Behind the Curtain: Xiqu Centre, West Kowloon, Hong Kong

The Xiqu Centre puts classical Chinese opera at the gateway to a new cultural district in Hong Kong—and creates a new public plaza in the process.

A façade resembling stage curtains opens the Xiqu Centre’s ground floor atrium to invite public use. The main theatre is suspended 27 metres above the plaza.

PROJECT Xiqu Centre, West Kowloon, Hong Kong

ARCHITECTS Revery Architecture (formerly Bing Thom Architects) in joint venture with Ronald Lu & Partners

TEXT Sylvia Chan

PHOTOS Ema Peter

Classical Chinese opera is a vivid art form with flamboyant costumes and face paint, elaborate movements, and a boisterous mix of vocals and percussion. Also known by its Chinese name, Xiqu, the form developed during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) and regional variations are included on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage practices.

Xiqu’s significance has recently gained further recognition in Hong Kong. Earlier this year, the city opened the world’s first performance venue specifically designed for classical Chinese opera. Designed by Revery Architecture (formerly Bing Thom Architects) in collaboration with local architect Ronald Lu & Partner, the $347-million Xiqu Centre is a solid foundation for celebrating—and reinventing—the heritage Chinese art form.

Poised at the gateway to the new West Kowloon Cultural District, the Xiqu Centre is designed to evoke a giant lantern. It exterior is made of fins CNC-cut from marine-grade aluminum pipe, arranged to create a woven pattern.

The seven-storey, 30,000-square-metre performance hall stands at the entrance of the West Kowloon Cultural District. The 40-hectare area, masterplanned by Foster+Partners, is slated to become Hong Kong’s primary arts precinct, with 17 cultural venues and a central park. The building’s distinctive curvilinear form evokes the seamless movements in Xiqu, while effectively setting the cultural destination apart from the boxy glass towers in the neighboring shopping area.

The building is further distinguished by its façade, composed of 13,000 CNC-cut marine-grade aluminum alloy fins, connected by stainless steel brackets to the building’s aluminum cladding. The curvilinear fins echo the building’s overall form. The composition was generated through a parametric digital model, and during construction, a full-scale mockup of a section of the façade was built onsite. These processes streamlined the façade’s fabrication and installation, ensuring that no material was wasted.

The aluminum fins are finished without paint or coating. Instead, each piece was blasted with glass beads, effecting a subtle finish that changes in shifting light. The building exhibits different personas according to the weather: on a cloudy day, it is a serious protagonist dressed in grey; at dusk, it is a lively dancer shimmering in gold.

The atrium includes a podium for cultural events, surrounding by curved steps that double as casual seating. Topping the atrium, a red-and-white luminaire is an abstracted version of a grand chandelier. The hybrid interior-exterior space included landscape design by SWA Group.

At the four corners of the roughly square building, arched openings resemble parted stage curtains. They invite passers-by to glimpse inside the Centre. Particularly welcoming is the 20-metre-high main entrance facing Canton Road. Its sheer scale entices visitors to enter the Xiqu Centre’s predominantly white atrium space, with its dramatic red-and-white abstracted chandelier. The atrium—which is accessible to the public 24/7, and occasionally stages free events—acts as a threshold to the entire cultural district.

Cutaway Perspective

A public-realm atrium was not part of the client’s initial brief, which called for a structure with a 1,073-seat Grand Theatre, a 200-seat Tea House Theatre, and training and administrative facilities. But upon investigation of the site, the architects realized that the Grand Theatre, if placed on the ground level, would entirely occupy the 1,260-square-metre site and limit the building’s porosity. The team decided to suspend the Grand Theatre above the site, an audacious move that solved another issue—it isolates the performing space from the vibration and noise of an underground high-speed rail line.

Lifting the Grand Theatre four storeys above ground was no easy task. Six mega-columns and two doubled six-metre-high roof trusses support the weight of the 1,800-tonne theatre. The roof structure was first built on the ground and then raised halfway up the giant columns with hydraulic strand jacks. The columns were then reinforced with temporary concrete tie beams, before the roof structure was lifted to its final position, 48 metres above the ground. The underside of the theatre was also eventually raised to connect with the roof hangers.

A series of lobbies cascade up from the atrium, giving access to the Grand Theatre and Tea House Theatre, as well as exhibition areas, restaurants, studios, and a seminar hall.

Below, the resulting atrium reveals no trace of this complex engineering. Finished with over 200 double-curved, white-coated aluminum panels, the space exudes an aura of lightness and motion. Each panel has a unique trapezoidal shape and curvature; they were CNC-cut in Dongguan, China, based on a BIM model, and precisely assembled on site to create a space that flows. The free movement of air through the atrium further accentuates its spatial fluidity.

At the center of the atrium is a podium for cultural events. Stairs and gently sloping ramps lead visitors to the first and second floor, where the Tea House Theatre, training facilities, as well as shops and restaurants are located. From the open-air balconies, visitors enjoy a clear view of the atrium’s daily life: people passing through, gathering for a free performance, or simply sitting and chatting on the curved continuous bench surrounding the podium.

The intimate Tea House Theatre is designed as a casual setting for viewing classical Chinese opera, with dim sum served at each performance.

On the first floor, the 200-seat Tea House Theatre is designed to attract new audiences. It delivers shorter performances, with tea and Chinese dim sum served during each show. Located in direct view from the main entrance, the space is marked by a backlit 20-metre-wide glass wall, which contains a red silk interlayer. Silk
is often used to make Xiqu costumes, and its use alludes to the build
ing’s relationship with the ancient Chinese art form, as a fluidly enveloping presence. The second floor is equipped with eight studios dedicated to training and rehearsals, including one space with an eight-metre-high ceiling and the same dimensions as the Grand Theatre’s stage.

If the Tea House Theatre is intended for serendipitous discoveries of Xiqu, the Grand Theatre is dedicated to Xiqu as a high art form. From the atrium, escalators and elevators lead to the foyers, which show the same fluidity and brightness as the open space below. Once inside the theatre, one is confronted with a dark palette, which renders this performance venue a distinctive world unto itself.

Designed as a darkened sanctuary, the Grand Theatre contrasts with the stark whiteness of the public areas in the centre. The performance space is lined with milled concave wood panels, and further articulated with gaps and acoustical insulation in strategic areas to absorb or scatter sound.

The Grand Theatre’s stage and auditorium differ from typical modern theatres. Xiqu is traditionally performed on flat wooden or bamboo stages, and audiences view performances with a relatively horizontal sightline. The Grand Theatre is thus designed with a shallow inclined rake and only one balcony. The large-scale auditorium is divided into pods, resulting in a more intimate setting that allows audiences to closely engage with the performers.

Xiqu has its own acoustic requirements as well. It features percussion and sometimes-improvised lyrics, which are key to conveying plot. Vocal intelligibility is therefore important, and amplification is sometimes used. Revery Architecture engaged London-based Sound Space Vision to design a theatre for both loud percussion and the softer voices of performers. The walls of the theatre are clad with concave wood panels of varying radii to distribute sounds of different frequencies. Parts of the walls are insulated to absorb the percussive sounds, while interspersed hard surfaces ensure clarity of the voices from the stage. The walls are also lined with motorized acoustic drapes for further sound absorption if needed. The Grand Theatre allows for amplified performances—a mode that is currently favoured—while supporting the possibility of performances that rely solely on natural sound.

Opened in January, the Xiqu Centre has already become a popular cultural venue for both locals and visitors from around the world, as envi­sioned by its chief architect, Bing Thom, who was born in Hong Kong. Alongside the Xiqu Centre, Thom also led the design of the recently com­pleted University of Chicago Center in Hong Kong, a new satellite campus of the institution in Asia. Thom did not oversee the completion of both projects, however, passing at the age of 76, while the buildings were under construction. Thom’s death was a huge loss to the team, yet his commitment to designs that give back to the community and realizing architectural solutions without compromise continued to guide the projects.

Eventually completed under the leadership of design principal Venelin Kokalov, the Xiqu Centre embodies the architect and the city’s vision to continually reinvent cultural forms that at once resonate with traditions and cater to contemporary needs. Like the performances it stages, the Xiqu Centre is a dream made real—fusing cultures of different places and times, with enthralling results.

Sylvia Chan is a Hong Kong-based architectural writer and researcher. She teaches at the University of Hong Kong.

CLIENT West Kowloon Cultural District Authority | ARCHITECT TEAM Bing Thom, Venelin Kokalov, Earle Briggs, Francis Yan, Ling Meng, Giles Hall, Johnnie Kuo, Kyle Chan, Amirali Javidan, Daniel Gasser, Marcos Hui, April Wong, Culum Osbourne, Bibianka Fehr, Nicole Hu, Elaine Tong, Charles Leman, Chun Choy, Brian Ackerman, Ryan Shaban, Chapman Chan, Vuk Krcmar-Grkavac; YiMei Chan | STRUCTURAL/MEP Buro Happold International | CIVIL/GEOTECHNICAL Atkins | TRAFFIC MVA | LANDSCAPE SWA Group | FAÇADE Front Inc. | LIGHTING Horton Lees Brogden Lighting Design (HLB) | ACOUSTIC Sound Space Vision (SSV) | THEATRE Fischer Dachs Associates (FDA) | SIGNAGE 2×4 | AREA 29,729 m2 | BUDGET $347 M | COMPLETION December 2018