In a clear signal of openness and modern tempo, China’s National Grand Theatre has taken shape in the heart of Beijing, just blocks from the Forbidden City. The futuristic titanium and glass-clad bubble–600 meters in perimeter–is one of the new buildings by international designers that are changing the dynamic of the capital’s generally modest cityscape.

A labor-intensive array of welded steel arches, economical only with China’s low-cost work force, supports the cultural center’s shimmering enclosure. Inside the immense dome, an opera house with curving walls and deceptively cunning acoustics, likely will be the center of attention.

Views. From the Forbidden City just blocks away, the new arts complex is modern, mysterious and abstract. (Rendering courtesy of AXYZ)

Elliptical in plan and section, the roughly 212 x 143-m dome is 46 m high at its highest point, the same height as the People’s Congress Hall just across the street. The dome’s 35,800-sq-m surface envelopes an opera house that will seat 2,416, a concert hall big enough for 2,017 and a theater that will seat 1,040.

Titanium sheeting covers the dome on either side of a transparent wedge that tapers from 100 m wide at the bottom in the front to a narrow band over the crown and widens down the back. No doors are visible from the surface, and access will be through an 80-m-long transparent tunnel under a water-filled moat that will surround the building.


The theater is among the projects Paul Andreu took with him into private practice from his former post as chief architect at the French government’s Aéroports de Paris. His decision to take part in the theater’s international design competition was driven partly by his urge to show that he could do more than airports, which he has designed worldwide. "I didn’t like being put in a box," he says.

Andreu found the competition, with its shifting rules, stressful, and he almost walked away. He was particularly concerned by the official decision to move the building away from the Forbidden City, with little attention to urban planning. The complex "is not a piece of furniture. You don’t just push it," he says.

Emboldened by the belief that he would not win anyway, Andreu disregarded official opposition and proposed changes to the overall plan. To his surprise, he won (ENR 9/20/99 p. 12).

Curves. Fluid geometry in the opera hall brings audience closer to the performers.

Francois Tamisier, the architect who supervised work on site for Andreu on loan from ADPI, says their government client told Andreu, "You have the vision, but we have the courage to give you the commission." He adds that while the Forbidden City is now open to the public, the residences of current government officials are not. They are tucked away from view in a parklike setting. They are, however, now visible from the upper levels of the theater, which Tamisier describes as modern, mysterious and abstract.

The architecture of the theater evolved from a cluster of separate buildings to halls under a single roof, plotted in the pages of the small sketch- book Andreu keeps with him. In unifying the venues, he wanted to create a popular space for people who would not normally be drawn to the opera, he says.

Indoor Space. Arching steel trusses welded in place resemble ladders that converge on a compression ring. They create a soaring indoor atrium shared by multiple venues. (Photo left by Janice L. Tuchman for ENR, right by John Kosowatz for ENR)

Strong Ideas

Though supported by subconsultants, Andreu was involved in all aspects of the design. "I want to control everything," he says. "I need everything to be consistent." Andreu had a "strict idea about the structural concept," says structural engineer Jean-Marc Jaeger, a director at SETEC TPI, Paris. Jean-Paul Vian, the project’s lead acoustician agrees about the control issue. "Andreu has very strong ideas and [working with him] is quite difficult," he says (see box p. 24). Vian works for France’s government-owned building technology organization called Centre Scientifique et Technique du Bâtiment, Grenoble.


With so much focus on Andreu, the Beijing design came under scrutiny again after the collapse of a section of a vaulted concrete concourse at a year-old terminal Andreu designed at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris (ENR 5/31 p.10). Jiang Zhi Quan, chairman of Shanghai Construction Group, one of the three companies in the Beijing project’s joint venture contractor, says he got a lot of calls after the collapse, but he is "sure there are no problems" at the theater because its unusual design went through extensive review by code authorities and by engineers working for the construction team.

The French engineers presented the design to a panel of Chinese experts for their approval. About 100 people questioned SETEC’s team over a week, Jaeger remembers. "It was a very difficult meeting from a structural point of view" because the structure is so unusual, he says. Potential buckling was the reviewers’ main concern.

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Weighing nearly 22,000 tonnes, including cladding, the dome is formed by 148 radial trusses rigidly fixed to a concrete base and to a compression ring beam close to the crown. The dome springs from 20-m-deep basement walls cast within a slurry trench perimeter. The entire structure is supported, without piles, on a roughly 4-m-deep cellular base slab.


The arching trusses resemble curved ladders with distances between the "uprights" ranging from 3.8 m at the base of the longest span to 1.5 m at the top. Trusses are set nearly 4 m apart at ground level, converging to 1 m at the upper compression ring. The roughly 1.1-m-dia tubular ring beam encloses a small elliptical roof with 14 ladder-like trusses crossing its shortest dimension to support the glass. H-section radial