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Shanghai Culture Plaza: Building Asia’s Broadway
This city block, once home to Mao's speeches and Shanghai's flower market, is now ready to show up the city’s current stages
A century ago wealthy Frenchmen came to where the new Shanghai Culture Plaza is located to bet on greyhounds that raced in what was then the biggest stadium in the Far East.
Fifty years ago, in the same location, a giant space frame supported Chinese opera performances and the odd political speech. Mao took to the stage there to address crowds of 5,000.
Shanghai’s first stock market pitched up in the 1990s, and eventually the marginally less exciting flower market took over.
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But next month the Shanghai Culture Plaza -- on the megablock between Fuxing Lu, Yongjia Lu, Shaanxi Nan Lu and Maoming Nan Lu areas -- will put on a different sort of show: the musical kind.
With Shanghai’s Grand Theater and the new opera house now holding their own, this new venue is set to become an Asian Broadway.
Setting the stage for a new stage
Shanghai loves to latch on to something trendy and push it over the edge with scale, texture and visual imagery. It was a challenge to interpret that and not let it get out of hand.— Thomas Yee, interior designer for the Shanghai Culture Plaza
“Drama culture will serve as a catalyst to bring about a synergy among the business district, brands and culture industry," said Wang Zhongwei, minister of the CPC Shanghai Committee's Publicity Department, at a meeting last year on "The Interaction and Integration between the Business District and Modern Drama."
The meeting was held to discuss how Shanghai would build its own theater district.
"Culture is power," he continues. "Culture creates business opportunity.”
This statement and the development of the Shanghai Culture Plaza comes nearly a decade after Mayor Han Zheng invited architects to tender proposals for a new theater on this storied site and chose the "great white wave" design put forward by Beyer Blinder Belle, a New York practice with an office, at the time, in Beijing.
Along with executive architects Xian Dai, BBB built a stage bigger than that at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House -- most of which is below ground level.
“Our issue was the height limit,” says project designer Fred Bland of BBB. “The buildings surrounding the site are five or six stories, but the stage would have to be much taller than that in order to create a 21st-century theater.
“That got us into the game of pushing it into the ground.”
The zoning restrictions were a blessing in disguise. Twenty-five feet underground, the 2,000-seat theater is cheap to cool and heat, and doesn’t block anyone’s view of the 13 acres of surrounding green space.
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“Ultimately [the restrictions] became a terrific thing, because around the building is now what we call the ‘moat,’” says Bland of the 25-foot path that allows access to delivery vehicles and firetrucks.
“The notion of that is interesting and unusual, and it was caused by functional necessities.”
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The oval shape is a product of the theater’s prominent position at the center of the estate.
“The park setting created a sculptural form. The building has no obvious back, no place for unsightly mess. It was important we didn’t interfere with the park.”
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The south-facing arc of the building -- the so-called “back” -- has no windows, which helps with insulation.
Shanghai Culture Plaza’s creative design inside and out
The theater has more capability [than the Shanghai Grand Theater] to deal with a Broadway show, with smooth audience interaction and a sophisticated articulating stage.— Thomas Yee, interior designer for the Shanghai Culture Plaza
Inside, the center piece of the new building is a dynamic glass funnel (see "Image Gallery" at the top of this article), designed to move light through the glass ceiling to the pit of the lobby, which hovers just above the city’s water table.
A ground-level water feature references the river that’s hidden underground.
For all the building’s theatrics, it doesn’t belt out its raison d’etre.
“Shanghai loves to latch on to something trendy and push it over the edge with scale, texture and visual imagery,” says Thomas Yee, whose company, StudioS [sic] Architecture, designed the interior. “It was a challenge to interpret that and not let it get out of hand.”
“Subtle luxury,” as Yee calls his solution for the interior, doesn’t get in the way of the dramatic windows and park view.
The stage, however, is Yee’s triumph.
“The theater has more capability [than the Shanghai Grand Theater] to deal with a Broadway show, with smooth audience interaction and a sophisticated articulating stage.”
It’s also equipped with a rain-sprayer and dry-ice cannon, if those kinds of dramatic details are called for by a production.
In the years since builders broke ground here in the French Concession, Yee has watched the second- and third-tier cities follow design suit.
“Chengdu and Nanjing are already building opera theaters,” he says.
In the years to come, we’ll see if they prove his next theory: “If you build it, they will come.”
Shanghai Culture Plaza (official address: 36 Yongjia Lu, near Shaanxi Nan Lu 永嘉路36号近陕西南路) will have its soft opening later this month. The grand opening will be in March.