Ma Dejun was stunned when he stepped out of Tiananmen West subway station and laid eyes on the 'duck egg' National Theatre for the first time. A tourist from Jilin province, he was unaware of the bitter controversy that has surrounded the project since construction began in April 2000. He gazed at the domed steel net with fresh eyes and wondered: 'What on Earth is that?' Once informed he was looking at the inner structure of the National Theatre, a 2.69 billion yuan masterpiece designed by French architect Paul Andreu, Mr Ma's incredulity turned to enthusiasm. 'It's really great,' he said. 'Even the Sydney Opera House couldn't be any better than that.' The titanium dome that will support the theatre's glass outer shell has been completed and the 6,000-seat complex is finally taking shape. And local people have forgotten the torrent of abuse the project once elicited from Chinese architects angered, among other things, by the fact it was foreign-designed. 'It certainly is splendid,' said middle-aged taxi driver Li Zhijie. 'I know it was designed by a Frenchman, but that doesn't matter. 'I'll tell you what is disgraceful, though - it's only purpose is to entertain the rich,' he added. Yao Chunhua, an elderly man selling maps to tourists near Tiananmen Square, agreed. 'It's of no use to me,' he grumbled. 'I'll never be able to afford to buy a ticket.' But such expressions of discontent are strictly the preserve of the over-40s. 'Beijing needs style like this to make the city look younger,' said 26-year-old Qi Ke, an office worker with a PR firm in the city. Student Gao Wenfeng was even more enthusiastic. 'I love it, the design is so passionate,' he said. The elliptical dome is the largest in the world built without a supporting central column, and forms the centrepiece of Mr Andreu's other-worldly National Theatre design. Work on putting the outer glass shell in place will begin in February after the Lunar New Year.