When construction began on Guangzhou Opera House in 2005, the site was surrounded by farmland. As the building rose, so did the city around it. Guangzhou, in the sprawling industrial Pearl River Delta, had outgrown its traditional centre (based around the old city of Canton) and was expanding into Pearl River New City. It has since grown so fast and so far that, standing on top of any of the new Central Business District's skyscrapers, the dense grey grid of the city spreads out on all sides as far as the eye can see until it is subsumed in the beige mist of pollution and cement dust from which it is still forming.
Incredibly, nothing in this huge new section of skyscraper city is more than five years old. It culminates in a cluster of arts buildings at the river's edge that are all nearing completion – a library, a museum and Zaha Hadid's extraordinary $209 million. This was officially opened last month, although it has been hosting performances since a soft opening in May last year.
For decades architects have speculated on how the city of the future might look. They needn't fret any more. This juxtaposition of high art and high rise is it. Hadid, one of today's most distinctive designers (she is succinctly captured in the official press release as "a formidable architect of Great Britain"), has produced a building that seems to suck the surrounding landscape into a vortex of movement and swirling space. The opera house appears both as alien object in a landscape of incomprehensible vastness (and often overwhelming banality), and as an extrusion of the peculiar nature of this landscape.
The building is conceived as two rocks shaped by the Pearl River rushing past. The larger, grey granite-clad volume contains the opera house; the smaller, black granite-enveloped volume houses, appropriately, a black box theatre. Between the two buildings, the ground rises, drawing you in from the grid of the city into a disrupted, fluid geometry that seems to acknowledge the flow of the river and the giddiness of the construction, the centre of a churning, changing landscape.
It sucks you inexorably into a lobby that is characteristically theatrical. All the functional detritus of commerce – the ticketing, merchandising and so on – is sunk deep into the basement, leaving the lobby an artfully sculpted, gleaming volume as restless and anticipatory as the audience. Galleries, operatic grand stairs, undulating, snaking strips of light, walls that flare and swoop, cut-outs and openings that seem sucked out of shape by the dynamism of the structure – all these create an exuberance that is by now familiar from Hadid's other buildings, including Rome's MAXXI and Wolfsburg's Phaeno museums.
Yet the style still retains its capacity to awe. From the lobby's steely white space you are drawn into the warm embrace of a golden-hued auditorium that continues the same tectonic games, its undulating walls appearing to tense and tear as they are stretched out of shape. Seating 1,800 in a room that cleverly reinterprets the golden luxury of the grand opera houses of the old world, it is a fine performance space, with good acoustics and successful sightlines, and in which the difficult balance between the grand gesture and intimacy is handled well. The sheer flat-screen conventionality of the proscenium opening seems in severe contrast with the playful geometry that defines every other part of the structure.
The neighbouring black box theatre is entered through another spectacular lobby, in which crystalline-gridded walls of glass lean, strain and stretch to accommodate the interiors. The theatre itself is plain, the distorted perforations appearing again as walls suck up reverberation; there are few of the self-conscious theatrics ubiquitous elsewhere. Dance studios on the upper floors open up to the public spaces with glazed walls, their ceilings layered like oyster shells in complex patterns of illuminated waves. There are strata of balconies and private entertainment spaces cantilevered out over the lobby and views through to the garishly illuminated city beyond.
Throughout construction there were rumours of problems, of inadequate finishing, and there are moments when the ambition of the architects seems to have outreached the capabilities of the contractors. The building relies for its drama on its seamlessness and, in places, the granite cladding is a little clumsily cut. Elsewhere, the huge members of steel diagrid structure and the rainwater pipes that have been brought inside to maintain clean lines on the exterior come together in clunky junctions, interrupting the flow of the structure. But the overall effect and the smoothness of the white walls constantly remind you of the genesis of the scheme as eroded topography.
The Chinese appear to harbour a fetish for simple, natural metaphors: the Bird's Nest Stadium and the Egg theatre in Beijing and now the rocks of Guangzhou. It was surely this simple analogy that won the scheme for Hadid and I would guess that the black and white interlocking forms and their echo of yin and yang must have contributed to an impression of appropriateness. But otherwise there is a refreshing lack of condescension to Chinese forms or of any spurious explanation of why the building looks the way it does. This is simply an engaging, playful and theatrical building.
The new model for boom cities is to create skyscrapers first and cultural buildings soon after: it's happening in Doha and Abu Dhabi as it happened in Dallas and Houston before them. An opera house, it appears, remains the ultimate certification of arrival and Guangzhou has very obviously arrived. The question is, where it will go?
This article originally appeared in Financial Times. Click here to read more coverage from the Weekend FT.