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Tucked between the sweeping valleys of the Tibetan Plateau and the mountainous Yungui highlands, the Chinese city of Dali is embraced on all sides by majestic landscapes. On the calm banks of Erhai Lake, the historic city is both a tourist hub and a cultural haven. For architects Studio Zhu-Pei, the alpine setting was the inspiration for a venue like no other: the new Yang-Liping Performing Arts Center.

Named for famed Dali-born dancer Yang Liping, the eponymous arts hub creates a sheltered indoor/outdoor theatre that invites the landscape into every performance. A sinuous canopy forms the centrepiece of the 8,155-square-metre complex, with the roof swooping down to meet the grass stage, creating elegantly simple terraced seating for visitors. It’s an architectural gesture that also opens a dramatic oculus behind the audience, framing the mountaintops above and bathing both audience and stage in natural light.

Accessible from the stage as well as trio of what the architects describe as “tree house towers,” the roofscape offers overflow audience seating while also opening up a viewing platform to take in a stunning natural vista. Finished in simple grey shingles, the roof is a contrast to the intricate wooden lattice that frames the soffit.

The ceiling’s wood tones and slightly irregular patterns amplify the roof’s cantilevered drama, with the weave-pattern installation lit at night in a warm glow. Past the stage, where the canopy lowers to meet the ground, the roof rises to accommodate indoor back-of-house space, as well as offices and a small cafe and shop. Here, an extruded roof rises above the oculus, mirroring the neighbouring sunken stage.

Recreating both mountain and valley, Studio Zhu-Pei’s design philosophy speaks to its geographic and cultural surroundings. Here, the building almost melds with the natural world. Underscoring a powerful sense of genius loci, the integrated topography also reflects the dualism of Ancient Chinese philosophy.

As the concept of yin and yang teaches, opposing forces are complementary, connected and interdependent. At the Yang-Liping Performing Arts Center, the mountain and valley, roof and soffit — and indoor and outdoor spaces — form a seamless whole.

Studio Zhu-Pei Unveils a Vessel for the Dali Landscape

The Yang-Liping Performing Arts Center channels ancient Chinese philosophy and melds with the natural world.

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