MAD's sinuous Harbin Opera House completes in north-east China


Beijing studio MAD has completed an opera house in the Chinese city of Harbin, featuring an undulating form that wraps two concert halls and a huge public plaza (+ slideshow).

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Photograph by Adam Mørk

The Harbin Opera House is the first and largest building that MAD has designed as part of Harbin Cultural Island, a major new arts complex among the wetlands of the Songhua River.

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Photograph by Adam Mørk

The 79,000-square-metre building features a three-petalled plan. One houses a grand theatre with space for up to 1,600 visitors, while the other is a more intimate performance space for an audience of 400.

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Photograph by Adam Mørk

The building is designed to mirror the sinuous curves of the marsh landscape, with an exterior of smooth white aluminium panels and glass.

These contrast with the rooftops, where a textured surface of ice-inspired glass pyramids allows light in from above.

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Photograph by Adam Mørk

According to MAD, the building is designed "in response to the force and spirit of the northern city's untamed wilderness and frigid climate".

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Photograph by Hufton + Crow

"We envision Harbin Opera House as a cultural center of the future – a tremendous performance venue, as well as a dramatic public space that embodies the integration of human, art and the city identity, while synergistically blending with the surrounding nature," said studio founder Ma Yansong.

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Photograph by Hufton + Crow

MAD has designed several cultural buildings, including an artificial island of art caves, an icicle-shaped wood sculpture museum also in Harbin and Chicago's proposed George Lucas Museum. Curved surfaces are a recurring theme through them all, picking up Ma's ambition for a new style of architecture, referencing the landscapes of traditional Chinese paintings.

"We treat architecture as a landscape," he told Dezeen in an interview last year.

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Photograph by Hufton + Crow

The smooth surfaces of the opera house's exterior continue inside, where a large entrance lobby features arched windows and a latticed ceiling that is located beneath the sculptural glass roof.

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Photograph by Hufton + Crow

At one end, a large block of Manchurian Ash wood encloses the grand theatre, with balconies and staircases wrapping around the outside. MAD describes is as "emulating a wooden block that has been gently eroded away".

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Photograph by Adam Mørk

The second theatre offers more of a connection to the exterior, as its backdrop is a soundproof glass wall. Its walls look more like a pair of weatherbeaten stone cliffs.

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Photograph by Hufton + Crow

The huge public plaza forms the third petal of the plan, and can be used as a venue for outdoor activities and performances.

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Photograph by Hufton + Crow

There is another outdoor performance space at the top of the building – a terrace that also serves as an observation platform.

Photography is by Adam Mørk and Hufton + Crow.

Harbin Opera House by MAD
Ground floor plan – click for larger image
Harbin Opera House by MAD
First floor plan – click for larger image
Harbin Opera House by MAD
Roof plan – click for larger image
Harbin Opera House by MAD
Long section one – click for larger image
Harbin Opera House by MAD
Long section two – click for larger image
Harbin Opera House by MAD
Cross section – click for larger image
  • Jeroen van Lith


  • This project is absolutely spectacular.

  • Cruz

    Sooo beautiful, can’t believe this is China.

    • JEng

      It looks like the ribbon dancers’ ribbon. I love it.

  • Archi-Nerd

    Hate it or love it, it is a triumph in architectural technology and building systems. I love it.

  • MRA

    What a nonsense of sculptural forms and surfaces.

  • guisforyou

    I hope the surfaces are finished as flawlessly as the design. A lot of people must have sacrificed a lot of time to achieve this feat. Congrats.

  • Gary


  • peter

    Drive-in opera house in the middle of nowhere? Ideal city planning.

    • JEng

      Dongbei is the richest part of China  – black soil. According to the latest TV series, it’s why Zhang Xuelaing is considered a friend to China and not a traitor.

    • bridgebuilder78

      Did you perhaps not see that looming in the background is an enormous city?

  • T,.T

    I can see culture here, “money culture”…

    • Xuri

      Harbin is one of the first cities that introduced classical music to China with its Russian orchestra and music institutions back in the 1920s. It is well deserved to have a grand opera house like this. Do your research before making snarky comments.

    • JEng

      Not me. I see something fresh and creative and beautiful. I thought it was a foreign architect and even if it were Japanese designed, I would still say the same thing… This one rocks.

  • N_1010

    This is spectacular.

  • CAD

    Money-aided design ;)

  • Dave Brubeck

    Just like Archimedes, Ma Yansong obviously gets his inspiration while in the bath. Loving the wrapped staircases!

  • Singa

    WOW… Bravo MAD.

  • Por Mexico

    Organic alien/Alien (as in ‘alien’ and as in ‘Alien’, the movie) structure extraterrestrially linked to Zaha Hadid’s Heydar Aliyev Center. Interesting and appealing enough nonetheless.

  • ct

    It looks like a Tibetan knit cap.

  • Felix Amiss

    The mothership has arrived!

  • H

    That’s pretty amazing.

  • spadestick

    The Eero Saarinen of our times.

  • Melon

    Mind blown.

  • Johan Perezco

    Looks so awesome, like the Sydney Opera House.

  • truth hurts

    I see quite a lot of compliments here, and yet if this was by Zaha everyone will be shredding this to pieces… Oh, and by the way Ma was Zaha’s student.

    • John Codes

      Ma studied at Yale, Zaha taught at the AA. But yes, clear similarities.

      • N_1010

        Zaha teaches at Yale too.

  • Erla

    It looks like Darth Vader.

  • David L. Caster

    I wonder how the acoustics are in this building. It is truly visually stunning. I would love to hear a concert in the main auditorium.

  • Sceptical

    I suspect the acoustics in that hall won’t be great.

  • April Mei

    While it is a fabulous design, there are some weak points. First, the opera house is not easily accessible by pedestrians, namely it is not a part of the urban fabric. The surrounding buildings and landscape are quite indifferent and all that reduces the importance of such a beautiful result.

    At the same time this is the mistake of the architects too. Primarily, the placement of the opera at that place was an officials’ decision, though the architects completely ignored the surroundings and any local references making a self-important building, outside any context.

    • Alan Yu

      Did you mean the greenery and water surrounding. I believe its design is based on the surrounding context. Any modern city requires a landmark to be vibrant, a dialogue with the now and then. Economy keeps a city going…

      • April Mei

        What is a landmark for a modern city? An opera house? Isn’t it cliché? What creates a dialogue with the now and the then?

        To completely ignore the surrounding buildings and city and natural characteristics and design a self-centered, self-absorbed building? Excuses can be found easily, but the building in reality has no references and no real dialogue. I am not blaming MAD for that. It’s a China-based studio and this is the modern Chinese understanding.

        But winning a competition doesn’t mean that the proposal is moral. I disagree with the building as it stands but I admire its realization, unlikely Zaha Hadid’s poor design and realization of the opera house in Guangzhou.

    • JEng

      You don’t need it to be in the heart of the city – destination businesses like Disney theme parks provide a service by pulling traffic to an otherwise deserted location.

      Plus this means you have privacy when there isn’t a show going on. They can do festivals, private educational forums.

  • MWnyc

    That great big empty outdoor plaza is going to be bitterly, bitterly cold for seven or eight months of the year. Otherwise, yes, it’s a gorgeous design. I hope the acoustics are good.

    Now, what about artists to perform there? Does Harbin have a symphony orchestra? Or an opera company (Western opera or traditional Chinese)? Or is it only likely to host touring artists?

  • Wei Chao Tee

    Why not square? Lol.