a better compromise between location and program than the winning one. BIG, one of the two runners-up (with Kengo Kuma, Hon. FAIA, who also went wave) proposed yet another variation, namely an encampment of tents. It reminds me of the firm’s design (with Thomas Heatherwick) for the Google Headquarters in the Bay Area, but here it seems a bit out of place.

The only radical alternative I saw among the finalists was the entry by New York firm REX, which thought so highly of its design that it’s the lead image on its website. REX fit most of the program into a stack of blocks and wedges pinned down by what I assume is the fly-tower, a design that is balanced by a smaller, but similar, form. It might not seem as contextual as most of the other teams' entries, but most of the surrounding district, Shekou, does in fact contain large blocks and towers, a reality that will only increase if current development plans proceed. Creating a cultural version of these otherwise standardized shapes—one that is fractured, gestural, and clad in what appears to be stone, while expressing at least some of the building’s function—would seem to me a reasonable answer to this condition.

REX's submission

Second-guessing a jury is a fool’s game. Nonetheless, I wish that the chance to make a major statement about how architecture responds to the kind of program and site that taps into its core, monumental tradition would have led to a greater variety of choices. In the end, all of the finalists and cited entries appear to me the work of a generation whose outlook and approach already seems outdated. The images and drawings coming from younger practices have little of this fascination with willful form-making, grand gestures, and self-glorifying drama.

I very much hope that a future competition of this magnitude will give the next Eliel Saarinen (Chicago Tribune Competition) or Eero Saarinen (St. Louis Arch), the next Richard Rogers, Hon. FAIA, or Renzo Piano, Hon, FAIA, or the next Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA (EuraLille) a chance to show us that architecture can be more thoughtful, innovative, modest, and yet still beautiful.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.