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The Egg, Beijing, China

Issue 44 Aug / Sep 2008 : Architectural : Theatre


Jimmie Wing reports on Kaoru Mende’s latest offering to the Beijing cultural scene.

Originally named the National Grand Theatre and now officially known as The National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing’s ovoid opera house is now commonly referred to as ‘The Egg’. The Centre, an ellipsoid dome of titanium and glass surrounded by a man-made lake, seats 6,500 people in three halls and covers 200,000sqm. Construction began in December 2001 but it was not until 2004 that the architect Paul Andreu contacted Kaoru Mende of Lighting Planners Associates (LPA). Just three years later, in December 2007, the inaugural concert was held.

Once Mende had submited a fee proposal to the client it was several months before the reply came back: “Due to budget constraints and a tight construction schedule, LPA would be commissioned to design the lighting for the interior public space under the vaulted ceiling only.” The official agreement was signed in 2005 and Mende and his LPA team started by surveying the site and with kick-off workshops. By that stage the concrete building frames were already finished and most of the dome body structure was in the final stages of construction.

Mende and Andreu had enjoyed working together before on the Osaka Maritime Museum. The first thing that Andreu did was to explain the architectural design intent using drawings and models and then discussed what the client and architects were expecting in terms of light. Their goal was to create a dynamic visual environment by highlighting the beauty of the vaulted ceiling inside this huge architectural structure during the daytime and at night. Kaoru Mende elaborated, “Because of much daylight influence from the top light and the huge windows, daytime is the more critical issue when designing to avoid a heavy looking appearance of the vaulted ceiling, compared to nighttime which is a more optimistic atmosphere to enhance the interior.”

For a project of this immensity inclusion on the project was exceptionally late so they turned out a concept and schematic design for the project in about six months. This was followed by workshops with and design approval by the architects, plus a concept and schematic design presentation to the client. After client approval, they held lighting mock-ups at the construction site along with a mini-presentation to actually show the lighting effects and stress the importance of ambient light upon the ceiling.

Next they submitted fixture layout drawings and specifications but surprisingly there was never any request to confirm how LPA’s design was to be executed in the design development phase of construction.

“In other words,” declared Mende, who was somewhat astonished, “after they had received our basic design, once again the construction site took over, and, without receiving LPA’s approval, construction moved on.” In effect LPA had been removed from its position to take responsibility to approve the shop drawings. These daunting factors shed some light on the apparent mystery as to why Mende and his team were brought into the project at such a late stage.

Mende’s vision was that in terms of lighting design, the great dome structure, viewable from both the interior and exterior, would be the most unique feature of the project. Presumably, tourists would be taking snaps in front of the theatre with the dome reflecting on the water in the background. Meanwhile, inside The Egg, in relation to all three theatres, the requisite was a design that would create a comfortable atmosphere while also leaving a deep impression of time and space on the visitors. “The most important factor for this project was to ‘create a background’ with light,” said Mende.

How to achieve this? LPA’s method to plan the lighting focused on and analysed how visitors could circulate through the theatre and what they perceived visually along the way. They then prioritised this data into 12 categories for further study through CG simulation in terms of background luminance along the dome wall and used the results to create the lighting design. They had to decide where they should use what kind of luminance and, in order to create that brightness, where the fixtures should be mounted and at what intensity. This lead to questions of the quality of fixtures and so on. Even though this analytical process was comparatively complex it was chosen as the logical approach. In a city notorious for dust, haze and smog it was considered that this might have some effect on nocturnal lighting, but because Mende’s design was restricted to the interior portion of the dome, it was not an issue.

I asked Kaoru Mende about his lighting solutions: “In lighting design people and their comfort come before originality but people also need to profoundly learn about what ‘comfortable lighting’ really is. Few people properly understand what kind of light is comfortable and easy on the human eye and for countries like China who prioritise the economy this is a concern. If lighting fixtures and equipment start from this point, various engineering technologies can then be put to full use to advance lighting products. However, primarily in China, but also in other Asian countries, many products are just look-alikes to European and American products and boast cheaper prices. I would like to see lighting products accept the new demands of lighting design with products of quality and refined function.”

His views on the state of urban lighting in Beijing are equally challenging. “Up until the near opening of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has grown at an extreme speed, a city forced into development. Improvements to the cityscape and architecture are happening at an unthinkable pace. With the Olympics and pace of economical development to fast, several problems still exist in the field of lighting design - first of all, based on a lighting masterplan for the city, what kind of night cityscape is Beijing trying to create for the future? From the outside, this perspective towards lighting design is not visible. Is it OK to just illuminate new, iconic architectural façade with novel lighting techniques? Is it OK to just keep increasing the quantity of light over the entire city? Is energy being used most efficiently? Is the culture being reflected in a distinctly Chinese design? These are questions that I think still need to be discussed.”

In Beijing, besides the National Grand Theatre, LPA was also commissioned to design the lighting for another national project, CCTV.

“We were not commissioned to continue our work in the design development and site supervision phases of this project either, also turning CCTV into a painstaking experience. The client, local architects, and builders were probably thinking: ‘LPA gave us great lighting design ideas, but the local engineers can take it from here’. However, even more than architectural design, lighting design starts to takes its shape during construction.”

“From these two projects we have learned the importance of building a trusting relationship with our Chinese clients. It is also dangerous to renew the contract in segments. After the Beijing Olympics are over and peacefulness has settled over the city again, I would really like to have a serious discussion with the people of China about lighting design.”


National Theatre, Beijing

Pic: MA Lighting

  • National Theatre, Beijing

    Pic: MA Lighting

  • National Theatre, Beijing

    Pic: © GKD

  • National Theatre, Beijing

    Pic: Gabriele Basilico

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