March 31st, 2014

Casting New Light on Architecture


Rendering of M+

In Hong Kong, a city with an increasingly toxic political atmosphere, where the future looks uncertain and just about every small endeavour is greeted by controversy, M+ is one of the few bright spots on the horizon. That’s not to say the 60,000-square-metre, HK$5 billion museum of visual culture has enjoyed a smooth ride; there has been grumbling about its entirely foreign cast of curators, its aloofness when faced with the political sniping of the local art scene and its ability to work with a budget that seems increasingly inadequate, given rising construction costs. But this is Hong Kong’s best chance at seizing its moment in the cultural spotlight, when the art market is booming and global attention is shifting away from the West – and, so far, M+ has been striking the right notes as it composes its identity as a fresh-thinking, innovative institution.

That was in evidence in its recent architecture exhibition, Building M+, a showcase of the museum’s future home and a sneak peek at its growing architecture collection. Hosted last January at Artistree, a cavernous exhibition space in the bowels of corporate Taikoo Place, the show greeted visitors with a procession of models depicting the six finalists in the international competition for the museum’s design. These were followed by a large scale model of the winner, by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, which came in for ribbing because of its stark, tombstone-like form. But it is clearly the best of a sorry bunch; somehow, despite the talent involved in the competition—including Toyo Ito, Renzo Piano, Shigeru Ban, Snøhetta and SANAA—most entries were haphazard and even goofy, with little regard for the interdisciplinary focus of M+, which aims to bridge art, architecture, design and film. (One of the designs actually consisted of boxes stacked upon one another like Lego pieces, as if to emphasize the difference between these different fields.) Though unexciting, the winning design at least offers the museum programmatic flexibility. “They won because they understood the importance of creating dialogue between these different platforms for culture instead of just compartmentalizing everything,” says museum director Lars Nittve.


November 28th, 2013

Future Festivals

Clockenflap 2012

Clockenflap 2012. Photo by Chris Lusher

Construction has only just begun on Hong Kong’s multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural District, but the 100-acre waterfront site has already become the city’s most coveted venue for outdoor events, with a string of festivals set to take place over the next three weeks.

Among them are Clockenflap, a three-day music-and-arts festival with a mix of international performers like Four Tet and Cantopop musicians like Ellen Loo; BloHK Party, a hip hop and electronic music festival featuring Pharrell Williams; and Freespace, an eclectic weekend event that will pair local music with dance performances, films and an informal market where visitors can buy artisanal crafts, clothes and food.

The three events will set the tone for the future cultural district, about a third of which will be set aside for a park, the first phase of which is slated to open in early 2015. “These festivals are totally related to the future of the park,” says Louis Yu, executive director of West Kowloon’s performing arts program. “We haven’t hired an architect yet, so when the architect arrives, we will be able to tell [him or her] very specifically what kind of space we need to do what we are already doing.”

For event promoters, the site’s allure is hard to resist. “People were blown away by the actual piece of land, this open space right in the middle of the city,” says Clockenflap festival director Mike Hill. “Standing in front of a stage and being able to see the water and the skyline, it’s gold,” adds music director Justin Sweeting. “It’s what makes us unique.”

When it first launched in 2008, Clockenflap took place at Cyberport, a high-end residential and office district on Hong Kong Island, where it suffered from constant noise complaints. “We were asked to turn it down, which didn’t really make sense. So it was literally Google Maps trying to find a suitable piece of land,” says Hill. They were drawn to West Kowloon’s open space and waterfront location, along with its proximity to the MTR, and moved the festival there in 2011.


May 21st, 2013

Blown Away

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Inflation exhibition Hong Kong

Lately, Hong Kong has taken on the airs of a carnival gone wrong. In late April, as a damp wind blew and the sky loomed heavy, Florentijn Hofman’s giant rubber duck floated into Victoria Harbour, igniting a media frenzy — the South China Morning Post ran no fewer than 12 articles on the duck — and a general wagging of the tongues (one satirical article reported Hong Kong’s air pollution had given the duck “a cute respiratory infection”). And that was before the duck mysteriously deflated into a sad yellow puddle.

The duck was brought in by the Hong Kong Tourism Board in collaboration with Harbour City, a giant shopping mall, and its presence has been accompanied by a kind of consumer mania as people crowd together to snap photos and buy duck souvenirs. Not far away is a kind of intellectual counterpoint: Mobile M+: Inflation!, a contemporary art exhibition of inflatable vinyl sculptures that runs until June 9. Seven artists and designers from around the world contributed massive works that are being displayed on a rough patch of vacant land that will soon be transformed into a new city park, which itself will be part of the multi-billion-dollar West Kowloon Cultural District.

“The idea for the exhibition came out of questions of what will be in that park,” says Pauline Yao, one of the curators at the forthcoming M+ museum of visual culture, which organized Inflation! “We’re interested in engaging with these questions around public art or art in public space, and to think about how normally public art tends to be sculpture-based, with certain assumptions about what is beautiful and pleasing.”


February 8th, 2013

The Space Between Notes

Xiqu Centre

Rendering of the Xiqu Centre

Early December was a busy time for Bing Thom. First, there was his 72nd birthday, followed shortly by an announcement that the renowned Canadian architect had won the competition to design the new Xiqu Centre in Hong Kong, the first of 17 cultural venues to be built in the West Kowloon Cultural District. But Thom looks nothing but energised the day after the announcement, as he stands inside the cultural district’s offices.

“Have you seen the model?” he asks, bouncing over to a scale model to show off the 1,780-seat, US$350 million centre for Chinese opera that will begin construction this year. When it is completed at the end of 2015, the Xiqu Centre will contain a large theatre, a 280-seat teahouse, educational facilities for 200 students, retail spaces and a series of gardens. (A smaller theatre will be added later.) When Thom’s design was first unveiled, its undulating, translucent form caused quite a stir, earning comparisons to a lantern, a curtain being pulled open and even, in less polite corners of the internet, a certain part of the female anatomy.

“I’m trying to capture the soul and essence of what Cantonese opera is about while giving it a contemporary expression of ambiguity,” says Thom. “Even though it’s not physically moving, the quality of light, the seasonal changes and the changing of the gardens with different colours will give the building a moving quality.”

The Xiqu Centre is a sort of homecoming for Thom. Born in Hong Kong in 1940, he left with his family for Vancouver when he was ten years old. After studies in architecture at the University of British Columbia and University of California, Berkeley, he worked briefly for Japanese architect Fumihiko Maki before joining Arthur Erickson’s office in 1972, overseeing a number of major projects including the Roy Thomson concert hall in Toronto and the ambitious Robson Square civic centre project in Vancouver.


December 19th, 2012

Free at Last

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Public Space, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf


When the Hong Kong public was invited to choose a master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District, they were met by ambitious presentations from each of the proposals. The most sophisticated pitch of all came from Norman Foster’s office, which provided seductively realistic renderings of their City Park concept, which included grassy meadows overlooking Victoria Harbour, replete with picnickers, kids kicking around a ball and kite-flyers.

This provided no shortage of amusement to cynics: “As if it would ever look like that — Hongkongers don’t like sitting on the grass!” That’s something I heard more than once. After all, this is a city where people won’t sit on a concrete step without first protecting themselves with a sheet of newspaper, and where putting a handbag on the floor is tantamount to licking crumbs off the linoleum.

But Foster’s plan won for a reason, and it wasn’t just the slick sales pitch. Public behaviour in Hong Kong is strictly regimented by design and regulation, but this is a deeply informal city at its heart — shopping malls may be popular, but even tycoons have a soft spot for dai pai dongs. You could see this last weekend at the Freespace Festival, a music, art and dance event on the waterfront of the future cultural district. There were people on the grass — and not just sitting, but also sleeping, playing games, picnicking and playing music.


May 2nd, 2012

The Bamboo Theatre


Standing inside the cavernous belly of the 800-seat West Kowloon Bamboo Theatre, bamboo master Ying Che and her head worker, Sunny Yim, gaze up at their creation.

“It’s very satisfying,” says Yim, a sturdy man with a boyish face who has been building bamboo theatres for nearly 40 years. “When you come to a performance, you can see the audience looking around, and you can tell that they’re impressed.”

Yim got into the trade when he was growing up in the old Hong Kong fishing village of Shek O. One day, when he was 15, a theatre was built near his home, and he climbed up to the top. “I wondered, how did they do it? That’s when I decided that I wanted to build bamboo theatres.”

Ying married into a family of bamboo masters going back three generations. Every year, she oversees the construction of 30 to 40 theatres, which are commissioned by villagers to mark Chinese festivals. Inside, they eat, drink and watch Cantonese opera. The theatres are built entirely by hand, usually by fewer than ten workers, and they are held together with nothing but plastic ties. The biggest theatres can hold up to 6,000 people.

“We eyeball everything,” says Ying. “We make a plan, but we don’t use tools. It’s tough work. You’re in the sun all day, so your skin gets tanned and wrinkled.”


January 21st, 2012

The Ghosts of Oil Street

Deserted building

Oil Street. Photo by Eric To

This story was originally published in the November 2010 edition of Muse, the new-defunct review of Hong Kong arts and culture.

It was a hot night when I sat inside the cluttered studios of the pirate radio station FM 101, six floors up inside an industrial building in Kwun Tong. I was speaking to one of the station’s founders, a rock musician named Leung Wing-lai, when the doorbell rang. Leung excused himself to go open the door. Three people walked in, including Ah Kok Wong, a composer who has been working with Kwun Tong’s artists to lobby the government against a new policy that made it easier for the owners of industrial units to convert their space into offices or hotels.

Wong told me about an Arts Development Council survey that was meant to determine exactly how many artists, musicians and other creative people are making use of industrial space. Unfortunately, few artists received the survey, so Wong and several others had taken to distributing it themselves. “I have my own studio, a band room and a studio used by the radio station, and we didn’t get copies at any of these places,” he said. If not enough artists completed the survey, he told me, the government would have no clear picture of the thousands of creative people that work in low-rent, run-down industrial buildings, and its new industrial “revitalization” policy would lead to unchecked property speculation, pushing out a huge chunk of Hong Kong’s artists, musicians and cultural organizations.

Leung returned to his seat. We talked about FM 101, which focuses mainly on arts, culture and music and was set up to protest against regulations that make it nearly impossible for a non-profit, community-based radio station to get a broadcast licence. A recent crackdown on the station’s fundraising efforts has forced its volunteers to pay for its operating expenses out of their own pocket, which has only been possible because the studio’s rent is low. “Without this kind of space, where would we go?” he asked.


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.”


December 7th, 2011

The City in an Art Museum

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Society and Culture by Christopher DeWolf

Paddling Home, Kacey Wong, 2010

It’s not often that you get a chance to build a museum from scratch, but that is exactly what’s happening in Hong Kong, where a long-awaited museum of contemporary art and visual culture will soon take shape.

The 40,000-square-metre museum, known as M+ — short for Museum Plus — will be the centrepiece of the West Kowloon Cultural District, an ambitious US$3-billion project whose birth has been nothing if not troubled. After struggling for years to settle on a master development plan that pleased the public, the district lost its chief executive when British cultural administrator Graham Sheffield abruptly stepped down last winter. He blamed the resignation on ill health, but two months later, he landed a plum new job as Director Arts of the British Council. The attitude of the Hong Kong arts community towards the district can be charitably described as cynical.

Amidst all of this controversy, however, M+ seems like a beacon of hope, if only because of the talent involved in its development. The museum’s director, Swedish museologist Lars Nittve, led the creation of the Tate Modern in London. Lead curator Tobias Berger, originally from Germany, shook up the Hong Kong art scene when he became curator of the city’s premier alternative art space, Para/Site, in 2005. Later, he left for Seoul, where he worked as curator at the Nam June Paik Art Center.

Nittve and Berger’s ambitions for M+ are not modest. “Every epoch and almost every place has its museum,” says Nittve. “Asia is still waiting for a museum that reflects its time and place.” His goal, he says, is to create a museum that does for Hong Kong what MOMA did for New York in the 1940s and 50s, by placing it at the very centre of the cultural zeitgeist. “It totally rethought how you work with collections, how you work with exhibitions,” says Nittve. “People had never seen anything like it before. It was super radical. And it reflected a turning of the tables in the global balance.”


March 6th, 2011

Hong Kong’s Generic Cultural District

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

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.


April 4th, 2010

The View from West Kowloon

The biennale of architecture and urbanism that took place in West Kowloon earlier this year was underfunded and underattended, but it was also an example of what shape Hong Kong’s future “cultural district” could take. The official plans call for museums, concert halls, public squares and other well-defined, well-regulated spaces, but what the biennale showed was that the most successful and imaginative uses of space are often those that are planned the least. By scattering installations along a waterfront promenade and using an overgrown vacant lot for artistic interventions, film screenings, forums and outdoor concerts, the biennale created its own ad-hoc cultural district, one that was far more thought-provoking than any government-imposed cultural centre could ever be.

Alas, big buildings make for better photo-ops than scruffy fields, so West Kowloon will eventually be dug up and turned into something more respectable. This summer, Sir Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaus and local architect Rocco Yim will unveil three new proposals for the district. Originally, the cultural district was conceived as a tourist attraction, but after it was revealed to be little more than a property-development boondoggle — a single property developer would be given the multi-billion-dollar contract to build the whole thing — it was sent back to the drawing board in 2006. Since then, it has ignited a wide-ranging discussion on the state of the arts in Hong Kong; whatever happens now, it seems clear that public pressure is on the government to ensure that the cultural district exists for the benefit of Hong Kong people, not just for property developers and the businesses that profit from tourism.


March 27th, 2009

Asking for Advice on West Kowloon

Posted in Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Canada, Public Space by Christopher DeWolf
YouTube Preview Image

I never thought there could be another major newspaper that would make the Montreal Gazette seem hip and with-it — but then I started reading the South China Morning Post. Whereas the Gazette at least tries to overcome its fuddy-duddy image as the newspaper of record for grey-haired West Islanders (sometimes quite successfully, as in the case of On Two Wheels, its insightful bike blog, or Andy Riga’s new city life blog), the SCMP has almost willed itself into irrelevance. Its website still hides behind an overly-restrictive paywall and it has made only the most hesitant steps towards new media. What it desperately needs is something like the New York Times’ City Room, but the SCMP either doesn’t have the resources or the will to do that.

But there’s hope. Earlier this month, the SCMP teamed up with entrepreneur and cultural critic Sir David Tang to host a forum to discuss the future of the West Kowloon Cultural District, a government-led effort to turn a swath of reclaimed land into a centre for the arts. The forum will be led by a panel of international cultural elites (see below) but the public will be able to ask questions. Interestingly, the SCMP has asked readers to send in their questions via YouTube, and the best of these will be shown at the event. The response hasn’t been overwhelming, to say the least (just three people have posted videos so far), but at least it’s an opportunity for those who might not normally attend a forum like this to make themselves heard.

I’m tempted to post a question myself, if I can think of a way to boil down all of my concerts about West Kowloon into a single coherent sentence. The entire project is terribly misguided, an opinion shared by just about everyone but the government itself, and the current discussion is as much about how to avoid a complete disaster as it is to create a successful cultural district. The official plan calls for three large theatres, a 10,000-seat performance venue, four museums, an art exhibition centre and at least four public plazas. Unfortunately, if that’s the recipe, the final product will be an utterly indigestible mishmash of giant mega-projects, not a lively and creative neighbourhood. It’s a bureaucrat’s vision of culture, the skin without the bones, an entire neighbourhood of Lincoln Centres and Places des Arts.