Hong Kong’s Generic Cultural District

Call it déjà vu: five years after Norman Foster’s plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District was scrapped in the face of massive public controversy, another Foster plan for the district has been chosen.

On Friday, the authority in charge of developing the cultural district announced that Foster’s bid was selected over rival plans by Rem Koolhaas and local architect Rocco Yim. It’s not a surprising decision, but it’s a disappointing one, because Foster’s plan is by far the least interesting and most unambitious of the lot.

Foster’s original plan, unveiled in 2001, called for a giant canopy to be built over most of the 40-hectare site, but the government’s decision to let a single property developer take control over the entire district angered the public, forcing it to send the entire cultural district concept back to the drawing board.

Last August, three new master plans were unveiled to the public. Each of the plans had to conform to a set of basic criteria, including the same amount of performance space, exhibition space (including a new contemporary art museum, M+), park space, commercial space and residential space. (The commission was to develop a master plan only; the design of its specific components will be determined later.)

Foster, Yim and Koolhaas took this mix of ingredients and produced plans that were strikingly different. Foster’s plan called for a giant city park with most of the residential, commercial and institutional uses clustered in a single waterfront strip. Yim imagined the site as a vast, multi-leveled, green-roofed complex linked by various levels of passages. Koolhaas’ plan was by far the boldest, with a strong conceptual element that saw the cultural district broken into three urban clusters, inspired in spirit by ancient Chinese villages and in form by Hong Kong’s traditional urban fabric, street markets and all. Each cluster would be separated by green space, some of which would be used for farming.

Foster’s plan has proven popular with the public because it is easy to understand and it places so much emphasis on its green space. Hong Kong is certainly in dire need of a good urban park; the West Kowloon site, which juts into Victoria Harbour and has dramatic views of the city skyline, passing ships and the outer harbour, is a great location for one. The park will mimic the Hong Kong countryside, with native plant species and soft landscaping — exactly the opposite of Hong Kong’s other parks, which are full of concrete and rigidly administered to discourage the kind of activity one normally associates with parks, like kicking around a soccer ball, having a picnic or wandering freely through the woods.

But the park is also the plan’s greatest shortcoming. Foster has placed all his eggs in one basket: aside from the park, what is there? (Keep in mind that the other two plans had the same overall amount of park space, too.) The built portion of the site consists of “tree-lined streets and intimate lanes” and “colonnaded avenues” — and that’s about it. Renderings show a pleasant neighbourhood of glossy buildings and leafy pedestrian streets. It looks like a slightly nicer version of Tsim Sha Tsui East, the 1980s-era master-planned district about a mile away from West Kowloon. It also looks like the rebuilt Potsdamer Platz in Berlin. And the waterfront Concord Pacific redevelopment in Vancouver.

That’s exactly the problem: Foster’s West Kowloon could be anywhere. It’s plug-and-play urbanism, appropriate for any waterfront location anywhere in the world. It is as much at home on the shores of Victoria Harbour as it would be on Vancouver’s False Creek or on the banks of the East River in New York. Unlike Koolhaas and Yim, whose plans drew inspiration from Hong Kong’s urban fabric — Koolhaas from the frenzied urbanism of Mongkok or Wan Chai, Yim from the new typology of vertical urbanity — Foster checked all the politically-correct boxes (carbon-zero, mixed-used, pedestrian-oriented) and called it a day.

In many of his essays and books published throughout the years, Rem Koolhaas has explored the concept of the “generic city,” a globalized non-place defined by airports, hotels and shopping malls — a concept that Koolhaas developed using Hong Kong as his model. His plan for West Kowloon was an attempt to refute the generic city; Foster’s plan simply reinforces it.

Foster is a good architect. I’m willing to trust that, unless the implementation of his plan is horribly mismanaged, it will create a cultural district that is comfortable and pleasant. After all, Foster is responsible for one of Hong Kong’s greatest buildings, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation headquarters, which is entirely permeable at street level — creating a public space used to great effect by Hong Kong’s Filipino maids — and just as striking now as it was when it first opened 26 years ago.

Foster also designed the new Hong Kong International Airport at Chep Lap Kok. It is often considered to be one of the world’s greatest new-generation airports because of its marvellous efficiency and user-friendly spaces. But it’s also one of the blandest. It has none of the striking qualities of other recent air terminals, like the Iberian whimsy of Madrid-Barajas Terminal Four, or the eclecticism of Singapore-Changi’s Terminal Three. In many ways, Foster’s vision of the West Kowloon Cultural District is the same as his vision for the airport, which is functional, efficient and easy to use, but not particularly imaginative or interesting.

When it is completed, the cultural district will form an integral part of a new city centre being built in West Kowloon. The vast Union Square complex — a fortress-like complex of highrises built on top of a big shopping mall — has already been completed. The terminus of the new high-speed rail link to mainland China is currently under construction. Together, they represent the city-as-international-airport: slick, comfortable, cosmopolitan, easy to enter and easy to leave.

That’s the city people will experience in 2026, when they arrive by train to the newly-completed West Kowloon, emerging from the station to a vista of gleaming buildings, shops and abundant greenery. Welcome to anywhere.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday March 06 2011at 11:03 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

2 Responses to “Hong Kong’s Generic Cultural District”

  • C. Szabla says:

    “Plug and play urbanism” says it well. You could easily add any number of recent complexes to the list — in Tokyo, the Midtown development or Roppongi Hills; in New York, increasingly, the ensemble of towers emerging from Ground Zero.

    In a way, the standard, high quality neo-modernism they opt for represents a return to normalcy for institutions – museums, universities, governments (when they can afford it), major corporations, and developers aiming at a “tasteful” class of affluent consumers – that have rarely been inclined to risk. Over the last decade, they were captivated by the “Bilbao effect” that flamboyant architecture could have on their visibility. But, historically, they have inclined more toward sober, dependable styles – the kind that built cultural centers that all look a little like Lincoln Center. It’s no accident that, in the US, many of the institutions that have recently hired Foster – or that other “court architect of the establishment”, Renzo Piano – all had their previous headquarters or campuses designed by the likes of McKim, Mead, and White in the early 20th century, and updated by Max Abramowitz or I.M. Pei 50 years down the road.

    The previous decade’s starchitects didn’t really witness much locally-influenced architecture, either, but they at least made a habit of producing landmarks, participating in a dialogue about what local identity was and could mean. But you could not only easily forget which of Piano’s glass hallways you’re standing in, you could legitimately wonder whether it was actually one of Foster’s: in fact, it’s legitimately difficult to tell the difference between some of the renderings above and Piano’s vision for Columbia University’s new campus. You have to hope that the institutions they design for are less cautious with the art and thought they produce than they are about their outward appearance.

  • JC says:

    Sure, there’s nothing earth shattering about Foster’s design and I originally thought it was boring but the more I begin to appreciate the benefits. First, it will have more space for the art community than the other 2 designs. It also recognize the fact that in order for the WKCD to be successful, it needs to be a destination.

    I thought that Yim’s design was fine as well.

    Actually, my beef was precisely with Rem Koolhaas’ design.

    Rem Koolhaas’ is an piece of urbanistic/architectural fantasy. In the summer, no-one would want to stroll on the vast and useless patches of grass; it will be far too warm and provide no shading. Actually, that’s pretty much the situation right now and every time I went, I was pretty much alone in the vast flat and empty space of WKCD. Rem’s “green spaces” are planted there just to support the conceptual design, not to provide a functional and pleasant space for its users. Access is also an issue; those three “villages” are disconnected; there wouldn’t be a nice flow between them. Again, all theory. And the main theater is outdoor? Unusable in January and February, and as soon as it rains, well…
    I could go on…
    Koolhaas’s design is an artistic statement, a museum piece which should stay that way. It’s not a design to be implemented.
    I am extremely glad it lost.