Wuhan unveils spectacular statement buildings

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 December, 2014, 5:30pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 December, 2014, 5:45pm

It's a big week for the city of Wuhan. Tomorrow sees the capital of Hubei province inaugurate two of the most spectacular entertainment venues ever built: the Wanda Movie Park - the world's first entirely indoor theme park - and the Han Show Theatre, featuring a permanent show by artistic director Franco Dragone, of Cirque du Soleil fame.

The first of five major entertainment venues being developed for the city by the Dalian Wanda Group, the buildings are also the anchoring projects of a new 2km canal-side cultural district that includes homes, offices, shops, bars and restaurants.

Both were designed by London-based entertainment architects Stufish, the practice behind some of the most complex, startling and seminal rock shows of all time (The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, U2, Madonna, Lady Gaga), and masterminds of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Stufish's first built projects in China, and first permanent structures in the world, they are bombastic yet sophisticated and theatrical, and hi-tech.

Coming 18 months after the death of the studio's influential and charismatic founder, Mark Fisher, they represent a particularly poignant milestone. "Mark would be amazed and proud to have achieved this," says Cristina Garcia, his widow and a principal at global architecture firm KPF in London.

The most exhilarating features of both projects have made it from the earliest concept stages through to the final design. The Han Show Theatre still has the lantern-like form, colour and appearance of early discussions (the vertical columns on the building's ground-floor podium level symbolise the lantern's tassels), as well as its facade of 18,000 red aluminium LED discs based on the ancient and symbolic jade "bi" discs (used in burial rituals) of the third century Han dynasty.

Inside, a white-and-gold atrium "gives you this sense that light is pouring out of the bottom of the lantern and everything inside is glowing", says project architect Jenny Melville, and the atrium's glass ceiling enables visitors to see the intricate external cable net structure above holding the discs in place.

The jet-black auditorium of the Han Show Theatre comes with textured and faceted black walls, while for shows Stufish designed three of the world's largest moving LED screens, manipulated by robot arms, and a transformable auditorium that sees a 1,000-seat section swing apart to reveal a 10-metre-deep diving pool and another block of 1,000 seats, which descends to join the action.

"You won't find that sort of audience experience anywhere else in the world," says Ray Winkler, Stufish's managing director.

The Wanda Movie Park comes with an array of show-stopping elements; it, too, remains faithful to initial hair-raising renders. Its undulating shape and golden hue were inspired by Wuhan's ceremonial bronze Bianzhong bells that seem to be "knocking into each other in a sort of architectural cacophony", says project architect Maciej Woroniecki.

Its wavy and sinuous geometry breaks up the building's 280-metre length and 100,000-square-metre floor area, while the terraced landscaping around the structure, where visitors can stroll and sit, harks to the stepped agricultural fields of Hubei.

The building's entirely LED-illuminated exterior is composed of close to 11,000 bespoke fabricated panels and covered in fluorocarbon paint designed to make the cladding self-cleaning in the rain.

The theme park's entrance - a column-free canopy in the shape of a partly upturned bell - appears to float, and once inside visitors walk into an atrium with animated LED facades that lead to six immersive experiences or "multi-sensory rides" spread over three floors.

Devised by international visual effects experts Industrial Light and Magic and Pixomondo (responsible for much of the visual effects in Star Wars films and Game of Thrones, respectively), the "rides" are intense, says Woroniecki, and feature a mixture of 3D visuals, seat movement, live performances and sensorial or other effects such as smell, wind and water.

Such extravagant and narrative-driven architecture was a trademark of Fisher throughout his 30-year career. "He had a wild imagination," says Garcia. "He liked things to be big. He loved baroque and rococo, and was not at all interested in the ordinary or the minimal."

He had a wild imagination. He liked things to be big. He loved baroque and rococo, and was not at all interested in the ordinary or the minimal
Cristina Garcia, architect and widow of Stufish founder Mark Fisher

His architectural training and his hiring of architects as designers meant he was able to bring a rigour and understanding of architecture, engineering and technology to entertainment design that set him apart. "Mark raised the bar to the point where you had to have an architect involved in a stage show because they were becoming more and more complex to pull off," says Winkler.

Fisher was the pioneer of super-large touring video screens, the 700-square-metre LED screen the practice created for U2's 1997 PopMart tour setting a benchmark for ever-bigger LED screens. He was also the first to use modular structures and kits of parts to do away with inefficient scaffolding.

"Mark was also very good at understanding trends in technology," says Winkler.

That set him apart from most of his peers, as did his sketching abilities and grasp of the power of high-quality visualisations, animations and renderings. Above all, says Winkler, Fisher was able to translate the ideas of entertainers into something that could actually be built.

Overseeing the design of such extravagant structures on the other side of the world was not without its challenges, especially given the speed at which things happen in China (construction for both projects took barely 18 months each, at least twice as fast as a similar project in Europe).

Culturally, Stufish, a boutique practice with 22 employees, could not have been more different from Dalian Wanda, one of the world's largest developers and a company with a traditional hierarchical structure. There were language barriers and cultural nuances to be overcome, as well as questions of taste, such as when the seats Stufish had designed for the Han Show Theatre's VIP area were considered too "slim" by the client. "In Chinese culture, the most important person has the biggest chair with the deepest cushion," says Melville. "Our idea of what was refined was completely different."

Garcia, who describes Fisher as "an architect at heart", says he would be overjoyed at having created something that will be part of a city and people's lives for many years to come. She adds: "My secret wish is that the buildings become icons for the city, like Bilbao's Guggenheim museum."

There is every chance her wish will become a reality.