The Guangzhou Municipal Government’s brief for a new opera house was ambitious: the building had to be able to host Chinese and Western operas of the highest caliber, as well as be a welcoming civic center, open and accessible to all. Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA) delivered with two boulders of granite and glass set on plazas that mimic rippling sand.

ZHA’s 70,000-square-meter Guangzhou Opera House, which was completed in 2010, connects the city to the Pearl River at a site that was primarily used by the fishing industry and is now evolving to become a center for commerce and culture. The Opera House is helping to pave the way by featuring performances that are attracting a new and younger audience and drawing crowds of tourists and locals to its terraces. “On my visit earlier this year, it was rewarding to see how popular these public spaces have become with the people of Guangzhou,” says Simon Yu, the project architect.

The concrete boulder-like buildings that encompass the Opera House are housed within steel shell structures. These shells are partly clad in triangular granite panels. A charcoal-colored granite with a rough texture is used on the larger of the two buildings, which contains the main 1,800-seat auditorium. Lighter colored granite is used on the smaller structure where the 400-seat multi-function hall resides. “These textured finishes reinforce the design concept of the project as boulders eroded by water on the banks of a stream,” says Yu. The remainder of the building is clad in tessellated triangular glass panels that help make the public areas transparent.

Inside, the architects used glass-fiber-reinforced gypsum and solid surfacing for the sinuous auditoriums, foyers, and rehearsal spaces. “In Chinese culture, certain analogical thinking makes sense to people, and the idea of pebbles and rocks on the banks of a stream is actually very meaningful for a project located next to the Pearl River,” says Yu.

The requirements for auditoriums for Western and Chinese operatic performances differ significantly; the architects worked closely with acousticians Marshall Day early in the planning stage. While in Western opera the focus is on natural acoustics, in Chinese opera, the drama and story have priority and audio equipment is relied on heavily. ZHA worked carefully to balance reverberation, volume, and clarity, molding dips into the glass fiber reinforced gypsum panels toward the front of the auditorium where the volume should be toned down.

For the city of Guangzhou, the popularity of the Opera House as a work of architecture and public gathering place is as important as being able to hear the richness of the Macao Orchestra, which will be performing this July. “I think it’s critical for cities to invest in these public spaces and cultural buildings,” says Yu. “They are a vital component of a rich urban life and they eliminate the segregation found in single-use developments.”