Since the Great Recession, there has been a noticeable move away from the architecture of imagery and promotion toward one of substance and context. Yes, there is still the occasional new iconic building that captures the attention of the press, but many architects seem aware that the “flashy for the sake of show” era of architecture is over.

Of course, the real problem here is buildings that are showy with no meaning connected to their surrounding context. Then there’s buildings like the new Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong, which has quickly become a radiant example of both imagery and substance.

The new Xiqu Centre opera house in Hong Kong.
The new Xiqu Centre opera house in Hong Kong.

Since January of 2019, Hongkongers have been invited, by the building itself, to experience this new home for traditional Chinese Xiqu opera in the city’s new arts and culture district, West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD). Indeed, the new building is decidedly cube-like, with curved edges and a facade that resembles the curtains on a stage. At each corner, the curtain wall, a name that carries both technical and symbolic meaning, is pulled back to allow light from the interior to shine outwards, thereby creating an alluring beacon for the public. The center is also meant to be contemporary take on the Chinese Moon Gate.

The firm responsible for the project, Revery Architecture (formerly Bing Thom Architects), designed the silky exterior because they were inspired by the costumes worn by xiqu performers and traditional Chinese lanterns. Within the modular system of bays that make up the “curtains” are 13,000 scales, each cut from extruded aluminum pipe by a CNC machine. The scales were then given their distinct texture using glass beads and connected to frames by stainless steel brackets.

Fabricating the scales, building a mock-up to test them, transporting them to the site, and installing them as a curtain wall was a delicate process that took eight months. In that respect, the seven-story building itself is kind of a performance, with a facade emblematic of curtains hiding the performers as they prepare for a show.

Close-Up of the Xiqu Centre's undulating curtain wall.
Computer rendering of the Xiqu Centre's intricate modular curtain wall system.

Unlike most performing arts space, the parts of the Xiqu Centre that are accessible to the public are expansive, going way beyond a simple foyer and ticket booth lounge. A large 65-foot-high gate draws the public inside, directing them to a voluminous atrium for exhibitions, workshops, and other public events related to educating people on Xiqu culture. To top it all off, this atrium is open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The massive main entrance to Hong Kong's new Xiqu Centre.
The large public events atrium in China's new Xiqu Centre.
The large public events atrium in China's new Xiqu Centre.
The large public events atrium in China's new Xiqu Centre.

The reason that the architects were able to create a 21,000-square-foot, naturally-ventilated interior public space is because the center’s main hall, the 1,073-seat Grand Theatre, is suspended 90 feet above the plaza below by six thick columns and two 20-foot-deep roof trusses. The position of the Grand Theatre has two functions: first, to reduce vibration and noise from the surrounding infrastructure, such as the nearby subterranean high-speed train; and second, to make the building more accessible to the public by creating spaces for programming around the atrium, such as classrooms and stores.

The Grand Theatre inside Hong Kong's new Xiqu Centre.
A computerized layout of Hong Kong's new Xiqu Centre.
The Grand Theatre inside Hong Kong's new Xiqu Centre.
A view of Hong Kong's new Xiqu Centre cut down the middle.

The Xiqu Centre plays a dual role of performer and stage: a work of architecture performing a cultural artform that dates back to the Ming dynasty of a few hundred years ago, and the canvas for its own expression. A contemporary home for an ancient heritage.