Chinese leaders plan to build a state-of-the-art national theatre next to Tiananmen Square to boost Beijing's international status but leading mainland architects have attacked the proposal as expensive and elitist. The design by French architect Paul Andreu is avant-garde, with the building in the shape of a giant bubble made of glass and titanium. Situated in the centre of a man-made lake, visitors will enter the theatre via an underwater passage. The National Grand Theatre - as it is called - will have a 2,500- seat opera house, a 2,000-seat music hall, a 1,200-seat theatre and a smaller venue of 300 to 500 seats for experimental theatre. With an estimated price tag of three billion yuan (HK$2.8 bil lion) and a 10-hectare site, some say it will overshadow the Sydney Opera House and the Lincoln Centre in New York. Work is due to begin in April despite widespread controversy over the plan. Four leading mainland architects voiced their opposition in an open letter published in the Journal of Ar chitectural Studies. They criti cised the plan as extravagant while China was still a poor de veloping coun try in need of funds for more urgent public construction and flood relief works. In their letter, the architects calculated each seat would cost almost 500,000 yuan to build, which would mean tickets priced at between 300 yuan and 1,000 yuan - too expensive for the average citizen. 'Beijing already has many theatres and concert halls. We should concentrate on improving and upgrading them, buying better sound and lighting equipment. This would be more practical. The opera house should be a 100-year project. We need not be in a rush,' their letter concluded. However, Hong Kong cultural critic Chow Fan-fu welcomed the idea of constructing a world- class theatre. 'As the capital of China, a big nation, Beijing should have built a theatre on such a scale many, many years ago,' he said. 'Worth it or not, it depends on how arts and culture are valued.' He said Beijing was yet to have a suitable place for opera performance. Its Century Theatre, which was the best but not designed for the purpose, had a small backstage area. He disagreed with the argument that the project should be delayed for other 'more urgent needs'. 'Now the situation is not that if they spend the sum on building the theatre, nothing is left for relief work. It is just a matter of how to distribute the funds,' he said. For a long time there had been an impression that the Chinese valued economic development to the detriment of cultural activities, he said. 'The Government should not always only take care of the poor, it has a responsibility to cater for the need of those who can afford cultural activities as well,' he said. In fact, many poor would support the project - as migrant worker Wang Hongjun did - out of national pride. 'We have been so poor we could not build anything here. But now we have money and are going to build the modern equivalent of the Forbidden City . . . The West should watch out, we will overtake you in 50 years,' Wang said.