New Minimalism: Light and Shadow Take Center Stage in Neri & Hu’s Dramatic Shanghai Theatre Renovation

Neri&Hu’s New Shanghai Theater modernizes a character-less 1930s theater with heavy gray stone, fluted bronze walls and bold geometry.

Sydney Franklin Sydney Franklin

When American artist James Turrell said, “We eat light, drink it through our skins,” he was talking about light as the primary focus of experiential and sensuous art. The 1960s Los Angeles–born “Light and Space” movement influenced artists and architects alike to think about ways to create scenes that captivated audiences through perceptual phenomena such as light, volume and scale.

Neri & Hu adopted Turrell’s vision — especially that of his celebrated series of Skyspaces that provide unobstructed views of the sky — for a radical renovation of the New Shanghai Theatre, incorporating vertically carved apertures into a dramatic and dark space. The firm’s design modernizes the characterless 1930s theater with heavy gray stone, fluted bronze walls and bold geometry.

The renovation revives the long-neglected structure, which had gone through so many design iterations over the years that it had lost its original details. Neri & Hu sought to recall the clarity of the original architecture and unite its history with this contemporary aesthetic.

Shanghai Theatre Exterior in 1990 (left) and 2014 (right); photos by Li Wutian for Neri & Hu

Shanghai Theatre Exterior in 2016

The building’s rectangular façade is now clad in smooth stone that appears to hover above the ground floor thanks to the reflectivity of a fluted bronze wall, mimicking an undulating theater curtain. The ticket booth and entryway are offset from the sidewalk, which creates a covered plaza for gathering. This space blurs the boundaries between the public realm and private theatre.

The interior and exterior atriums are lit by the slits of sky that unexpectedly breathe life into the dramatic, cave-like theater. The secluded voids of light also add an airy and ethereal feel to the architecture. As visitors move further into the building, varying spatial and lighting configurations create a darker and more theatrical atmosphere.

While the pronounced structure suggests a dazzling internal program, the layout of the building is simple and accessible. The theater auditorium is set directly behind the entrance, staircases and restrooms. Office and dressing rooms are on the first floor.

Photos via Neri&Hu