Guangzhou, like most Chinese megacities, didn’t just grow. It exploded. In a supernova of construction fueled by a siege of cranes and capital, Guangzhou became a giant. The high-rise city in the Pearl River Delta could be a set piece from Inception, an ever-unfolding sea of steel and concrete fogged in by smog and a trillion motes of cement dust. This grid is the hardware housing a population of 14 million, 6.3 million of whom weren’t here four years ago.
Amid these sleek stalagmites of progress, Zaha Hadid’s newly built Guangzhou Opera House is all the more striking. Inspired by the notion of rocks eroded by the Pearl River, the structure is clad in dark-gray granite, its neighboring black box theater building and event space in light-gray granite. Gleaming steel grids support huge-angled glazed walls that tilt and swoop, as if struggling to contain their interiors. Open spaces course through the buildings like rapids of concrete. The effect is stunning and transporting.
Hadid’s triumphant structure exemplifies the yearnings of an emerging second tier of megacities to express themselves as much through culture as through height. While Dubai has the half-mile-high Burj Khalifa, Abu Dhabi is constructing the significantly shorter but no less ambitious Saadiyat Island, an arts quarter with buildings by Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel and Norman Foster. The city of Doha, in Qatar, has commissioned Nouvel, too, along with I. M. Pei, to turn it into a cultural destination. The opera house is Guangzhou’s bid to join the highest ranks of the cultural elite.
Hadid proved perfect for the job. In 1994, her design had been chosen for the Cardiff Bay Opera House in Wales, but the commission was nixed by a combination of municipal timidity and fear of an untested architect. The Chinese showed no such reserve.
On opening night in Guangzhou in May of last year, at the gala performance by Akram Khan’s British-based dance company, Ms. Hadid, regal in a striking black Elke Walter coat with an architectural jutting lapel, surveyed the auditorium, a paean to the gilded luxury of the grand opera. There is neither red velvet nor angels in the architecture, but the theater is abloom in shimmering gold. The balcony fronts undulate in a fluid motion every bit as ecstatic as the baroque glamour of historic theaters. Triangular acoustic perforations along the walls seem to swarm together toward the stage. A constellation of lights twinkle above, until they dim and the curtain rises in Guangzhou.