In the Realm of Nature

6th Roca International Design Contest Award

From animals to plants, humans have used elements of existence as an inspiration for their architectural creations – one of the most recent and popular entry in this classification is – The Harbin Opera House based in Heilongjiang province, Northeast China

Good architecture and design are the keywords of a sustainable future. And if the design is sustainable, it responds to its surroundings in a harmonious way. In Bio-mimicry the premise is similar but it uses nature as a benchmark. In the built environment the tenets of bio-mimicry are used to solve complex problems and design efficient systems. Many such creations tend to use the form and outline – of plants, florets and insects in response to the query at hand. Even cellular patterns of the Plantae and Animalia have acted as creative triggers in the realm of the subject; and the resulting caricature is eclectic yet timeless.  The creative endeavors of Bio-mimicry in architecture and design is better understood through the lenses of Bio-morphism, more so because the end product needs to be pleasing and functional. Bio-morphism imitates nature in decorative forms and symbolically. Alvar Alto, Isamu Noguchi, Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier are a few stalwarts who embraced Bio-morphism to good effect.

The animalistic interpretations in Bio-morphism were always there, in recent times however it has led to the evolution of Zoomorphic architecture. Unlike Bio-mimicry which connects with Arthropods and Chlorophytes and their cousins alike; in zoomorphism the animal forms are used as the inspirational basis and blueprint for architectural design. In Zoomorphism the posture and the body language of the creature in question tends to deliver numerous queries. Like for example a dog would curl up – displaying a typical posture especially in winters, this posture will however undergo a change when the environment is sultry. In India most of the heritage temples have animal carvings etched in their pillars and walls. Currently a full scale project derived from zoomorphism may be difficult to find in India but globally it has caught the designer’s attention.

In all fairness, a recent project which seems to gratify all the arguments discussed above is the Harbin Opera House in China. Designed by MAD Architects the shape of the project which is predominantly reptilian is in direct in response to its surroundings. The interiors too have significant typology which closely resembles the anatomy of a snake. The mere mention of a serpent may scare people and bring to mind frightening images. But hang on the trajectory is quite different out here!

A key cultural hub in Northeast China Harbin is the capital and largest city of Heilongjiang province. The region is known for its bitterly cold winters and often regarded as the Ice City. MAD architects took note of this climactic synergy while designing the Opera. In the words of said Ma Yansong Founding principal, MAD Architects “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.”

The external façade of the opera looks akin to a nesting snake in a coiled and tranquil mode. The smooth white aluminum panels aid the idea of tranquility and merge effortlessly with the surrounding, more so, when it snows heavily in this area. The arrangement of the panels brings to mind the scales of a resting snow snake. Likewise the facades composed of glass pyramids in a diagonal framework serve as a visual allegory of the nest in place. These pyramids are water tight, transparent and resistant to strong winds and pressure. The use of silicone sealants facilitates a proper bonding between glass and aluminum.

The opera house encourages visitors to explore its curves; the curvilinear façade lead to an observation deck and an amphitheater at the top of the building. A ramp connected to the plaza facilitates this journey. Enclosed in the hood of the serpent, the plaza consists of a series of steps which seem to snake around leading one directly to the parking area. The opera consists of a grand and a small theatre. The grand theater can seat 1600 people; it 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 partly by ambient light which flows in through the skylight.

A panoramic view of the grand theatre with the stage in center likens it to the pharynx of a snow snake; the backdrop of the seating arrangement reinforces the ophidian ideologue further. Within the second, smaller theater which can accommodate 400 people, 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. The foreplay of light in the small theatre through the glass façade is akin to the scales of a serpent on move.

Most of the opera houses disseminate palpable stories of sadness, despair, hope and victory. Titans and pantheons converge to deliver the importance of our existence as living beings; in this entire conundrum the space is but a silent observer much unlike the Harbin Opera; a symbolic allusion of existence which thinks, eats, lives and sleeps.


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