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Theatre Putuo Zhoushan Opera House

A little inspiration

About the sea and this momentary transition on Earth

China’s Zhejiang province is developing an engineered peninsula between Zhoushan Island and Mt. Putuo to improve the quality of life for a populace and economy that are rapidly diversifying. Theater Putuo will be situated on the new waterfront and is designed to be a prominent landmark of the new cityscape. Inspired by its location and its patrons’ undeniable link to the sea, the contemporary structure stands in otherworldly contrast to its surroundings and represents the mystery and imagination involved in theater and performance within.

GS&P’s contemporary design was chosen over several international architecture firms as part of a design competition. Why do you think GS&P ultimately won?

Jeff Kuhnhenn: The other designs were appealing to the architectural community, but not necessarily to that particular client. You could tell that their schemes were almost more addressing the latest architecture magazine or work from Holland or Denmark. The end result was that they were a bit displaced from this client, this location, this project. The client was looking for things that were a little bit more unique to who and where they were. It’s the only province of China that’s all island, so it’s a truly unique, amazing place. Their relationship to the sea is at the core of who they are.

Greg Wieland: A lot of the design was driven by the requirements for a large auditorium and a couple of smaller buildings. So the building’s shape follows a little bit of that, but it has its own identity. A lot of the other entries looked like they were following a more traditional direction. They were very nice designs, but the more our team got together, the more we talked about different things that would mimic the sea and things you don’t see very often.

Kevin Kim: The design is contemporary but extremely organic, and your mind can create many different images. In one way it looks as subtle as a gentle mountain slope, and in another way it has the shiny scales of a fish. So it’s not really literally mimicking any one form, but one can conjure up many different images all related to nature and the sea.

Describe the site and the surrounding environment where the opera house will be built.

Kevin: The city consists of several islands in a central location and is actually connected to the airport by a bridge. It was a low-lying sea area that they are trying to develop. They currently have a government building, and they’re going to build a hotel and then the opera house. It’s becoming a cultural and entertainment area.

Jeff: It’s an amazing place, a truly unique location, and the only province of China that’s all islands. From a geological standpoint, these temporal barrier islands are predominately made up of things from the sea that may have accreted to create these islands over an incredibly long span of time. If you had a time-lapsed camera, you would be astounded at the change over time. They would almost appear to be wisps of smoke. Diatoms — the millions of microscopic organisms that die and fossilize — become the islands. So when we first started conceptualizing this project, it was just obvious to us that it had to be about the sea and this momentary transition on Earth.

It’s not that hard to imagine literal interpretations of natural shapes, but to break it down to a microscopic level is a unique concept. What was the collaborative process like for the team?

Greg: We talked about the most absurd things you can think of. Good design firms have those discussions in most of their projects. They don’t just start drawing a floor plan.

Kevin: It’s absolutely a collaboration. We start talking and doing sketches and one idea led to another and…

Greg: We spin off of each other.

Kevin: One person’s idea evolves into another person’s idea.

Greg: It actually goes very fast, too, sometimes. You wouldn’t believe how one idea triggers another. And it can go at lightening speeds sometimes.

Jeff: Everything we came up with was somehow inspired by the sea and the land, whether it was a wave breaking, or the idea of a sea creature coming up out of the water. I knew about diatoms because my father was a geologist, and I was fortunate to have had that in my background. In my case, I took this microscopic organism and used it as an inspiration for something much larger. Recognizing the cultural history of that particular region and its relationship with the water added a lot of power to what we were doing.

The nice thing about choosing this little organism is that the microscopic world is a different world. So there was an inherent other worldliness about what we came up with, but at the same time, there was something very familiar about it. Diatoms are little structures that look like little buildings — they’re pure geometry. It’s incredible to find that in nature and then be able to make direct links to buildings.

In this case, it sounds like finding the inspiration was only half the battle. Describe the reliance on technology in creating the model.

Jeff: Though we’re obviously not building this underwater, the concept was to simulate some of these forms that can only exist underwater. I couldn’t even convey what the form was without having a computer available to me from conception. In order to simulate some of the ideas about the forms, the structure had to have a flow and geometry to it. Using an algorithm, MicroStation allowed me to connect these systems of plan sections to generate a continuous, twisting, expanding surface for the building — I could never have done it with a sketch.

Were there any special considerations you took in planning the construction?

Jeff: When we first came up with the exterior shape, one of the options was to design a space frame, which is a three-dimensional truss that runs in all directions. The space frame would have an opaque material on the inside of it, which would enclose the interior. But as we got further into the project, we learned more about construction techniques in China. We realized we could do this with concrete, and that concrete might actually be better because it’s a big inert material that will dampen sound really well. For performance venues, it’s beneficial to have something that has lots of inertia and doesn’t jiggle around a lot like a diaphragm would. A thin shell on the inside of a structure would bounce around like the inside of your eardrum. But a concrete wall is just going to sit there, and it’s going to be hard to move that with sound, which has some advantage.

And what about the exterior?

Jeff: The shell of the building is a straight wall that has no curved-in section, and it extends from a point down at the bottom straight up to a point up above. The wall leans but it doesn’t bow out, and it’s easier to form that way. To that, we will attach a type of space frame that holds the skin: we’ll strike off a triangular grid on the concrete shell, attach small mounting brackets, and connect extruded aluminum bars. With a computer, we can calculate every single one of those arms with an exact number, length, and location.

So even though the architecture is very rational, one of the intuitive leaps is that, as a performance venue, the building itself could be a performer. The whole thing is covered with tiny lights that can create different colors. The light is projected from the reverse side of the arm onto the concrete, and you have the ability to change even the individual lights to create an undulating, moving, theatrical atmosphere. It could be something like the fountains at the Bellagio, very dramatic and abstract, and choreographed. We wanted to design a way for the building to change itself, similar to the bioluminescence of underwater creatures that led to the concept.

There must be so many aspects of this project that give you a tremendous sense of pride. As designers, is there one element of this project that rises to the top for you?

Greg: I think it’s nice to win a project where we pushed the envelope in terms of our traditional thinking, where we say, “What if…” and the client responds, “Yes.” What we learned from that, I think, is we need to do it more. We need to push ourselves in directions that are uncomfortable. When we are too comfortable, we drift toward mediocrity.

Kevin: Our mission is to “be the best consultant to the built environment.” Being a good consultant means you have to sell your knowledge and ideas, not your time.

We recently won a hospital design competition, and it was mentioned how we can win projects just based on our creativity and design capabilities. In Putuo’s case we do not have any opera house experience, but we won purely based on our creativity. That’s what I’m proud about.

Jeff: The contemporary form we came up with was symbolic and iconic. It stands apart from everything around it. In fact, there’s a government building on the site that is almost a perfect cube with a hole in the middle of it. It’s this highly rational looking construction. Our building is perched on its own little hill, almost like the way sand build ups around things on the shore. It’s a great contrast between arts and government, and pretty unavoidably effective.


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Project Info

  • Client: City of Zhoushan
  • Location: Zhoushan, Zhejiang P, CN
  • Market: Corporate + Urban Design
  • Services: Architecture, Interior Design, Planning
  • Team:
    • Kevin K. S. Kim, AIA Principal-in-charge, Project Manager
    • Jeffrey W. Kuhnhenn, AIA, LEED AP Project Professional, Project Designer
    • Gregory J. Wieland, AIA Project Designer
  • Awards:

    Middle Tennessee AIA, 2008 Honor Award, Unbuilt Category

    World Architecture News, WAN Awards 2009, Shortlisted

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