The third-largest city in China, Guangzhou is better known for its contributions to the world's industrial and consumer goods markets than for being a cultural hot spot. But will a new architectural wonder in the form of British architect Zaha Hadid's new Guangzhou Opera House give the city a boost in the post-Asian Games tourism stakes?
Despite being one of the biggest exporters of overseas Chinese culture—yes that's right, Chinatowns around the globe are largely the legacy of immigrants from old Canton—Guangzhou has yet to make it onto the list of China's must-see destinations, appearing far more commonly on the itineraries of businessmen headed to the world-renowned Canton Fair than those of tourists.
That said, if you are planning a visit to Guangzhou for business, or pleasure, you'll likely find there's more to it than meets the eye. There are plenty of on and off-beat places to explore, like the fascinating traditional Chinese medicine market on Qingping Lu, the renovated colonial charms of Shamian Dao or the get-away-from-it all beauty of Baiyuan Mountain and now, the Guangzhou Opera House.
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Though it opened its doors last May and has already hosted a number of events and concerts, February 24, 2011 was nominated as the official grand opening of the Guangzhou Opera House. The Guardian's Jonathan Glancey, though lamenting its loss to British shores (Hadid was supposed to have built an Opera House in Cardiff back in the 1990s), had nothing but good things to say about the realization of her vision in China, and a building that "seems to challenge the laws not just of conventional geometry, but of gravity itself."
And praise where praise is due—according to Yao Mingqiu, the general manager of Guangdong Guangjian Project Management, quoted on website 2point6billion, the project was "more difficult than the Bird’s Nest and CCTV’s trouser leg project." He goes on to say "It’s the most complex thing we’ve done. Not one wall is vertical to the ground. Not one of the cross sections of the facades of the buildings is the same as any other. Hadid’s works feature incredible curves that go beyond anything anyone else would imagine. They look more like images in a dream or from the virtual world, and are almost impossible to build in the real world."
And according to one commenter on Architect's Journal, at the end of the day, the complicated engineering may indeed have been a step too far: "I have just visited it. Unfortunately, it looks like it is 20 years old already and in need of a full refurb. This is not to do with the pollution but the architect trying to achieve something that had little chance of success in the first place." And while China's breakneck-speed construction and the rapid deterioration that goes with it may come as no great surprise for those of us who are used to life here, it does seem a shame for Guangzhou to have handed over architectural free reign and US$202 million, only to have an iconic building that is already falling apart at the seams.
Tatty around the edges or not, it has to be said that the building is striking. Inspired by the sharp-sided quartz pebbles to be found in the Pearl River Delta, it consists of two asymmetric steel and glass structures, one housing a 1,800-seat performance hall and the other smaller one, a 400-seat multi-function theater. It's the third largest performance center in China (after Beijing's National Grand Theater and the Shanghai Grand Theater) and with over 200 dance, theater and opera performances scheduled to be held there each year with shows ranging from Puccini's Turandot to Cats and Mamma Mia, it surely warrants a place near the top of the rapidly growing list of tourist-friendly things to see and do in Guangzhou.