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Harbin Opera House

Beijing-based MAD Architects have completed construction of the Harbin Opera House in the northern Chinese city of Harbin but it is not yet open to the public. It is part of the Harbin Cultural Island project, which consists of the opera and a cultural center located along Harbin’s Songhua river. The complex covers an area of 850,00 square feet.

Harbin-Opera-House-By-MAD-Architects-02-Hufton_Crow-759x508 Harbin Opera House / MAD Architects

© Hufton + Crow

Located within the wetlands surrounding the Songhua River, the Harbin Opera House has been designed as a response to the region’s untamed wilderness and chilly climate. The building’s smooth white aluminium walls twist and turn as if sculpted by the water and wind, blending into the surrounding environment and transfusing the local identity with art and culture. Hidden pathways carved into the facade allow visitors to ascend the structure as if climbing a mountain.

“Opera design normally focuses on internal space, but here we had to treat the building as part of its natural environment—one outside of the urban context,” – says Ma Yansong / principal architect and founder of MAD Architects.

Harbin-Opera-House-By-MAD-Architects-06-Hufton_Crow-759x433 Harbin Opera House / MAD Architects

© Hufton + Crow

Design Features:

The opera house occupies a building area of approximately 850,000sq ft (7,900sq m). Inside, large transparent glass walls span the lobby, visually connecting the curvilinear interior with the sweeping exterior. Above, a supported crystalline ceiling comprises of smooth and angular glass pyramids, referencing the snow and ice that covers the region in winter and allowing natural light to enter the lobby.

The Harbin Opera House lies on the city’s wetlands and is designed to reflect the city’s cold climate. It gives the impression of having been sculpted by the wind and seems to undulate and blend in with the surroundings. The exterior is made of white aluminum panels, giving the building a smooth and soft appearance.

Harbin-Opera-House-By-MAD-Architects-09-Hufton_Crow-759x651 Harbin Opera House / MAD Architects

© Hufton + Crow

The curvilinear interior of the lobby has large glass walls that connect visitors with the exterior and the spacious plaza outside. Overhead, a crystalline glass ceiling comprised of pyramid structures offers a connection to the outside and provides natural light. Visitors can explore the façade of the building and walk up the structure’s carved paths, which culminate at an observation platform offering a view of Harbin and the surrounding wetlands.

Harbin-Opera-House-By-MAD-Architects-10-Hufton_Crow-759x537 Harbin Opera House / MAD Architects

© Hufton + Crow

The Opera’s Grand Theater can seat up to 1,600 people. It was constructed with rich wood, giving a warm, cozy feeling and the Manchurian Ash walls wrap around the stage and setting. The materials used and the spatial configuration offer breathtaking acoustics.

The Harbin Opera House also has a second, smaller theater that can hold up to 400 visitors. There is a large, sound proof window behind the stage that connects it with the outside world and offers a scenic background.

Harbin-Opera-House-By-MAD-Architects-13-Hufton_Crow-800x1200 Harbin Opera House / MAD Architects

© Hufton + Crow

“The beauty of architecture is it involves work that stretches over a very long time but often starts in one instant, with just one emotion, a kind of instinctual response. I did the sketch very quickly, before I even landed in Harbin. I was on the airplane, and I saw the wavy river, the wetlands, the whole site from the sky, and I was thinking I should do something that blends into this beautiful landscape. So the first day I already had the concept. And then we spent maybe two years to realize it, and then another four years for construction. In the winter, they have very heavy snow in Harbin, and so we made the building white, so it almost becomes like a mountain, an extension of nature. I didn’t want the building to feel isolated from the environment. The site is a major wetland. People come there to enjoy nature. So I designed the façade so that you can walk onto the building via a ramp and reach the rooftop where you can look at the overall landscape. You don’t have to have opera tickets to interact with the building.” – says Ma Yansong / some of the ideas behind the design

Harbin-Opera-House-By-MAD-Architects-15-Hufton_Crow-759x787 Harbin Opera House / MAD Architects

© Hufton + Crow

MAD Architects:

Harbin Opera House, located in the Northern Chinese city of Harbin. In 2010, MAD won the international open competition for Harbin Cultural Island, a master plan for an opera house, a cultural center, and the surrounding wetland landscape along Harbin’s Songhua River. The sinuous opera house is the focal point of the Cultural Island, occupying a building area of approximately 850,000 square feet of the site’s 444 acres total area. It features a grand theater that can host over 1,600 patrons and a smaller theater to accommodate an intimate audience of 400.

Harbin-Opera-House-By-MAD-Architects-21-Adam-Mork-759x407 Harbin Opera House / MAD Architects

© Adam Mørk

Embedded within Harbin’s wetlands, the Harbin Opera House was designed in response to the force and spirit of the northern city’s untamed wilderness and frigid climate. Appearing as if sculpted by wind and water, the building seamlessly blends in with nature and the topography—a transfusion of local identity, art, and culture. “We envision Harbin Opera House as a cultural center of the future – a tremendous performance venue, as well as a dramatic public space that embodies the integration of human, art and the city identity, while synergistically blending with the surrounding nature,” said Ma Yansong, founding principal, MAD Architects.

On the exterior, the architecture references the sinuous landscape of the surrounding area. The resulting curvilinear façade composed of smooth white aluminum panels becomes the poetry of edge and surface, softness and sharpness. The journey begins upon crossing the bridge onto Harbin Cultural Island, where the undulating architectural mass wraps a large public plaza, and during winter months, melts into the snowy winter environment.

Harbin-Opera-House-By-MAD-Architects-24-Hufton_Crow-800x1200 Harbin Opera House / MAD Architects

© Hufton + Crow

The architectural procession choreographs a conceptual narrative, one that transforms visitors into performers. Upon entering the grand lobby, visitors will see large transparent glass walls spanning the grand lobby, visually connecting the curvilinear interior with the swooping façade and exterior plaza. Soaring above, a crystalline glass curtain wall soars over the grand lobby space with the support of a lightweight diagrid structure. Comprised of glass pyramids, the surface alternates between smooth and faceted, referencing the billowing snow and ice of the frigid climate. Visitors are greeted with the simple opulence of natural light and material sensation—all before taking their seat.

Presenting a warm and inviting element, the grand theater is clad in rich wood, emulating a wooden block that has been gently eroded away. Sculpted from Manchurian Ash, the wooden walls gently wrap around the main stage and theater seating. From the proscenium to the mezzanine balcony the grand theater’s use of simple materials and spatial configuration provides world-class acoustics. The grand theater is illuminated in part by a subtle skylight that connects the audience to the exterior and the passing of time.

Harbin-Opera-House-By-MAD-Architects-30-Adam-Mork-759x488 Harbin Opera House / MAD Architects

© Adam Mørk

Within the second, smaller theater, the interior is connected seamlessly to the exterior by the large, panoramic window behind the performance stage. This wall of sound-proof glass provides a naturally scenic backdrop for performances and activates the stage as an extension of the outdoor environment, inspiring production opportunities.

Harbin Opera House emphasizes public interaction and participation with the building. Both ticketholders and the general public alike can explore the façade’s carved paths and ascend the building as if traversing local topography. At the apex, visitors discover an open, exterior performance space that serves as an observation platform for visitors to survey the panoramic views of Harbin’s metropolitan skyline and the surrounding wetlands below. Upon descent, visitors return to the expansive public plaza, and are invited to explore the grand lobby space.

Harbin-Opera-House-By-MAD-Architects-35-Hufton_Crow-759x506 Harbin Opera House / MAD Architects

© Hufton + Crow

Surpassing the complex opera house typology, MAD articulates an architecture inspired by nature and saturated in local identity, culture and art. As the Harbin Opera House deepens the emotional connection of the public with the environment, the architecture is consequently theatrical in both its performance of narrative spaces and its context within the landscape.

Harbin-Opera-House-By-MAD-Architects-44-Hufton_Crow-759x435 Harbin Opera House / MAD Architects

© Hufton + Crow

Project Data:

Project name: Harbin Opera House
Location: Harbin, China
Coordinates: 45.807199, 126.578993
Type: Dance / Music Center, Theatre and Auditorium
Building Area: 850,000 sq.ft / 76,500 sqm
Building Height: 184 feet
Grand Theater Capacity: 1,600 seats
Small Theater Capacity: 400 seats
Competition Year: 2010
Project Year: 2010-2015
Status: Built
Completion Year: 2015


  • 2016 – WAN Awards – Category: Performing Spaces – Winner
  • 2016 – ArchDaily Building of the Year Award – Category: Cultural Architecture – Winner

The people:

Client / Owner / Developer: n/a
Architects: MAD Architects – West Tower, No.7, Banqiao Nanxiang, Beixinqiao, Beijing, China 100007
Directors: Ma Yansong, Dang Qun, Yosuke Hayano

Design Team:

  • Jordan Kanter, Daniel Gillen, Bas van Wylick, Liu Huiying, Fu Changrui, Zhao Wei, Kin Li ,Zheng Fang, Julian Sattler, Jackob Beer, J Travis Russett, Sohith Perera, Colby Thomas Suter, Yu Kui, Philippe Brysse, Huang Wei, Flora Lee, Wang Wei, Xie Yibang, Lyo Hengliu, Alexander Cornelius, Alex Gornelius, Mao Beihong, Gianantonio Bongiorno, Jei Kim, Chen Yuanyu, Yu Haochen, Qin Lichao, Pil-Sun Ham, Mingyu Seol, Lin Guomin, Zhang Haixia, Li Guangchong, Wilson Wu, Ma Ning, Davide Signorato, Nick Tran, Xiang Ling, Gustavo Alfred Van Staveren, Yang Jie


  • Associate Engineers: Beijing Institute of Architectural Design
  • Façade/cladding Consultants: Inhabit Group, China Jingye Engineering Co., Ltd.
  • BIM: Gehry Technologies Co., Ltd.
  • Landscape Architect: Turenscape, Earthasia Design Group
  • Interior Design: MAD Architects, Shenzhen Z&F Culture Construction Co., Ltd.
  • Lighting Design: Toryo International Lighting Design Center, Beijing United Artists Lighting Design Co., Ltd.
  • Acoustic Consultants: Zhang Kuisheng Acoustics Research Institute of Shanghai Modern Design Group
  • Stage Lighting Design: EKO Lighting Equipment Co., Ltd.
  • Stage Mechanical Engineers: Chinese PLA General Armament Institute of Engineering Design
  • Signage Design: Shenzhen Freesigns Signage Co., Ltd.

Text Description: © Courtesy of MAD Architects, yahoo.news
Images: © MAD Architects, Hufton + Crow, Adam Mørk, flickr-Ben Lepley


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