For anyone interested or involved in China’s architectural high jinx, a ticket to the Metropolitan Opera season’s final performance of composer John Adams’ Nixon in China on Saturday evening (February 19th) promises an arresting jolt of design nostalgia and reality. A youthful collaboration of the composer and director Peter Sellars, the opera (which premiered at the Houston Grand Opera in 1987) fast-rewinds back to the Peoples Republic of China during the winter of 1972. Based on actual photos and film footage, designer Adrianne Lobel’s sets nail the stifled formality of the post-mid-century bureaucratic realm with a quirky two-dimensional style that borders on, but never is, kitsch.
Art imitates the life we recall. A stark banquet hall, complete with flags and potted plants, and stiffly furnished reception room revisited by Lobel are unanticipated reminders of the past — the Cold War, Capitalism, Communism — and how architecture and design reflects a nation’s mindset, good, bad, or indifferent. The iconic visit happened less than 40 years ago, but seems eons away from OMA’s CCTV tower, Hadid’s Guangzhou Opera House, and Holl’s Linked Hybrid. They — we all — have all come a long way.