Arriving at the new Maritime Cultural District for the first time, Han-Na Chang, the world renowned Korean cellist and conductor notices that this intriguing building located at the end of the promenade is closed; its skin seemingly impenetrable, like that of a large stone. It is a curious and fascinating object … is it a spaceship, an enormous pebble, an extraterrestrial visitor? The absence of familiar detail makes it scaleless. The skin is smooth and shiny as though washed over by the surrounding natural elements. Its chameleon presence is compelling with a magnetic attraction. It is the new Busan Opera House and Chang has come to visit it prior to a performance that night.
The form of the building is reminiscent of Korean stone art or Suseok that has marked important sites within the landscape for centuries. Marking the new Maritime Cultural District with the Busan Opera House pays respect to shamanistic belief that nature is alive and that large-scale elements have souls. Applying such a metaphor to an opera house and the artistic and public life that will evolve resonates with this Korean tradition.
While the Opera House is not yet open to the public, the entry point is through the disguised, lower entrance restricted to staff, back of house deliveries and services in preparation for the coming day.
A crack in the mirror-finished surface announces that the main entrance to the building is about to open. It lowers down like a gangway and then as Chang begins to walk the ascent she feels as though she is boarding a spaceship. Moving up the grand stairway to the foyer she is impressed by a soaring void rising 45 metres above her head. The shell is cocoon-like, finished internally with soft padded material, enveloping the space and patrons within. The acoustic atmosphere is articulated yet natural. Clear and precise internal volumes are juxtaposed against the curved, egg-like shell, enhancing the entrance experience.
On the harbour side of the foyer, a portion of the façade slides away creating a huge picture window overlooking the harbour to the southeast, framing the entry of the harbour and the mountain skyline of Yeongdo-gu. The visual connection to nature is an important element of the foyer and its versatility.
The Opera Theatre and the multi-function Concert Hall are placed one above the other to make a compact building footprint, minimising its impact in the park and maximising open space for outdoor performances and leisure. The superposition of the performance halls introduces a dramatic verticality to the foyer. The space imposes with its grandeur.
Chang is meeting a friend at the Sky Restaurant and takes the escalator up through the foyer volume to the exhibition space and then another to the restaurant level. A long, elegant bar stretching 30 metres fills one side of the restaurant, while tables adorn the other. They are placed alongside the large picture window overlooking the bay and landscape beyond. At a rise of 34 metres above the ground, Chang and her friend are struck by the dramatic and captivating view.
They move to the VIP lounge for coffee and enjoy this relaxing space which overlooks the entrance and the foyer below. From here they also have a glimpse of the administrative spaces, centrally located in the building over 3 levels.
It is now time to go up to the top level to assist with a matinee performance in the Concert Hall, a wonderful multipurpose venue. It is explained that the hall is a volume within a volume to keep the venue quiet and free from distraction. The experience within is intimate and clear, complemented by a smooth reverberance allowing the music to resonate with perfection. The concert is received with enthusiasm.
The hall is rectangular in shape and its flexible design allows for multiple types of performances. The basic “shoebox” form generates strong early lateral reflections for excellent orchestral acoustics while not placing limitations on the other performance types and usage that can take place.
The stage location is highly configurable; allowing end stage, corner stage, in-the-round, thrust, promenade, traverse and arena style arrangements. Seating can be flat or raked, or entirely stored away adjacent to the hall. Inclusion of some automated stage risers and other machinery help minimise the time and personnel required to reconfigure the space. The ceiling is flat with a tension wire grid, making it easy to support any type of theatre lighting and set pieces.
The hall is equipped with “active/electronic architecture” in order to achieve a broad range of acoustic characteristics suited to match the events within. This advanced and modern type of enhancement system is designed to complement the natural acoustic of the building. It works through the use of many small, hidden loudspeakers and microphones that are architecturally integrated throughout the walls and ceiling. It is the only type of variable acoustics system that truly allows a space to be optimised for a wide range of uses, changing from convention, to drama, to orchestral concert mode at the press of a button.
All together, this highly flexible and dynamic hall is sure to remain fully booked and be the envy of more traditional and static venues.
Following the concert, Chang and her friend go back down to meet a colleague who plays in the orchestra and is taking them on a familiarization tour back stage. After passing through security they take the lift down to the production, rehearsal and performer’s amenities. The space is alive with activity; a ballet rehearsal is about to commence and music fills the air. They move on through the lounge to the staff cafeteria which can accommodate up to 300 people at one time.
The view from the cafeteria is similar to the Sky Restaurant but much closer to the ground. At night, lights from ships and the foreshore sparkle on the water. On the way to the stage, they pass the warm up and green rooms, costume room, conductor and soloists’ rooms. It is a rare thing and appreciated by all the performers that everyone is accommodated on one level. Musicians detest carrying valuable instruments up and down stairs.
Behind the performers’ area are the production spaces with the workshop for stage set manufacture and assembly. These areas are served by 4 large goods lifts that connect all 4 levels; the delivery level, production and performers’ level, the Opera Theatre and the multi-function Concert Hall stages. These lifts are loaded directly from the delivery bay with enough space for several semi-trailers at once.
Staff parking is also located on the delivery level and accommodates staff parking together with a taxi drop off and pick up area as well as a staff entrance, all complementing the external car park.
A brief visit to the stage reveals that it is a world class facility with a fly tower soaring to 42 metres and a generous back stage. It is agreed that Busan has learned well from recent trends in opera house design and construction.
And now it is time for Chang to return to the main foyer to soak up the atmosphere prior to the highlight of her day; she is conducting the orchestra for the inaugural performance of Puccini’s 1926 opera “Turandot”. As her friend is seated, she glimpses into the Opera Theatre which is planned in a traditional horse shoe configuration, well proven to provide great sightlines and excellent acoustics. The interior finish is quite dark, the floors and chairs black with strips of light guiding the public. The balconies are edged with red and the walls are golden. The stage curtain appears to wrap around the entire theatre, creating an exciting new aesthetic for a classical proscenium. As it wraps around it seamlessly becomes a solid, forming a reflective surface with carefully designed undulations to support the richness of the acoustic experience. Staging of the production is on a grand scale and wonderfully presented, taking full creative advantage of the latest theatre technology. Chang slips back stage to join the orchestra and continue the warm up. Once the curtain rises, the performers and musicians alike are exhilarated to be “at work” in the new venue. The performance is received to rapturous applause; the staging and acoustics of the Opera Theatre are deemed to be world class.
An excitement can be felt throughout the city, as a major performance that is part of the Busan Festival of the Arts is about to begin. Chang joins 20,000 people who are expected to gather in the landscaped amphitheatre; ten times the capacity of the Opera Theatre. For these larger events, the backstage façade slides up creating a stage open to the park. This external stage is equipped like an indoor theatre and allows for stadium-scale shows. The newly-created hill with a rake to the rear forms a bowl for unobstructed viewing of the stage.
A permanent surround sound audio system is discreetly installed along its perimeter, similar to systems at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago and the New World Symphony Centre in Miami. However, because the loudspeakers are largely hidden here in Busan, the soundscape sensation is perceived as being magical.
When the rear façade is open for an amphitheatre stage event, there is an enormous built-in media wall displaying the event above the stage for better viewing from the rear. This screen is a real surprise; it is highly visible when operating either day or night, but when it is turned off it is invisible to the eye. It is impressive to have live footage shown on this massive display! The images shown are visible from the mainland and attract attention to the activities and excitement of events occurring at the centre.
The media wall is low-energy and environmentally friendly, built from thousands of small LED lights embedded in the exterior of the operable rear stage facade. It is also used to broadcast performances from the main interior halls to the outdoors, complete with immersive audio! This creates a new and exhilarating way for more of the public to engage with the arts and the building at large.
When there is no performance being shown and the back stage is closed, the media wall allows the building to still come alive, exhibiting the work of emerging digital media artists.
At midnight this fascinating building closes. Its form is ever-changing…even in the moonlight one can see subtle light dancing in its highly reflective skin. Is it titanium or tinted and polished stainless steel? The skin is perforated along strategic contours to create invisible gutters to collect rainwater for reuse within the opera house and surrounding park. PV solar cells embedded in the skin of the façade generate sufficient power to run the external media wall as well as contribute to the general operation of the opera house. They are optimally positioned and included in the areas with the best angle for solar exposure.
Sections of the smooth, shiny façade are translucent or transparent allowing partial views into the volume depending on the time of day; at night internal lighting glows brightly while during the day light and views from within and without are possible.
It is the end of an extraordinary day for Han-Na Chang and she is delighted to have contributed to the success of Korea’s most recent cultural addition; Busan is now well-served by its internationally acclaimed Opera House.
Location: Busan, South Korea
35° 6’32.00″N, 129° 2’44.82″E
Design Team: Thierry Lacoste, David Stevenson, Angela Rowson
Acoustic and theatre design: Arup Acoustic-Christopher Sims, Larry Tedford, Chris Field