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Creating a Masterpiece

The greatest architectural triumphs invariably have attached to their legend a dramatic story of trials, tribulations, headaches and heartaches. The end result is inevitably a masterpiece that shapes the city around it well into decades and centuries to come. If the twists and turns in the story of a development are at all correlated to its longevity and impact, the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) is most definitely a superstar in the making. LOFT takes a look at the project’s road to realisation thus far and the inspirations of the design team tasked to its epic undertaking, Foster and Partners.

Following an appeal from Hong Kong’s Tourism Board to facilitate more cultural event venues in the city, the SAR Legislative Council first proposed the development of WKCD in 1998. The project was initially suggested as a drawcard to boost Hong Kong’s international standing as a cultural hub. However, since those first discussions much has been made of the role of the district as a place to showcase and nurture local talent, and to enjoy for local residents.

This shift in public vision marked the first input from the people of Hong Kong, and set the tone for the project from that point onwards. Residents have had a say at virtually every juncture, which, while ensuring public satisfaction, has blown out the timeline for completion significantly.

After announcing a worldwide design competition in 2001, the Hong Kong government chose Foster and Partners’ giant ‘Canopy’ design as their frontrunner from 109 original submissions. Following an invitation for proposals from developers to build the arts hub, Foster and Partners were appointed architects for the Cheong Kong / Sun Hung Kai bid. However, after an appeal for public opinion in 2004, the single-developer bid was panned. Respondents feared a single-packaged structure would see the plan focus on the development of a building rather than on what was best for and favoured by the Hong Kong people. The design was scrapped and Foster and Partners forced back to the drawing board.

Following the establishment of the WKCD Authority (WKCDA) in 2008, the second, three-part public engagement exercise was initiated, firstly to determine what exactly residents wanted to see in the 40-hectare district.  Feedback indicated the most desired characteristics of the space would be ambience, educational elements, green and environmentally sustainable spaces with traditional nuances, and facilities and activities for the benefit of both local artists and residents, and international tourists.

The WKCDA shortlisted three firms to compete for the design of the space – the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, Rocco Design and Foster and Partners. After phase two of the second public engagement exercise, Foster and Partners again emerged victorious in March 2011 with their ‘City Park’ design.  Third time being a charm for the firm, it would seem.

Foster and Partners took very closely to heart the feedback of the Hong Kong people during the public engagement exercises.

Says Partner Colin Ward,  “During PE2, we heard again and again people asking for  ‘free’ public open space – ‘free’ not only in the financial sense – but ‘free’ in the sense that the space is for everyone, at any time. That is why we created some 23 hectares of quality open space for the public to enjoy – a staggering 60% of the district.  For us, the public spaces are the most important spaces.”

“We like to call our park and open spaces our 18th cultural venue – there are 17 core arts and cultural facilities as stipulated in the WKCDA brief – a welcoming accessible space that acts as a catalyst for creativity for artists and performers as well as the community.”

As far as inspirations are concerned, Mr. Ward says they needn’t have looked any further than the people and the city of Hong Kong.

“We studied the proportions of streets such as Lan Kwai Fong, and Shanghai Street in Kowloon, with their mixture of colonnades, alleyways, lanes and tree-lined promenades. We analysed Nathan Road – its signage, the retail face, the movement of cars and of people, in terms of quantum and percentage. We looked at the layering of the city, the activities that take place one above the other, as well as their physical proportions.”

“The dynamic of Hong Kong is about the very narrow pedestrian streets, which are very intense. We explored what makes these streets tick behind the facades. By drawing on all of these unique characteristics, we can replicate the urban DNA that makes Hong Kong such a fantastic city. We also gathered opinion from local people.  As part of our team, we established an advisory board with members from HK and further afield – all experts in their particular cultural fields.”

And what of the rejected ‘Canopy’ design? Lord Norman Foster says there were no regrets following the setbacks brought by its rejection. “The canopy was rooted in its time. Lots has happened in 10 years. Everybody has moved on. There is a need for much greater flexibility in terms of phasing and in terms of a multiplicity of possibilities.”

He says we must learn from the past. “Never be afraid to wipe your mind clean and start afresh. A clean sheet of paper with no preconceptions.”

In a city that seems to thrive, in a structural sense, on the adage ‘out with the old, in with the new,’ Hong Kong is in sore need of a cultural answer to our international counterparts. According to Foster and Partners, the flexibility and sustainability of the ‘City Park’ space are the key factors that will see the development stand the test of time and be recognised on a global scale, while also delivering on its promises to local residents. With the first phase of the project slated to open in 2015, and the second in 2026, it certainly seems that time will tell.


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