A swirling edifice: Steven Chilton Architects unveil the Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre

Located in the Huadu district of Guangzhou, China, the whimsical looking building is a 2000-seater purpose-built theatre that is due for opening in early 2021.

by Anmol Ahuja Published on : Dec 10, 2020

The structural and facial form of Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre, even the crimson it adorns and reflects, is strongly evocative of the region’s ancient ties to Chinese silk, an important trading entity that initially prominently placed the region on the global map. Guangzhou, particularly, has been the birthplace of the “Silk Road on the sea”, and has been an important centre for arts and trading since the days of the Han Dynasty. The exquisite fabric’s drapery, and the sheen and lustre in its visual and tactile texture respectively have then significantly informed the design of the building, right from its conceptual stages to the now completed form of the building. Read the earlier coverage of the Guangzhou Show Theatre, delving into and critiquing its schematic design.

  • The completed theatre is set to open in 2021| Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre | Steven Chilton Architects | STIRworld
    The completed theatre is set to open in 2021 Image: Courtesy of Chong-Art Photography
  • The design of the theatre draws inspiration from the region’s ancient ties to silk | Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre | Steven Chilton Architects | STIRworld
    The design of the theatre draws inspiration from the region’s ancient ties to silk Image: Courtesy of Chong-Art Photography
  • The form is composed of ten gently folding curves that evoke the drapery of the exquisite cloth | Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre | Steven Chilton Architects | STIRworld
    The form is composed of ten gently folding curves that evoke the drapery of the exquisite cloth Image: Courtesy of Chong-Art Photography

In the present day, Guangzhou bustles with traditional and contemporary fine and performative artists who have helped define the world’s concept of Chinese culture for years. The Sunac Grand theatre is an embodiment of the city’s creative energy and China’s immense history, and is intended to nurture the next generation of cultural leaders in the performing arts, according to Steven Chilton, director and founder, Steven Chilton Architects. Apropos that, the one significant development that the building seems to have made from its visualisations is in the ‘skin’ it adorns. Moving away from the earlier scheme that played on a variation of hue and the reflectivity of individual panels, the building’s skin is now informed and inspired by ancient silk embroidery and hand paintings that have been used for depicting myths and natural scenes on tapestries and ornamental robes for thousands of years. In its final form, the theatre thus bears the illustrations and hand drawings of artist Zhang Hongfei, enhancing and building upon the tattoo art aesthetic that has gained new prominence and reverence in the current century.

  • The swirling façade is now adorned by patterns inspired from silk embroidery and tattoo art | Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre | Steven Chilton Architects | STIRworld
    The swirling façade is now adorned by patterns inspired from silk embroidery and tattoo art Image: Courtesy of Chong-Art Photography
  • Illustrations by artist Zhang Hongfei are digitally produced on the façade, influenced by the local myth, “100 Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix” | Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre | Steven Chilton Architects | STIRworld
    Illustrations by artist Zhang Hongfei are digitally produced on the façade, influenced by the local myth, “100 Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix” Image: Courtesy of Chong-Art Photography

The illustrations by Hongfei that now embellish the mono saturated façade of the theatre were influenced by a beloved local myth, “100 Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix”, wherein the phoenix or “Fenghuang” stands for virtue and grace, while the allegory of the homage alludes to notions of leadership and mentoring, an alternative spirit that the building also imbues in its purpose. The illustrations by Hongfei were digitised by SCA and interpreted before mapping each figure onto the surface geometry in accordance with the undulating topology of the surface geometry. Whilst significant figures like the phoenix were positioned where they could be prominently visible, the birds paying homage to it were organically more spread out and arranged in the spaces between the folds.

  • The entrances to the theatre are formed by the folds tucking into the ground plane | Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre | Steven Chilton Architects | STIRworld
    The entrances to the theatre are formed by the folds tucking into the ground plane Image: Courtesy of Chong-Art Photography
  • The entrances are protected by overarching canopies formed by the folds protruding | Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre | Steven Chilton Architects | STIRworld
    The entrances are protected by overarching canopies formed by the folds protruding Image: Courtesy of Chong-Art Photography

The form of the building, its superstructure, has remained essentially the same, mimicking the physicality of the silk cloth through a series of ten gently twisting folds that ascribe the building its circular layout. The building is entered into through elaborate glazed fronts that are held between the valleys formed by each of the folds ‘tucking’ in on themselves, meeting the ground plane seamlessly. The entrances are protected by overarching canopies formed naturally from these folds. The monochrome crimson cladding, composed of thousands of perforated aluminium panels, each differently angled, placed, and printed on with a unique portion of the overall composition, is a feat in itself. The entire assembly is held in place by a complex web of interconnected steel tubes welded together, working independently with the concrete supporting of the theatre floors.

  • The auditorium interiors combine immersive environments with technical wizardry | Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre | Steven Chilton Architects | STIRworld
    The auditorium interiors combine immersive environments with technical wizardry Image: Courtesy of Chong-Art Photography
  • The stage floor is built over a nine-meter deep pool to allow for water shows and fascinating aquatic effects | Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre | Steven Chilton Architects | STIRworld
    The stage floor is built over a nine-meter deep pool to allow for water shows and fascinating aquatic effects Image: Courtesy of Chong-Art Photography

The auditorium interiors, in their maiden reveal, combined immersive environments with technical wizardry, working with a flexible program that can be transformed from entirely utilising the 360 degree panorama, composed of 360 overhead LED screens, into a number of alternate configurations utilising only a part of the space. The concept design for the theatre was led by Dragone with consultant Auerbach Pollock Friedlander, who worked together to create a multi-disciplinary avenue for the display of performative arts. Twelve acrobatic hoists, three acrobatic tracks, trolleys, and two storage wagons that allow lowering scenic elements on to the performance area are all integrated above the stage and audience seating. A distinct specialty of the theatre is its flexibility for the incorporation of water effects even in more typical productions, while the stage floor itself is built over a nine metre deep pool, allowing it to be raised half a meter or dropped to full nine meters, accessed by three underwater scenery storage garages.

The theatre is located in a mixed-use development on the edge of Guangzhou among a relative homogenous context | Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre | Steven Chilton Architects | STIRworld
The theatre is located in a mixed-use development on the edge of Guangzhou among a relative homogenous context Image: Courtesy of Chong-Art Photography

The now completed theatre stands out among a slew of homogenised housing high rises forming its backdrop as part of a mixed-use development on the edge of Guangzhou. While it may seem to be dwarfed in verticality with respect to the towers, its distinct visual character, swirling form and popping colour fused with graphic remnant emblems of the region’s history and craft remarkably stirs things up. A potential future landmark, the theatre opens its doors to the public in 2021.

Project Details

Name: Sunac Guangzhou Grand Theatre 
Location: Guangzhou, China
Client: Sunac China Holdings Ltd.
Architect: SCA|Steven Chilton Architects
SCA Project Team: Steven Chilton, Roberto Monesi, Chuck Wang, Paula Isabella Saavedra Rosas, David Rieser, Natalie Dillon
Architecture and Design Management: Sunac China Holdings Ltd.
Auditorium Concept Designer and Technical Consultant: Dragone
Theatre Consultant: Auerbach Pollock Friedlander
Local Design Institute: Beijing Institute of Architectural Design
Concept Engineer: Buro Happold
Artist: Zhang Hongfei

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