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Before Bird’s Nest came the Egg

world Updated: Aug 18, 2008 02:30 IST
Reshma Patil
Reshma Patil
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

The Australians treasure the Sydney Opera House and south Mumbai is possessive of its National Centre for the Performing Arts.

But a new glass and titanium dome floating over a man-made lake in Beijing has mostly confused or annoyed the Chinese.

The locals call China’s opera house, its National Centre for the Performing Arts, as the big Egg. Or egg shell.

The 5,000-plus seat national theatre took over five years and over $330 million to build, and opened to mixed reviews last December, much before Beijing’s national stadium, the Bird’s Nest.

But nowhere else are the contradictions of changing China more visible than in the location of the new national theatre, which houses an opera hall, concert hall and performance hall.

The spaceage dome designed by French architect Paul Andreu is flanked by the few hutongs or traditional sloping roofed Chinese homes that somehow escaped the Beijing bulldozer.

The curvy Egg sticks out, instead of blending in its surroundings west of the Tiananmen Square beside China’s straight-lined, Soviet-style political centre, the Great Hall of the People. To enter, visitors walk through a long glass-topped hallway under the lake.

A few years ago, furious Chinese architects and scientists had petitioned the government against the design, even complaining of the cost of cleaning the dome in dusty, sandstorm-prone Beijing.

In Beijing, the engineers are still defending the monolith against arguments of tangible and environmental costs. “The theatre is a product of the times,’’ says engineer Gao Yuting of the Beijing municipal building and construction group. “Even the Great Hall has some European styles but people gradually accepted it. Although this building is modern, in future people will accept it.” To infuse Chinese styles, the interior has splashes of red and gold.

“You shouldn’t make out an ancient city to be a kind of dead city, where everything has to look ancient, or has to be…but at the same time you should not spoil it,’’ said Andreu in an interview last year to the Communist Party of China mouthpiece, the People’s Daily. “Your people do not look back, they have a history and are proud of it, but they live and look ahead.’’

But what hasn’t changed with Chinese architecture is the government’s obsession with instructing its people to behave in an approved way, whether at the Olympics or the opera.

Here’s a formula to crack the Egg, from the People’s Daily this January: A good theatre requires management; a good artistic atmosphere needs cultivation; a good audience needs training."