Until the opening of its extraordinarily sinuous opera house, Harbin, in China's remote and cold north-east provinces, has been mostly known for its annual blow-out ice-sculpture festival. However, the Beijing-based MAD Architects have pushed China's eighth most populous city to the top of the country's cultural league-table with a defiant flourish. 

Just a decade ago, a building like the Harbin Opera House could not have been made. But a combination of technological and engineering leaps, computer wizardry and fearless deep-pocketed clients has meant that now, for the first time, architects are able to give free-rein to their wildest imaginations. 

Set within the wetlands of the Harbin Cultural Island – an arts hub that, when fully open, will also include a cultural centre – MAD's 829,000 sq ft project is anchored by a curlicue comprising a grand theatre that seats 1,600, and a smaller theatre for 400.

Clad entirely in white aluminium panels, the opera house swoops and curls against the bleak landscape, at times resembling a thundering snow-drift and, at others, a hyper-stylised tented yurt. The primal references are deliberate, a not entirely subtle nod to the region's harsh climate and wild topography.

The grand interiors are equally breathtaking. Vast volumes are cut out of gigantic curving glass windows, acres of polished stone floors, and enormous timber-clad walls that dip and rise and bend like canyons. You can't help but think the heating bill will be impressive.

The naturalist swooping lines continue in the grand theatre where an organically ribbed cocoon of Manchurian ash wraps concert-goers in a warm aural lushness. Ma Yansong, MAD's founder and the project's team leader, likens the space to a wooden block that has been gently eroded by time and the elements.

The opera house, Ma adds, is 'a dramatic public space that embodies the integration of humans, art and the city's identity while synergistically blending with the surrounding nature.' Cue the maestro.