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Building program hits the right note


China's government has in recent years commissioned prominent Western architects and consultants to accomplish its goal of building at least 10 cross-regional performing arts centers nationwide by 2015.

"Culture today is big business," said author and architectural historian Victoria Newhouse.

"With 30 million piano students in China and 10 million violin students, I am confident that these theaters will be full in a few years. Any doubts we have about the future of classical music should be allayed by those statistics," said Newhouse, who included a chapter on China's efforts in her book Site and Sound: The Architecture and Acoustics of New Opera Houses and Concert Halls, published in May.

The interior of Guangzhou Opera House. Designed by the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, the building employs a revolutionary asymmetrical design featuring breakthrough acoustics technology. Xu Ying / for China Daily

Diversity of funding

According to Ken Smith, a performing arts critic with The Financial Times, the National Center for the Performing Arts cost $400 million; the Shenzhen Concert Hall cost $200 million - although Xinhua News Agency put the figure at $120 million - and the Guangzhou Opera House came to $200 million. But the funding sources for these projects are so diverse - including state, provincial, county and municipal - that it's difficult to estimate how much the government has spent in total on the centers, he said. International funding is also part of the equation, but is not always officially announced.

Newhouse, who is the founder of the Architectural History Foundation, believes Chinese development will mirror the 1970s spike in museum construction in the United States. During a recent panel discussion in New York, Newhouse recalled the "dusty, musty old places" museums used to be.

"No one went to museums in the US, and when you look at the lines that wrap around the block today, it's hard to remember back to when museums were considered boring places," she said. "But the construction of that time had an absolutely electrifying effect on attendances, which we know now. The architecture had a great deal to do with it, and I am hoping that this burst of construction of music facilities in China will have the same effect on classical music audiences."

There is already evidence of a changing tide, she said. "It's becoming a hot topic, and, worldwide, concert halls seem to be replacing museums as the iconic building that every community wants to have."

In China, two factors have driven this phenomenon, according to Newhouse: government support and intercity competition. Shanghai and Beijing have impelled each other to construct bigger and better performing arts venues, with the cities competing to sign contracts with top architects. After the French architect Paul Andreu designed Shanghai Oriental Art Center, Beijing came calling for him to lead construction of the National Centre for the Performing Arts - evidence of healthy competition, Newhouse said.

Smith, who has traveled extensively in China, concurred. "The farther you get from [China's] east coast cities, the more civic pride takes over," he said. "But in those east coast cities, it's a way of asserting themselves internationally and adding to China's soft power.

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