Grand Theaters in China from 1998 to 2015: A Study of their History, Public Space, and Design Language

Project: Research

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In the twenty-first century, Chinese cities are increasingly reliant on cultural megaprojects to project their identities and define their dynamic visual landscape. New cultural buildings are usually constructed in “new towns” or cultural districts, and integrate a grand theater, library, museum, and gallery or children’s palace. Since 1998, more than 160 new cultural buildings incorporating grand theaters have been constructed across China, funded by trillions of dollars. Their jewel in the crown is often a spectacular performing arts center—grand theater—typically comprising an opera house, concert hall, and theater (play house), and widely featured in the mass media as symbols of high culture. No other country in the world has constructed so many grand theaters and other cultural buildings in such a short period, which raises a number of issues of general concern. For example, is the associated money well spent? Are the facilities serving their purpose and making a difference in people’s lives, or are they poised to quickly become white elephants.In the proposed study, a team of multidisciplinary experts will address three issues of general concern related to grand theaters.(1) Why and how have so many grand theaters been built so quickly? Historical analysis will be performed to reveal the background and initiation of these theaters in different cities, locations, and socioeconomic systems across China.(2) How do these theaters influence the ambience of a city, and how do they provide public space and amenities for a vibrant civic life? On-site investigations of their interior and exterior public space will address these questions.(3) What is the design language of the grand theaters? Architectural study will be carried out to decode and summarize the designers’ strategies in responding to the design brief. The design language used in the twenty-first century can be compared with that of theater and cultural building design in earlier periods and with the designers’ other work.Existing knowledge of these buildings comes primarily from government sources, theater operators and/or trade magazines, comprising basic technical facts and superficial marketing information. The scarcity of research on the megaproject trend can be attributed to China’s vast size, the rushed construction wave, and insufficient understanding of Chinese culture and architecture by international scholars. The grand theater is selected for study because this building type is the country’s most sophisticated, monumental, and artistic, and has the greatest societal appeal.Representative grand theaters in China will be selected to investigate the aforementioned issues. Theaters designed by architects from various countries in different years and located in different cities will be chosen for comparison and contrast. The PI has been studying Chinese and world architecture for decades, and has published nine books and hundreds of articles and book chapters on related topics. He and the research team are well prepared to review the current urban construction boom in China.The proposed study will conduct a demystified reading of cultural buildings. The analysis and findings advanced will inform a broader discourse on urban China as a contested cultural arena for competing technologies, values, and aesthetics. At the academic level, the study will make both comprehensive and in-depth contributions to the theory and design of Asian and world architecture in the twenty-first century. At the practical level, it will inform cultural building design worldwide, allowing limited resources to be optimized for users and the general public.


Project number9042441
Grant typeGRF
Effective start/end date1/01/1721/04/21

    Research areas

  • China , grand theaters , architectural design language , urban design ,