December 27th, 2011

Inside Foster’s Plan for West Kowloon

Posted in Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Environment, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf

When Norman Foster won the international competition for the master plan of the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong last spring, I was disappointed. I thought it was plug-and-play urbanism, a crowd-pleasing design that had too much in common with so many interchangeable urban neighbourhoods that have sprung up in the past 20 years.

Of course, there’s another argument to be made. While Foster doesn’t take any big risks, he gets the fundamentals right. On paper, his plan for West Kowloon is environmentally-sensitive, pedestrian-friendly, small-scale and full of greenery. Given that it is more than a cultural district — it will be home to thousands of residents, 16,000 workers, hundreds of retail outlets, 18 cultural venues and countless visitors — it’s possible to see West Kowloon as Hong Kong’s most ambitious experiment in urban planning since the creation of the New Towns in the 1970s, which laid the groundwork for decades of large-scale modernist tower block development. The cultural district is a significant and positive departure from that model.

I wanted to hear more about the plan from the architects who worked on it, so last summer, I paid a visit to Colin Ward, the amiable lead architect on Foster’s West Kowloon team. We spoke in a conference room with a view over Victoria Harbour, barges and ferries streaming through its waters like ducks in a lake.

Ward began the interview with a warning. “Exemplar cultural districts can be, if you’re not careful, terrible urban districts,” he said. He stressed the importance of what the Foster team calls the “19th venue” — the public realm. “Culture should be embedded in the city — wrapped in the city,” he says. “Two thirds of this brief is ‘city,’ the filler that goes in between the cultural venues.”

Of course, that raises the question of the cultural district’s first major challenge: its setting. The only reason the space for the cultural district exists is because it was left over from the vast Airport Core Programme reclamation project in the early 1990s, which created 3.4 square kilometers of new land to accommodate a highway and rail line heading out to the new international airport.

It still feels like leftover space. Most of West Kowloon is a muddled collection of big roads and huge developments like Union Square, a fortress-like complex that includes Kowloon Station, the International Commerce Centre, Elements mall and several enormous apartment towers. To the west is the entrance of the Western Harbour Crossing; to the east, a highway-like stretch of Canton Road.

Union Square

None of this was lost on Ward. “It’s a total nightmare,” he said, gesturing out the window, across the harbour, where the cultural district will take shape. “As an urban form it’s a series of disconnected, isolated pieces. I mean, just look at it. It’s like, oh my God, what a disaster.”

West Kowloon might be new land, but it is far from virgin; the success of the cultural district will hinge on its ability to undo the damage that has already been wrought on its surroundings. Foster’s plan calls for a network of broad elevated walkways that will branch out from the upper floors of Elements, gradually sloping down to the cultural district. (The district’s buildings will reflect the transition: taller next to Union Square, shorter near the waterfront.) Water taxis and ferries will serve the waterfront and still more footbridges will link the district to nearby Kowloon Park in Tsim Sha Tsui, King George V Park in Jordan and the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter. Ward told me the goal was to knit a bunch of stray threads back into the fabric of the city.

He also said that Hong Kong’s existing urban fabric — the “DNA of the city” — served as inspiration for the way West Kowloon will look and feel, but with a twist. “The question we asked ourselves is, how do we make this an extension of the city, but better?” said Ward. Foster’s solution is to banish cars and other vehicles to the subterranean depths of the district, leaving the ground level to pedestrians. Austin Road and other arteries will also be buried, which will not only make those footbridge links to surrounding areas easier, but will also allow people to walk straight form the entrance of the Express Rail Terminus into the heart of the cultural district.

When they get there, they will encounter a network of tree-lined streets that takes its architectural cues from old Hong Kong, most notably the sidewalk arcades that were once found throughout the city. Those covered sidewalks, in addition to street trees and water features, can lower temperatures by up to eight degrees on a hot summer day.

Cars below ground, pedestrians above

“The DNA of the city”

“Hong Kong is an incredible metropolis, but what it doesn’t do very well is public open space — places where you can take five minutes to relax,” said Ward. “The whole idea here is to look back at how we used to build in a sub-tropical climate, before air-conditioning.”

Those climate-friendly features are part of Foster’s long-term goal of making West Kowloon a carbon-neutral district. Other strategies will include the conversion of food waste into biogas fuel and the use of wind and solar energy to power the district’s buildings. If West Kowloon’s power and cooling systems are implemented as soon as possible, the district could be carbon-neutral as early as 2025.

The most controversial part of Foster’s plan is the 19-hectare park, planted with native species, that will take up nearly half of the cultural district’s site. Critics suggested that the green space would be more useful if it was broken up into smaller pieces scattered throughout the district. Some worried that, like Hong Kong’s other parks, it would be ineffectively managed by the government.

The criticism touches on an important point. Now that the master plan is complete, Foster and his team have only so much influence over the final outcome of the cultural district. Each building in the plan will now be tendered out to developers that may be tempted to compromise on some aspects of Foster’s guidelines. The government could also be tempted to cut back on some details, especially after an announcement that the project will be delayed by up to two years because of Express Rail construction, which could raise construction costs.

But the complex, multifaceted nature of the project could also help it avoid the conformity that hinders developments like Puerto Madero in Buenos Aires. Foster’s plan, though staid, has the potential to be a solid template for thoughtful architecture. We have a vision; the question now is how effectively it will be executed.


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