The Production of Cultural Mega-structures and the Making of Chinese City Centers: Taking Grand Theaters as Examples


Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Awarding Institution
Award date19 Nov 2021


In the recent upsurge of urban construction in China, the major increase in the construction of cultural facilities over the last 30 years is the most striking architectural phenomenon. Cities have invested heavily in a variety of cultural mega-structures concentrated in either the old city center, a landscape area, or in large groups on the axis of the new urban area. These projects are critical nodes in the evolution of a city’s spatial form and manifest the city’s image and its cultural strengths.

In particular, the construction of grand theaters has drawn the most attention due to the high cost, unique shape, and complicated construction techniques of these projects. Despite vastly different historical backgrounds, sizes, urban contexts, and economic development levels of the cities in which these new theaters are located, the similarities among these projects are striking, with homogeneous characteristics such as high standards, high cost, and large size.

For most cities, the key areas of the boom in construction of cultural mega-structures in cities are strikingly consistent with the centers of urban construction in different periods. By connecting these areas in a line, the transition of the urban spatial structure and changes in the city center can be viewed. However, existing research has primarily focused on the buildings themselves and post-occupancy evaluations; there is a gap in the research regarding the relationship between grand theaters and the development of the corresponding city center or even the entire urban spatial structure. To fill this gap and to explore the motivations for excessive construction as well as to uncover the mechanisms and logic behind homogenization, this study draws on research results and methods from urbanology, political science, and sociology to attempt to build a theoretical framework regarding the production of cultural spaces in Chinese cities; this is done by constructing a logical relationship between “capital, power, and place” and by dismantling the roles of various stakeholders in the production process and combining two models of city center development to conduct an empirical study of cultural mega-structures (represented by grand theaters).

The author has read books, newspapers, articles, and government documents extensively; has interviewed relevant agencies, planners, architects, and the public; and has made site visits to the target theaters and the areas in which they are located with the goal of elucidating the roles of the various stakeholders in the production of this type of cultural space. In addition, a panoramic review of a city’s historical performing arts buildings, culture, urban fabric, and spatial pattern is presented as a basis for an analysis of “place” as well as a deeper exploration of the relationship between performing arts buildings and the development of the city center and even the overall spatial structure of the city.

This study revealed that the final architectural product is often a landscape that meets the needs of politics, the economy, and power. The actor of both power and capital is often the government, which is overwhelmingly dominant in the production of cultural space in Chinese cities. The expressions of architectural style tended to be abstract due to rapid production of a cultural space that relies excessively on the logic of power, which has led to the homogenization of architectural cultural products and the increasing irrelevance of “place.” The study also revealed the special role of the production of cultural mega-structures in the process of urbanization, especially in adjustment of urban spatial structures and development of urban centers. This study not only confirmed the role of cultural flagship projects, represented by grand theaters, in promoting spatial upscaling and in driving the redistribution of the middle class but also provides evidence for the clustering of China’s middle and upper classes in new urban centers. It offers a new multidisciplinary perspective and theoretical paradigm for urban cultural space research by comprehensively interpreting the driving forces, processes, and results of the role of cultural mega-structure projects in reshaping China’s urban landscape over the 30 years following China’s reform and opening up. A historical and theoretical contribution is also made to the understanding of modern Chinese cultural construction.

    Research areas

  • Urban Expansion, Cultural Mega-structures, Space Production, Urban Spatial Structure, City Center Development, Grand Theater