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Guangzhou Opera House, Guangzhou, China

Issue 63 Oct / Nov 2011 : Architecture : Performance


Zaha Hadid’s only project in mainland China to date is another extraordinary building lending itself to innovative lighting design by Beijing Light & View.

Like pebbles in a stream smoothed by erosion, the Guangzhou Opera House’s unique twin-boulder design enhances the city by opening it to the Pearl River, unifying the adjacent cultural buildings with the towers of international finance in Guangzhou’s Zhujiang new town. The design evolved from the twin concepts of natural landscape and the fascinating interplay between architecture and nature; engaging with the principles of erosion, geology and topography. Fold lines in this landscape define territories and zones within the Opera House, cutting dramatic interior and exterior canyons for circulation, lobbies and cafes, and allowing natural light to penetrate deep into the building. Smooth transitions between disparate elements and different levels continue this landscape analogy.

The Opera House design is the latest realisation of Zaha Hadid Architects’ (ZHA) unique exploration of contextual urban relationships, combining the cultural traditions that have shaped Guangzhou’s history, with the ambition and optimism that will create its future.

An example of a new type of structure called ‘spatial folded plate triangular lattice’, the complexity of the building’s shape meant significant challenges for the lighting designers at the Beijing office of Light & View Design, and in particular the Project Lighting Designer Xiaojie An, who worked very closely with Hadid on the three-year design and one-year engineering process for the project.

Xiaojie An spent a long time studying Hadid’s boulder concept. The meeting room was constantly full of models by ZHA and Light & View. During that period, Xiaojie An and his team studied the models every day and made every effort to comprehend the soul of the architecture. Eventually An decided to enhance Hadid’s complex curves and arches with an equally elaborate lighting scheme, to further extend and intensify their pleasingly gentle visual feel. In this way, the lighting concept for the twin boulders was conceived.

“From the perspective of lighting, the architectural complexity of Guangzhou Opera House does not lie in its structure,” says Rongxing Yan, Beijing Light & View’s Chief Engineer, “but in its space form and architectural shape which is different to our familiar conventional style. There are no straight lines at all. From the interior space to the architectural shape or even the landscaping on the plaza, almost all are interlinked by undulating curved surfaces beyond your imagination. Its perfect architectural form made us reluctant to fix any light fittings.

Indeed it is a feature of Light & View’s style that they like to conceal fittings preferring to “see the illumination but not the light fittings”.

The interior of the Opera House’s main auditorium space is a champagne-coloured gold space with a gloss finish – similar in appearance to luxurious silk. This is continued into the seating which is also copper toned. “As with all our work of the past ten years, we wanted to achieve the ultimate fluid space to deal with the complexities of the demanding acoustic engineering, and also the complicated programming requirements that allow for a variety of events and performances in the building,” commented Hadid. “Therefore, we have continued the seamless, organic architectural language in the asymmetrical auditorium space.”

Lighting the auditorium created a headache for Xiaojie An. A traditional downlight lighting solution was inadvisable in such a perfect curved shell and it was impossible to adopt indirect lighting or light slots as they had in the lobby. In the end it was decided to evenly distribute small but dense holes in the top of the curved space. Visually these holes seem like a plane rather than points, just like perforated plates. This solution not only solved the functional lighting problem, but more importantly, the dense light spots arising from the small holes emphasised the curvature of the surface.

The lighting is a constellation of very small white LED downlights, supplied by Philips Lumileds. To gain accurate illumination data, Light & Vision built computational models and carried out many laboratory and field experiments for comparison.

“In consideration of the return on investment and maintenance cost in the future, we decided to set 100 lux as the illumination standard,” states Yan. “This is lower than the existing value specified in the national standards, but we believe such luminance is sufficient to meet the functional requirements, as the auditorium is used solely for opera performance.”

The low light level LED concept met with fierce resistance by the engineers but the lighting team pressed ahead, certain of its success.

“In the end we did have to compromise by increasing the use of halogen spotlights on stage and the amount of downlights underneath the balcony to ensure the standards were satisfied,” concedes Yan. “These newly-introduced light fittings have a certain influence on the overall perfect effect, but they are acceptable as they are only switched on in special cases and are off under most circumstances.”

The lobby is a very complicated space and, as such, was also very difficult to light. It is around 130m long, 28.5m high, 15m wide in the widest area and only 8m wide in the narrowest. Two layers of the lobby are suspended from the internal walls, the curves of which constitute important visual elements indoors. The internal and external walls tilt backwards (towards the centre of the building) on the top, and intersect into a curve, forming into a curved wedge-shaped space.

“We realised that any visible light fittings might damage the aesthetic feeling of this space,” says Yan. “So we decided to adopt indirect lighting exclusively for the lobby. We used indirect lighting systems as the major lighting solution for the lobby in three ways: to mount floodlights in the wedge-shaped space on the top intersection of the internal and external walls to illuminate the top of external walls; to fix indirect lighting slots along the curve at the bottom of the two-layer vestibules; and to adopt the exterior lighting of the triangular curtain wall steel structure.”

The floodlighting at the top of the space illuminates the solid curved surface. Light & View carefully analysed the mounting position of the light fittings and kept them hidden from view, while ensuring uniform illumination over the upper surface.

The lighting channels in the lobby’s walls and stair railings are crucial to the space. The slots stretch and harmonise with the profile of the architecture, giving the space a magical atmosphere. These smooth curved light bands can be seen as a continuation of the water ripples outdoors, echoing pleasantly with the light bands around the outdoor platform and grass slope.

Externally, Xiaojie An created ‘water ripples’ of light around the platform edge and the grass slopes. Shimmering and uniform floodlighting was applied to the main two boulders from the base as if the lighting is reflected through the water. Seen through the shaped glass curtain wall, the interior solid arch and the triangular steel beam were both illuminated to give the glass curtain wall a shimmering translucence giving the impression of being under water.

It was very difficult to find a suitable position for floodlights due to the complicated architectural form. The colour of the two boulders are different subtle shades of grey so the illumination intensity had to be strictly controlled in order for the appearance not to be black and white when illuminated at night. This made the positioning of floodlights difficult in order to accurately control the luminance. After lots of analysis, calculation, experimentation and communication with the architects, the issue was overcome by using the floodlights in the space between the platform edge and the building as well as the concealed locations of the pool edge.

Yan explains further: “In the adjacent position between the boulders, we cast light from the larger boulder over the smaller one to increase the luminance and contribute to a strong visual effect between the two. Light fittings were cleverly installed in the cavity between the outer stone and the inner structure. Such light fittings cast light outwards through the reserved gap, and thus resolved the conflict between concealed light fittings and the lighting effect.”

The effect of the ‘water ripples’ spreading around the platform and the grass slope edge was achieved by using indirect lighting bands. The platform sides and the grass slope contours were filled with concrete without any secondary decorative surface.

The focus on uniform consideration and mutual integration of interior and exterior lighting is also a hallmark of Light & View. Their uniform consideration is embodied in two aspects: one is to consider interior lighting as an integral part of the exterior lighting scheme; the other is to apply the same lighting systems concurrently to both the interior and exterior lighting. The triangular steel beam of the glass curtain wall is a typical example. The beam is distributed in a triangular mesh and is totally exposed via the glass curtain wall of the main building, increasing some masculinity to the gentle architecture.

Yan explains: “We hoped to illuminate the lateral face of the steel beam by lighting every triangular interior casing. Such illumination became an important supplement to the interior lighting and, in particular, was an integral part of the indirect lighting of the lobby.

“At an early stage, we conceived two solutions: to cast light over the opposite sides from the interior angle of the triangle; or to cast light over the opposite sides from one side. In order to validate the actual effect, we made an experimental model at a ratio of 1:1 and conducted an experiment on the two solutions respectively. After having comprehensively evaluated the factors such as effect, glare control and concealment of light fittings, we eventually decided to increase a light slot made of steel outside the steel beam and inside the glass, and install light fittings of the same length inside the light slot to cast light towards the two steel beams on the opposite side. The curtain wall steel structure is a triangular shape, but the entire structure was extremely complicated. The triangles were not on the same plane or in parallel, the lateral face of the steel beams and the external surface (where light fittings were installed) showed a different angle with the triangle plane.

This caused many problems with our analysis of the projection angle, concealment and glare control of light fittings. “Hence, it was difficult to determine the reasonable shape and size of light slots as well. Through our analysis based on many electronic models and physical models, we summarised the five kinds of installation positions and the projection angle of the light fittings, and identified the shape and size of light slots on this basis. In order to ensure the light fittings could be adjusted easily to the desired position and direction inside the light slots, we designed a special mounting bracket which can be adjusted freely to all directions.”

“The time and effort spent on this project is incomparable to any other we have worked on,” states Yan. “The highs and lows have been immense but it was all worth it in the end. Every area is fantastic!”


Pic: Virgile Simon Bertrand

  • Pic: Virgile Simon Bertrand

  • Pic: Iwan Baan

  • Pic: Courtesy HI-MACS

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