On a peninsula in a Chinese town founded some 3,000 years ago, the Finnish architectural firm, PES, has created a butterfly-inspired theatre project with doses of ancient China and sleek Finnish traditions that—yes—rivals the Sydney Opera House. by Rob Hill
The list of buildings designed by the Finnish company PES Architects is impressive: The Helsinki Airport, the Icon Yunduan Tower Chengdu, the Shanghai Natural History Museum, the Nanjing Art Museum, the Tennis Center Ekateringburg and, most recently, the spectacular Wuxi Grand Theatre in Wuxi, China.
Started in 1968 by professor Pekka Salminen, PES has become one of the most innovative, creative and professional firms in the world. From public buildings to airports to schools and office buildings, the firm now has offices in Finland, China and Russia. Their global footprint is oozing over much of the Earth. Their cache of awards is impressive, including in 2010 The Best Airport in Northern Europe (Skytrax) and Best Airport in the World to Make a Connection (Monocle magazine). But China is where PES has its eye these days—and especially the town of Wuxi.
Two fugitive princes, who intended to give their brother the throne, founded the ancient town of Wuxi 3,000 years ago. While there, they helped develop local agriculture and waterways and the area soon flourished. Those waterways, the real charm of the city, are at the heart of PES’s new darling: The Wuxi Grand Theatre. The manmade peninsula on the northern shore and the highway bridge nearby make this location comparable to that of Sydney Opera House in majesty and awe-inspiring creativity. The building, with its terraced base and eight gigantic roof wings that stretch far over the facades, gives the structure the look of a massive, gleaming butterfly. Buried inside the steel wings are thousands of LED lights, changing the color of the wings according to the theatre’s performances.
“The inspiration for the Wuxi Grand Theatre came from the butterfly and the old Chinese opera, Butterly Lovers,” says Salminen. “The building’s volume is that of a butterfly landing on water and features eight massive steel wings, which gives the building a sculptural quality.”
A strong Chinese feature that runs throughout the whole building is the large-scale use of bamboo for surfaces. Astoundingly, the Main Theatre Auditorium has over fifteen thousand solid bamboo blocks, all individually shaped according to acoustic needs and architectural image. The Main Auditorium has 1680 seats split up in main stalls and two balconies. The horseshoe shape and compact volume combined with variable acoustics creates a flexible venue, which can host traditional western style operas, Chinese operas, theatre performances, classical concerts, and even conferences. The main auditorium is combined with a smaller 700-seat auditorium, which is designed as a multifunctional black box theatre with retractable seats and multiple options for seating layout. The 78,000 square meter building has all the elements of a cultural landmark—and the symbol of a city on the cultural rise.
The heady mix of ancient Chinese traditions and modern, Finnish splashes is, oddly, very fluid. Along with the heavy use of bamboo blocks, there is plenty of undulating glass-block walls that harken back to sparkling Finnish lakes covered in magical ice. Not to be outdone, Nature shines brightly here too: when the ghostly morning dew gathers around the building, soft clouds of steam rising from the tranquil waters, the outline of the complex conjures memories of a lost city or Kubla Khan-esque fairy tales.
THE DANCING BRIDGE & BEYOND
What’s next for PES? Currently, they are working on the “Dancing Bridge” in Huishan New City in China. “Our design proposal merges minimalistic Finnish design with a traditional Chinese story,” says Salminen. “We called our design ‘the Dancing Bridge’ because the inclined pylons resemble a pair of dancers.”
The “loving bridge” will have a gentle S-bend, which, according to Chinese tradition, ensures that the traveler will face no danger, as evil spirits will eventually lose their way in the curved shape.
And don’t be surprised to see more monumental PES designs popping up all over China. Just recently, PES had to move offices in Shanghai because there weren’t enough offices to house all the new employees they have hired.