Inspired by the ‘Bamboo Forest’ of a nearby national park, the Wuxi Taihu Show Theatre near Shanghai marks the entrance to a huge new tourist attraction in its city. Roseanne Field reports
The city of Wuxi sits on the banks of the Taihu Lake in the southern Jiangsu province in China, just north west of Shanghai. Opposite it, on the other side of the lake is the Yixing National Forest Park, also known as the Sea of Bamboo – thought to be the world’s largest natural bamboo forest, and the direct inspiration for the exterior of a new theatre in the city. The theatre forms part of sports and leisure conglomerate Wanda Group’s new ‘cultural tourism city’ – a 240-hectare development comprising theme parks (indoor and outdoor), hotels, a residential area and a commercial centre. It’s the latest in a series of this type of project for Wanda in China and, explains Steve Chilton, director of architects SCA, “the theatres are kind of seen like a jewel in the development, the primary cultural draw.” Before the practice were appointed to design the project’s external fabric, there was a “previous version” which didn’t end up going anywhere. The brief was then rewritten and the budget changed, and the client was left needing to appoint someone at a fairly late stage, and abandoning the idea to run a competition. Chilton had worked with them a few years previously, before setting up his own practice, and so already had a relationship with them. He was approached directly and asked to work on the project towards the end of 2016, “at a point where they needed to produce something fairly quickly to hit their original deadline,” he explains. The theatre, due to open in December, will be the home for a single major spectacle running into the future – a water show created by renowned theatre director Franco Dragone. Known for his work on Cirque du Soleil in Las Vegas and the water shows he’s created under his own company Dragone, his joint venture with Wanda will see a number of new shows staged across several venues.
Design inspired by nature
Although each of the ‘cities’ Wanda constructs is different, many elements remain similar across them. “With the theme parks and residential elements, a certain style is adopted and repeated around the country,” Chilton explains. However, the theatres are more individually designed: “They are a kind of magnet to draw people towards their development – they need something to give it an identity.” It was this notion of creating an ‘identity’ that formed the main brief from the client, along with something that would have a “broad appeal”, explains Chilton.
“They’re not interested in creating modern, abstract architecture.” The practice therefore had to search for a solution that would be an interesting visual draw, yet also recognisable and familiar. “They wanted something which anyone can look at and get what it’s about,” he says. To this end, the designers followed Wanda’s “very symbol orientated” ethos and looked for inspiration in the locality. In this way they could create a building “which resonates with something about the local culture in a way that it’s obvious to everyone what it’s supposed to be.” At the same time they wanted to ensure the use of local references were not too blatant or pastiche. The Sea of Bamboo across the lake seemed the ideal place to draw inspiration from, given its familiarity to the residents of the city. “As kids they’ll have wandered through this forest, it will be a sort of primal memory for them,” Chilton says.
The architects discovered it had been used in a scene from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon which, admits Chilton, “was quite exciting.” They also came across a number of architectural works which had used light columns, and so their final concept – using slim white steel columns to mimic the bamboo – “quickly crystallised around that idea,” he says. While he admits it was an obvious local reference point, the architect says “they tried to deliver that in a way where actually it’s still interesting as a stand-alone piece of architecture.” Despite the theatre being home to a permanent show, it isn’t something they drew inspiration from, for a couple of reasons. Chilton says what Dragone produce will similarly be inspired by the locality and therefore “harmonise with anything we do. They approach it in a similar way.” The company also typically include a lot of digital elements, and the show will constantly evolve. “It will continue to develop, so you don’t want to take anything from it because it may not be there!”
Although Wanda didn’t get too involved in the design itself, they did collaborate with the practice on certain elements. “They set the parameters, it needed to fit within a certain volume,” Chilton says. They had to resolve what he describes as “two opposing forces”, in terms of both the car park and the building needing to be a certain size. “You had the building wanting to push out and the car park pushing in,” he explains. This meant the final building ended up slightly smaller than originally planned, “but that’s just part of the design development process,” Chilton says. They had the client’s full support with the most “‘designed’ elements” – the building itself, the canopy, and the columns. “They had faith in us. They liked our vision for what it is, what it’s trying to be, so it was a good collaboration.”
The local area can get extremely hot in the summer. So, although the internal workings of the building, including temperature control, were not SCA’s responsibility (a local design ‘institute’ i.e. office is required for all Chinese projects on this scale – in this case it was Tongji Architectural Design), the practice wanted to help reduce the load on the air conditioning as much as possible. “The columns and the canopy act as a shading device, particularly round the front, where it’s mainly curtain wall,” Chilton says. “The predictions are there will be a lowering of what the air conditioning usage would have been without those elements. Once they had a rough idea what they wanted to do in terms of the canopy and columns, the next challenge was getting it to work structurally. “We didn’t want the columns to just be there for show,” Chilton explains. “We wanted them to be very slender, but also load-bearing and able to hold the canopy up – for us it was really important.”
Achieving this meant a lot of hard work with structural engineers Buro Happold. They initially came up with a system where columns could intersect a couple of times along the length to create a structural connection, while maintaining the slenderness the designers were after. “Unfortunately, the programme wasn’t going to allow us to develop that as it required far more work onsite,” Chilton explains. “There would have been thousands of bespoke connection joints required between columns.”
Because of the time pressure making the solution unfeasible, the team settled on a system where the canopy is cantilevered from the building, with the columns providing additional support. Chilton says: “They do help to stabilise it in terms of its torsional stiffness, so there’s a certain structural component to them, but regrettably not fully as we had intended, adding, “you just have to adapt.” Despite the change of plan, the hollow steel columns are still 300 mm thick. “What the engineers achieved is still pretty amazing,” Chilton says. “They developed a special sliding joint to take up vertical movement, and its still designed in such a way to provide lateral stiffness.” The steel columns were all welded onsite and then erected into place – “it happened incredibly quickly once they started work on it, it was interesting to see,” says the architect.
Aside from the steel used for the columns, the practice have utilised a variety of materials. The cantilevered elements of the canopy are steel plates welded together to form triangular ‘bays’ filled with gold-coloured anodised aluminium louvres, chosen to represent the leaves at the top of the bamboo forest. Each ‘bay’ is orientated differently and the louvres set at varying angles in order to create a random and ever-changing shade pattern on the building itself. “It’s all the same extrusion, it’s just been chopped into different lengths and installed at different angles,” Chilton explains.
The building envelope comprises two key materials – glass and rendered blockwork. The blockwork accounts for about two thirds of the building. “It’s super low tech,” Chilton says. “The budget on the theatre is very modest, it’s comparable to buildings which would have far less of a visual impact, so we’ve just tried to use the budget wisely.” Although there is a large amount of blockwork, the columns obscure it to a large degree: “It gets lost in the visual noise,” says Chilton. “Having something which per metre is more expensive than you can afford at the front and something much cheaper at the back, you create a balance with the budget but manage to optimise the effect.” The other third of the envelope is custom-fritted glazing, “creating a certain depth, so when you’re on the outside looking in you almost feel like the space is really receding into it,” he explains. This extends the full height of the building above the entrance lobby, a fact that is revealed by a break in the columns.
The budget posed challenges, admits Chilton. “Reducing the depth of the canopy inevitably meant there were less columns, so more of the rendered wall was exposed,” he says. “We had to work quite hard on how the columns were distributed so that visually, from an angle, there were always enough of them there to create the effect we were after whilst masking what was a fairly cheap and cheerful wall.” There is an increasing focus on sustainability in China, and as well as the canopy reducing the load on the air conditioning by limiting solar gain, Chilton says the choice of materials will also help. “It’s more down the line that the sustainable potential will become apparent,” he says. “It’s a simple palette of fairly pure materials like raw steel and so in terms of recycling we’re confident we haven’t built anything that’s going to end up in a landfill.”
Approaching the finish line
The interior design and layout of the 2,000-seat theatre is something Chilton and his team haven’t been directly involved in – and in fact details are being kept somewhat under wraps until the grand opening. The nature of the show means an enormous water tank has to be incorporated with the circular stage, the specifics of which are being finalised by specialist technical theatre consultants APF along with the local design institute, and the show’s creators. The biggest challenge for his team, says Chilton, was fine-tuning the more complicated elements while sticking to their deadline, and he credits the success to their working approach – and their use of digital tools. “A lot of the elements were designed parametrically, which allowed us to have a certain flexibility to change the design and look at various options,” he says. “We produced a 3D model which had all the built components that we could then use to create the 2D drawings in terms of sectioning etc. It was a really efficient process.” The construction started in early 2017, only a few months after the practice were first approached. “We started handing over information which they would start using at the local design institute after a couple of months,” explains Chilton.
In fact, while the bulk of the design and construction work was agreed early on, there was one detail that caused a slight headache. “Choosing the colours that they were going to paint the back wall with took forever,” Chilton says. “Everyone had a different opinion and it just went round and round!” Despite this, and some minor changes to the glass fritting, the project has so far gone smoothly. “Anything that’s had to be updated has been fairly superficial stuff,” he says. “When these things run so quickly there’s room for error but the team are very competent, they’ve done a fine job.” There’s a buzz around the project among locals, which Chilton’s pleasantly surprised by. “It’s doing the rounds on social media in China,” he says. “Over the last few years there’s been dozens of really interesting buildings designed and constructed so you’d have thought they’d be fairly blasé, but it’s great.” Since work began Wanda have sold the project, along with several of their other cultural tourism cities, to Sunac, who are now overseeing it with a team transferred from Wanda.
In spite of the time pressure, Chilton says working on the project, which is shortlisted for the Future Project Award (Cultural) at the World Architecture Festival, has been a “pleasurable experience”. Being a relatively new practice, they enjoy challenging themselves and finding new approaches, and this project has been no exception. “We just try to reset our approach and find something about the locality or culture,” he says. “If we used the same technique or approach every time it would become boring – we try and keep it interesting.”
- Architect: SCA | Steven Chilton Architects
- Client: Dalian Wanda Group
- Architecture and Design Management: Wanda Cultural Tourism Planning & Research Institute Co. Ltd
- Concept engineer: Buro Happold Engineering
- Theatre consultant: Auerbach Pollock Friedlander
- Show design: Dragone
- Local Design Institute: Tongji Architectural Design