Paul Andreu made his name designing airports but for the last decade he has been working on commissions in China. Here the French architect discusses his project for the Beijing Opera and China's architectural ambitions.
Paul Andreu started out designing airports such as Charles-de-Gaulle in Paris. Yet in the last 10 years, he has been in demand in China for a range of projects, including the National Grand Theater of China, better known as the Beijing Opera.
Paris, June 2008. Lying behind the Parc Montsouris in southern Paris on a leafy, cobbled street are the offices of the French architect and engineer Paul Andreu. Wearing an open gray shirt, plain black trousers and with a pair of glasses hanging around his neck, the unshaven and slightly scruffy Andreu is the antithesis of the glamorous starchitect. Yet over the last 40 years, Andreu, who turns 70 in July, has been assiduously making strong, big, functional buildings, gradually working his way to the top of his game.
His first realized project was Charles-de-Gaulle airport, which was followed by over a dozen airports dotted around the world, from Abu Dhabi to Cairo, from Manila to Santiago. Then China came knocking on his door. Over the last decade he has designed the Oriental Art Center, which is a concert hall and performance space in Shanghai, the Oriental Art Center's hotel, a Technology and Science Enterprising Center in Chengdu, and the new terminal for the Shanghai Pudong International Airport.
The project that has been grabbing the headlines, though, is the Beijing Opera, which was inaugurated in December and opened to the public this spring. Andreu had spotted an ad in the China Daily newspaper inviting international architects to enter an open competition. His winning design, which took 10 years to realize and required Andreu to make over 100 trips to Beijing, is a gigantic ovoid in a titanium shell that sits on an artificially created lake. Andreu likens its form to a duck's egg. It houses three halls: an opera with 2,416 seats, a concert hall with 2,017 seats and a theater with 1,040 seats, and is reached by a passageway, a device similar to the underwater tunnel Andreu used in the Osaka Maritime Museum.
This ultra-modern landmark is located just behind the Great Hall of the People, near Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City, in an area steeped in history. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Andreu's design has provoked controversy and has been attacked for not evoking China's architectural past or culture.
Here Andreu, who comes across as a modest, friendly man, discusses the thinking behind the project and China's phenomenal phase of architectural development.
What were your impressions of China when you visited the country for the first time 30 years ago?
It was just after the Cultural Revolution. I went to Canton to do a study for an airport and there was only one hotel there at the time. There were no cars in the streets and no advertising. It was this immense country just realizing that it could develop. Afterwards, I saw the country transform: the cars arriving, and people dressing and talking differently. But even though I've been there many times, I would never claim to understand it. It's a big exercise in reciprocal adaptation and that's what makes the work rich and interesting.
What was the starting point for the Beijing Opera's ovoid design?
It's always difficult to say, because an architect never reasons with a method or a statement. There's a lot of intuition. With hindsight, I think I felt that everything should be under the same roof and not like the Lincoln Center, for instance. I wanted it to be a non-aggressive piece of Beijing that would be very respectful of the rest of the city, regarding its lines of construction and references to water and vegetation, yet very different in its form. The water echoes the region of the lakes while creating a mysterious place of fiction. I also wanted an entry that would be like a passage and a moment of transformation.
You've said that you wanted very lively lighting and strong angles. What were the dialogues with light that you sought for night and day?
I wanted lots of light entering during the day that practically cuts the building in half and shows the landscape around it. You can have quite strong shadows on the sides, and when I visit Chinese buildings I often see these kinds of contrasts between light and shadow. At night the whole ball is lit up inside with red lighting, looking out onto the water, and there are lots of small, discreet lights on the roof.
You've said that making an opera house is a very seductive project, creating a rare object. Is this the most interesting project you've ever done?
Certainly. We do few operas, and they question the arts, music, décor, exhibitions and lots of other things. Obviously an opera house is a very symbolic building and this one is in an historical place, near the General Assembly and the Forbidden City, where there's enormous development. It wouldn't have the same significance in the central business district. It's a huge responsibility.
You defended your decision not to evoke Chinese history and architecture in your design, saying that that would have been like making a Disneyland. What are the challenges of creating an authentic culture in China?
It's true that I've always refused to do "Chinoiserie," meaning things that evoke China but are not China. You should respect and try to understand China while knowing that as a foreigner you can't really do so. It's not by memorizing all the dynasties that we will advance. But I think there is something universal in the ways of mutual understanding between countries, and that we should cross these barriers to make art and things that move and define us. The opera is constructed in China by the Chinese and with Chinese materials. This is how the most abstract thing in the world becomes local and concrete.
You've compared the controversy surrounding the opera to the Pompidou Center by Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano and the fact that they were foreign architects who built a very modern building. Do you think this is a similar kind of prejudice?
There's always a kind of prejudice. The Pompidou Center was a very big, positive shock since it addressed everybody. My building comes from the same spirit. It's to give people the opportunity to visit a modern building; it's intended for everyone and not just people born into a particular social bracket. When I was there in March, before it opened to the public, there were 20 or 30 people at the door of the passageway every day asking to go in. Everything depends on how it's managed, if it's too exclusive and expensive or not. But it if offers activities for everybody, it will be a fantastic place of great quality and among the best in the world.
You've said that you look for an internal coherence in your projects and a relationship with the surroundings and the elements. How have you approached your projects in China along these lines?
What links all these different projects is that there are always gardens, even in Shanghai Pudong airport. For the Technology and Science Enterprising Center in Chengu, I designed a park with the buildings inside that ties into a great Chinese tradition. I also pay great attention to how natural light will enter and change the interior according to the weather, air and seasons. Everybody raves on about Chinese Feng Shui, but above all it's about intelligent ecology and how a building will live with the environment and the elements.
Over the last decade, the majority of your projects have been in China. What has moved and inspired you there?
What is most striking in China for an architect is this extraordinary ambition to develop and construct, and foreign architects like constructing for ambitious countries. This is a constant and very strong desire in China right now. The other thing that is very striking is the immensity of the country and this tradition of territoriality.
On the question of territoriality, what are your thoughts on the Olympic Games and the Tibet issue?
I don't want to express anything about Tibet. First, I'm not a politician and it's a very tricky subject, where words are immediately deformed. My principles about life are very clear: I think anybody in the world has the right to their beliefs. I admit that I am friends with the Chinese, and when one of your friends is wrong, they need your help. I'm not saying the Chinese are wrong, but that if they are wrong I am there to help them–but not through abandoning my principles. But making great condemnations doesn't help anyone.
What role do foreign architects play in forming China's new identity?
They have a role because the Chinese ask them [to construct], but they don't have a duty to bring something to China. They represent a moment, but generally it's the Chinese architects that are constructing. There's always a country in the process of development that is calling people from the whole world to help. Take Berlin. After the wall fell, it started calling English, Japanese and Italian architects. Paris was the same in the 1980s. Everybody comes, and there's a desire for development, assimilation, internationalization. Afterward, the period of effervescence calms down. Then it passes to somewhere else. The cultural world is like that.
How do you hope China will evolve?
It's becoming a developed country little by little, even though it's still very poor in some places. But this poverty will gradually diminish, and there will be a better level of organization. But you can't change everything from one day to the next.
Definition of luxury:
There are two main things: time and space. Having time is an absolute luxury, and if you have a spacious house with wide corridors and a wide staircase, that's also a luxury. Not just a big living room, but where everything is generous. I would be ready to make an entirely white house from poor materials, offering a view onto a landscape, and with big volumes and one or two paintings that I love.
What I dislike is big watches that deform people's wrists; I always like wearing a simple Swatch. And I don't wear a tie or cufflinks. For me, anti-luxury is the 4 x 4, those big cars that I find ugly. There are few things that interest me in the luxury industry. Often it's about a false luxury.
It would be something like a coffee cup in white porcelain but well designed and that's beautiful. A simple, familiar object that I use every day, like a pen, which fills me with joy whenever I see it.
Waking up in the morning with time in front of you, without being rushed, and knowing you have plenty of time ahead of you to do what you want.
Of course thinking about some people I love gives me lot of happiness, but I can't think of people as a luxury; they're a gift.
A terrace somewhere on a beautiful landscape.