Harbin Opera House, designed by MAD Architects, opened last December. Benny Shaffer

A curvy new opera house is part of a plan to make Harbin, in northeast China, the “Venice of the East.”

It’s only May, but the international architectural press has already highlighted the Harbin Opera House, designed by the bad-boy architect Ma Yansong, as one of the year’s most interesting new buildings. On the glossy web pages of Dezeen, ArchDaily, and their equivalents, fantastical images of it proclaim that the future is still coming, and has chosen to stop by the capital of China’s Rust Belt, wintry Heilongjiang province, en route.

But what does this building have to tell us about how architecture and high culture can revitalize regions that seem to be dead in the water? Can cultural infrastructure really offer cities a new lease on life?

During boom times, China’s leaders bragged that the economy had done in 20 years what took the West 200. The flip side of this staggering pace of change is that certain Chinese regions have careened right into the post-industrial doldrums of American cities like Detroit and Buffalo, or anywhere once dependent on manufacturing, but no longer.

Heilongjiang, in the far north, is such a place. Its economy, based on oil extraction and heavy industry, flourished in the 1960s, but as the global economy transformed, local producers found themselves unable to compete with the quality and prices available from foreign competitors. The decline left communities limping by on subsidies, and spurred migration to China’s more prosperous cities.

Harbin today. (Benny Shaffer)
Saint Sophia Cathedral in Harbin’s Daoli district. (aphotostory / Shutterstock.com)

Harbin is a ruin of its former self, a city founded by Russian colonists in the late 19th century and once known as “the Paris of the East.” Subtract the beauty left by the internationalism of the decaying city center—the Russian Orthodox churches, the grand boulevards—and you could say the same about Changchun, Shenyang, Shijiazhuang, or many of the Chinese cities whose economies revolved around manufacturing.

These conditions were beautifully, albeit morbidly, captured in the 2014 film Black Coal, Thin Ice, a noir thriller set in an unidentified city in Heilongjiang. The ruined architecture makes for an evocative and complex backdrop, but the communities that have been undone by economic globalization are harder to capture. What is clear is that drug use, alcoholism, crime, and many other social problems have been exacerbated by the demise of industry in China’s Rust Belt.

Harbin’s population stands at about 5 million and keeps growing (according to sometimes unreliable official statistics), albeit slowly in comparison with other Chinese cities. Population growth may attest more to the misery in the surrounding countryside than Harbin’s own dynamism. It remains deeply poor compared to China’s boom towns. Even by the government’s own inflated figures, the disposable income of residents is a fraction of that in Shanghai, approximately 28,000 RMB a year (about $4,300) compared to almost 48,000 (about $7,300).

Enter Ma, China’s answer to Rem Koolhaas, whose museum is the latest and most grandiose attempt to capture the “Bilbao Effect,” so called after the success of the Spanish city of Bilbao in rebranding itself with an iconic museum, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Bilbao. While cultural (and financial) capital becomes ever more concentrated, the dream of creative rebirth can be a seductive Pied Piper for administrators of languishing cities. After all, if every reader of design websites knows where Harbin is, then a full-throated recovery can’t be far off, right?

Harbin’s leaders have voluptuous plans to transform their town not into a Paris, but a “Venice of the East,” as the city is situated in wetlands (which are unfortunately frozen for much of the year). The Jiangbei district north of the river will host high-tech industries; the Harbin Institute of Technology, one of China’s better universities, will feed it with intellectual capital. Architecture offers what seems like a convenient shortcut: the sign of a thriving urban culture, with tricky political questions of ownership and rights to the city sidestepped.

Like the sports stadiums plopped into American cities at the expense of local taxpayers, these big architectural symbols check the box for leaders who want to show visible, tangible indications of urban change. But sometimes, urban fabric is not visible, or tangible: It’s the feeling of home and safety we have in our communities, and the belief that the future of our town includes us.

(Benny Shaffer)

Bilbao, the oft-cited model for architecture-led regeneration, is a small city in a place with good weather and good food. So it’s not surprising that a museum could serve as a spark for tourism. More difficult to understand is how such a complex can help a top-heavy city of several million, which spends months of each year in subzero temperatures, fundamentally transform itself.

As urban economies seek to adapt to globalization and a new ecological consciousness, a shift away from manufacturing and resource-heavy industries may be inevitable—perhaps even a good thing. As for the fate of the opera house, it’s too soon to tell. Doubtless, it will inspire both pride and resentment among locals.

Ultimately, though, no one needs a cultural island (like the one the opera house is built on). We need cultural policies broad enough to encompass the entire city, extending the right to the city to all. Beautiful buildings are a great start, but when contemporary art and culture are seen as practical ways to revitalize decaying cities, the communities they are intended to serve can’t be left behind.

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