Thursday, March 10, 2011

West Kowloon Cultural District - Oops, he did it again!

It is official, that Foster won again the West Kowloon Cultural District - after the victory in the 2004 competition over hist competitors OMA and Rocco. While in 2004 it was the giant bris soleil, which wetted the eyes of the jury, now it is the the giant water front park.

The others won't be too sorry over the loss, I guess, as they walk away with a HKD 50 Million concept design fee each, a sum, unbelievable these days for a concept master plan only.

Although there lie seven years between the two competitions, nothing has changed much in terms of the content of that project: In 2004, hopes were high. The design brief for that competition was talking about a 'world-class' cultural center, the involvement of Centre Pompidou, Guggenheim and all big players in the cultural industry. Shortly after the announcement of the winning entry, both, Centre Pompidou and Guggenheim renounced their engagement, as it was culturally and commercially not feasible. The project was shelved. The government had to realize, that Hong Kong did not have any major art collection, nor any major art collectors, which would put the project on solid ground.

Hence, it took them another six years, to rethink the strategy. Eventually, they had to react to the cultural defeat in 2004. In the meantime, planning and construction for a major train station just next to the site is underway. The high speed train will connect Hong Kong with Guangzhou, Wuhan and other Chinese cities. It will be most likely the biggest singular arrival points for tourists, coming to Hong Kong. And they come with a lot of cash, which the city is trying to get out of them.

And here lies also the dilemma of the entire project: As the train stops in the middle of nowhere, the government was forced, to develop this land concurrently, not to let millions of visitors flood into barren land and get a bad start with the city. The idea of 'Hong Kong Culture welcomes you' was born: A shopping paradise for Bruce Lee action figures, dim sum restaurants, action movies and a beautiful view over the harbor. To upgrade the sentimental shopping mall, to fit into the self proclaimed image of 'Hong Kong - Asia's World City', western high culture should give a good alibi.

As culture did not succeed so well in 2004, the 2010 competition was putting emphasis on the 'people', trying to get support from the local community. It should be a place for people, for the Hong Kongers to enjoy and celebrate their hometown. For the same people, who have seen a steep rise in property prizes in recent years with an actual decrease in living area, yet a decline in income and salaries. They should enjoy the water front and a gigantic park in a fairly inaccessible part of a city, which lies in sub tropical climate with a heavy rainy season, typhoons from May to September, burning sun throughout most of the year. Usually people gather here closer to shelter and buildings, as the safety of a dry place can be a benefit here. And as (affordable) housing is still the main problem of the city, the need for culture is fairly insignificant, compared to that. Yet, what the city does lack is an urbanized waterfront, highly mixed use, programmatically dense and a larger portion of housing.

As the winning scheme puts this park at the waterfront, it certainly upgrades the value for the adjacent buildings, which we can imagine with very expensive flats, overlooking an empty park towards Hong Kong side. Yet, the scheme stays on the level of low density, which creates a rather smaller amount of built area. What a stunning view of course, and what a possible price tag attached...It is a scheme, which reveals the true intention of the project. To transform a disadvantaged site into a luxury property heaven. And for that, the scheme does it quite well.

I forgot to mention the aspect of culture: Shortly before announcement of the final results of the 2011 competition, the chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District resigned. Maybe him too, could not really find a good cultural reason for the project and gave up.

I personally think, the OMA entry is the best of the three projects. But it is also the most naive, trying to create an urban fabric, which in fact is really for the people, urban fragmentation, variety, scalar and programmatic change. Despite its naivety, it reminds me positively of a quote by Niemeyer, I read, when I started studying architecture. When Niemeyer was asked about his membership in the communist party, he said it is a duty for an architect to be communist, because his foremost responsibility is for the user, for the people. Unfortunately, naivety is a high value, most of the architects have lost in the last 20 years of accelerated property activities.

To conclude, I need to refer to developer client of ours, who had a brilliant idea at a conference, we attended about the West Kowloon Cultural District. He said, instead of giving the project to three firms to design only, the government should let ALL the architecture firms in Hong Kong, big or small, participate and design and build at least one building each.

We'll second that. And this would truly be a concept, worth HKD 50 Mil. And who knows, maybe we will see a third competition within the next few years and then, the winner hopefully is someone else.

© 2011, ice - ideas for contemporary environments

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