Natural harmony

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In a new district of Shenzhen, a project to create a performing arts centre saw Rocco Design Architects use the coastal landscape as inspiration for a striking form in harmony with its context. Roseanne Field reports

The Bao’an Cultural District sits at the heart of the newly-developed coastal area of Bao’an, a district within Shenzhen province in south east China. The 110,000 m2 complex was designed carefully to support three separate functions: a library, completed in 2013; the ‘Youth Palace’ (an arts and culture centre), completed in 2018; and finally the performing arts centre itself, opened in 2021.

Hong Kong-based Rocco Design Architects (RDA) worked on the site masterplan within which the three buildings were aligned along a central axis running from the city to the Zhujang River estuary – respectively the library, Youth Palace, and performing arts centre, the latter nearest the coastline. “The performing arts centre sits at a strategic location in Bao’an, serving as an anchoring piece of the cultural axis,” says Rocco Yim, principal at RDA. “It serves as a vital part of the cultural spine holding the urban fabric and community together,” he told ADF.

RDA won an international competition back in 2007 to design the masterplan for the whole complex. Their overall vision was for it to “mediate between the coastal landscape and the more densely developed commercial areas further inland.”

The buildings’ design began as a simple rectangle, with each then morphing into its own unique shape, with a series of public plazas and walkways connecting the three buildings. The aim was that each of the buildings would have its own identity, while retaining similarities that tie the complex together as a whole.

The library’s facade tilts up and outwards, where the Youth Palace is split and curved around a central courtyard that opens out. The performing arts centre has a wave-like facade, referencing both the estuary it sits alongside, and the two theatres it houses, and also giving the impression of “fluttering like stage curtains,” say the architects.

The centre is the complex’s flagship building, serving as “the intersection of the cultural axis and the landscape park, connecting with the natural landscape,” Yim explains, as specified in the brief provided by the client developer, OCT (Overseas Chinese Towns Holding Company).

A sense of cohesion

Achieving cohesiveness across the three buildings was of key importance, and proved to be one of the project’s biggest challenges. While the practice has plenty of experience with large-scale cultural and institutional projects, Yim says the “unique challenge” here “lay in expressing the uniqueness of each individual cultural institution via a holistic and coherent architectural language.”

Geological aspects of the waterside location, and Chinese landscape more generally, provided literal cues for the architects and helped to unite the overall scheme. “The core of the design is a metaphorical translation of the erosion process of rock in a stream,” Yim says. Each building features different architectural features embodying this, while sharing the same base rectangular form. “The architecture was conceived as a coherent ensemble of pieces in the overall masterplan, tying back to the rich coastal history and metaphorical play between water and rock.”

The monolithic nature of the buildings’ rectangular base provides a contrast with the overall more ‘natural’ design feel of these elements, as Yim explains: “The juxtaposition of different formal languages echoes with the complexity and organic character of the natural environment.”

Part of the reason for the monolithic design was to give the complex the prominence the client wished to achieve for the project. “The architecture itself needs to project a monumentality befitting its cultural status,” Yim says. “But when people get closer, they will discover different parts, including the entrance courtyard, erraces and link bridges that are designed to be human-scaled and friendly.”

The library’s rectangular form is bisected by a central courtyard, which also has a functional benefit. Yim explains: “The central slit becomes a demarcation for the east and west wings, each accommodating different functions.”

The Youth Palace and cultural centre are divided by a larger central courtyard, with each half of the building curving around it. “It simulates a continuous tear through the centre and divides into two masses aligned along the north-south axis,” says Yim. “It’s designed to be formally and visually integrated, although they are separate functions.” The performing arts centre has a more “streamlined” design approach, says Kim.

It features a wave-like shape at its base, before rising up at the southern end, facing the coast. Appropriately, with it being the overall scheme’s flagship, the building form “terminates as a cliff extending upwards to summarise the whole design concept,” says Yim. He adds that the form “evolves from the architectural language of the other two buildings, subtly manifesting the fluidity and erosion of rock through the curvilinear facade,” while also perhaps providing a correlation with musical performance.

“It serves as the visual and programmatic climax of the ensemble, physically and metaphorically soaring to meet the adjacent Qianhai Bay.”

Local inspiration

Connection with the local landscape formed the core of the brief. “The project envisioned the coalition of Chinese landscape and the local urban character,” explains Yim. Chinese landscaped gardens, with their use of water and rock, and their “miniature expression of natural landscape” were an inspiration for the architects.

The site is slender, sandwiched between a commercial area to the west and a natural lagoon to the east. These two contrasting locations proved an inspiration for the designers, who made the complex a “transition between urbanity and nature,” Yim says. They wanted the buildings to sit harmoniously with not only each other, but also the modern city high-rises on one side and the protected green belt on the other. As a result, “The design strives for simplicity in architectural form and unpretentiousness in scale.”

The lagoon is a focal point of the cultural district as a whole. “It visually opens the city towards the waterfront,” says Yim. The buildings are aligned down the length of the site, connected via a landscaped deck.

This importantly “enhances the connection between the buildings, the relationship between the site and adjacent landscape, and ensures continuity of the development.”

Designing a complex inspired by its surroundings was key to how the scheme enhances the Bao’an district as a whole.

“The integration between architecture and landscape becomes a statement of how the Bao’an Cultural District development responds to its greater ecological environment,” Yim explains. “The design of the performing arts centre serves to enliventhe external environment of the whole district.”

Facades & fly tower

The buildings were all designed with openings in facades, “unwrapped skins,” to further enhance the connection between them and their surroundings. “They maintain an organic and sleek design, while engaging the external landscape with the interior environment.” This also helps softens the “harshness” of the cityscape adjacent to the complex and helps unite the commercial, cultural and ecological elements across the project.

The performing arts centre has a double facade system. The outer part is formed of white aluminium perforated panels, towards the ”monolithic, unified look.” Again, this was designed in part to represent the way water erodes rock. “All panels are laid on rows of varying width running diagonally to add an extra layer of fluidity and also respond to the programme, by controlling the natural light being drawn into the space.” The inner facade material varies, compromising a mixture of window wall system, louvres and solid walls.

As well as drawing inspiration from the rock erosion process, the perforated facade concept was also inspired by traditional Chinese building screens and shadow walls, and pays homage to ancient Chinese crafts, such as wood and ivory carving. It produces “dramatic visual effects recalling light shimmering on the bay”, says the practice.

It was a fundamendal client requirement that the performing arts centre would be suitable for hosting prestigious, internationally-renowned performing companies. It was therefore essential to include a fly tower – a substantial, tall space rising above the performance stage that houses a system of pulleys and rigs, allowing crew to quickly and discreetly move elements such as scenery, equipment, lights etc, on and off stage.

It has been used to create a striking visual focal point, tilting away from the main part of the building at 15 degrees. Sky bridges connect it to the main building, which offer views out over the bay. “It gives a unique character to the mass of the centre, differentiating it from the other buildings in the complex,” explains Yim. From the base of the tower, a wave-like volume slopes down and opens out to accommodate a restaurant, further connecting the centre to the external plaza.

Internal programme

The architects wanted the “dynamic architectural language” of the exterior, and the “analogy of rock erosion and manifestation in Chinese traditions” in the other two buildings’ design to continue within the internal programme of the centre. Various points and features throughout the building emulate this language – in particular Yim highlights the triple-height lobby area. “The juxtaposition of the auditorium and multi-purpose theatre wrapped by a screen made of wooden fins and golden brown metal mesh forms an imagery of two anchoring rocks in a stream,” he says.

The lobby was designed to be triple height in order to continue the flow between the exterior spaces and interior, creating a “stronger visual connection,” says Yim. “Having abundant headroom, it allows a larger feature screen celebrating the fluidity of the architectural language that runs across the whole scheme.”

The lobby area also features a large curving staircase, and natural light filtering through the perforated facade which “creates a lively play of shadow across the space.” Alongside the 1,500-seat main performance hall is an additional 600-seat theatre and rehearsal spaces. This was designed with flexibility in mind to accommodate experimental products – the seating is retractable and along with the stage can be rearranged to accommodate catwalks, a four-sided stage, and interactive experiences, as well as conventional set ups.

The main auditorium, on the other hand, was designed strictly for conventional performances. “It followed a very stringent acoustic requirements for hosting international standard performing companies – the design was centred at facilitating the acoustic performance of the space,” says Yim. Although less flexible than the additional theatre space, the stage does comprise six double-layered lifts that can be raised and lowered within a 10 metre range. The orchestra pit can also be raised to the height of the stage, extending the performance space.

One of the biggest technical challenges for the project designers was creating an auditorium with appropriate acoustics while still manifesting the design concept of the architects. Yim explains: ‘’We had to design a random pattern on a surface of specified geometry designed by the acoustic consultant customised to the seating layout and stage.” To continue the complex’s theme into the auditorium, they created a random water droplet pattern on GRC panels, which proved to be a cost-effective solution. “It not only functionally engineers the acoustic requirement, but also vividly echoes the overall design concept,” Yim says.

The performing arts centre was opened in September 2021, with a performance by the China National Opera House. While the smaller theatre will facilitate more unusual and experimental performances, the main auditorium will play host to a range of international productions including opera, ballet, and classical music.