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Journey to the West

After 15 years, plans for the West Kowloon Cultural District are finally taking shape. Read on to find out about the project’s tumultuous history, the three proposals under consideration and what the critics say—and how you can actually influence the future of the arts in Hong Kong.

By Hana R. Alberts | Nov 04, 2010

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  • Journey to the West
    Foster + Partners, led by Lord Norman Foster
  • Journey to the West
    Rocco Design Architects Limited, led by Rocco Yim
  • Journey to the West
    Office for Metropolitan Architecture, led by Rem Koolhaas

Turning the massive swath of waterfront property in West Kowloon into an arts complex is like waging a land war against Asia. It’s insanely expensive, rife with slow-moving bureaucracy and overpowering mercenary interests, and lacks practical details—plus, no one can agree on how to do it right.

The end goal is deceptively simple: to create a cultural center for Hong Kong. Located on reclaimed land at the base of the brand-spanking-new International Commerce Center, the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) is meant to include performance venues, an outdoor space, a massive experimental museum and room for exhibitions—but also various places to dine and shop and stroll, and for residents to live and tourists to stay.

Finally, after over a decade of false starts, backtracks and endless debate, it looks like the WKCD is close(ish) to breaking ground. Three prominent architects have come forth with imaginative plans for the 40-hectare plot, and once one of them is chosen and finalized, the whole shebang will get sent to the Town Planning Board for approval in 2012.

It’s been a bumpy ride. Detractors have launched every critique under the sun, from complaints about cost to the emphasis on visual art over literature to the fear that, after it’s built, people won’t visit the darn thing.

To be sure, it ain’t easy to reconcile a well-meaning yet vague vision with a concrete plan. So the government needs your help. This is your last chance to give input before a final plan is chosen. So take a gander through our guide to everything you need to know about the WKCD, and scrutinize the three proposals. Then don’t forget to tell us—and the Hong Kong government—what you think.

1. City Park
Foster + Partners, led by Lord Norman Foster

WHO’S THAT?

In Hong Kong, this much-lauded Brit is the brains behind the zigzagged HSBC building as well as Hong Kong’s stunning airport. But abroad, Foster’s designed everything from the Hearst Tower in New York to the British Museum’s grand courtyard to one of the largest buildings in the world—Beijing’s new airport. His original plan for West Kowloon included a much-disparaged canopy covering most of the area.

PARKS & RECREATION

Lord Foster wants to turn most of the area into a giant city park packed with 5,000 trees. Sustainability and reducing emissions are two key goals. Behind a dense forest, crisscrossed with walkways and seating areas, the plan incorporates a stylish curved hotel that would double as a noise barrier. There’s also a 2.2-kilometer promenade, which would provide some coveted access to the waterfront and a place for strolling and biking in view of the Central skyline.

FOR THE ARTS

Arts and cultural facilities would be mixed with commercial developments and positioned along the whole eastern part of the district. In the west there would be an arena and exhibition center, and an opera house. The district would be linked by a sky-rail as well as an underground transport network.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

Head of design at Foster + Partners, Spencer de Grey, believes the plan links art quarters to the rest of the city, rather than leaving them isolated on the periphery.

2. Cultural Connect: Key To Sustained Vitality
Rocco Design Architects Limited, led by Rocco Yim

WHO’S THAT?

Local boy Rocco Yim has made a difference in his hometown, designing—among many other buildings—the iconic IFC complex as well as the iSquare mall and parts of the Chinese University and HKU campuses. Further north, he’s the architect of the Guangzhou City Library and the Guangdong Museum of Art, and he has also exhibited his work at the Venice Biennale.

FOR THE ARTS

Yim’s whole concept is inspired by a famous Chinese painting called “Along the River during Qingming Festival,” which spans a five-meter long scroll. His plan separates the area into three key parts, the centerpiece of which would be a “Cultural Zone” with arts facilities in the middle.

PARKS & RECREATION

The second designated area, a large grassed “Green Zone,” would slope down to Victoria Harbor, and a “City Zone” of apartments and offices would occupy the space near the Kowloon MTR station. The plan also includes a tramway (akin to Hong Kong Island’s beloved ding-ding) linking the eastern and western parts of the district, as well as a series of water taxis to shuttle visitors around the area and a new ferry port with service to the outlying islands.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

“This plan is not to create a landmark but to celebrate mundane, normal-looking public space. When you walk along the district, it is like exploring surprises in every step,” Yim told HK Magazine in August.

3. Project For a New Dimension
Office for Metropolitan Architecture, led by Rem Koolhaas

WHO’S THAT?

This Dutch architect’s out-there vision for the (fire-stricken and delayed) CCTV tower in Beijing was of a continuous loop rather than a building with abrupt edges. A cerebral fellow who favors the abstract, he’s even proposed a stripey revamp of the European Union flag. He’s also drafted designs for Prada stores, Seattle’s Public Library and the new Shenzhen stock exchange.

FOR THE ARTS

Inspired by traditional Chinese towns, this plan separates the development into three distinct village-like areas with two parks between them. Koolhaas has put the “Theatre Village” in the western part, which includes an outdoor venue seating 15,000. Another area would be devoted to a museum complex featuring exhibition space, as well as residential, business and education facilities.

PARKS & RECREATION

The “Middle Village” is modeled after a crowded Kowloon street, complete with a mix of commercial activities and a market. The area would be dominated by 30 hectares of parkland, designed to connect with the 21-hectare Kowloon Park. A bridge would be suspended above the water to link the area to the rest of West Kowloon and alleviate traffic congestion.

IN THEIR OWN WORDS

Says Koolhaas: “The West Kowloon development cannot be a wall blocking it from the rest of Kowloon. Instead it should serve as a window of Kowloon. It’s a pity that everyone wants to own the same view—in this case, the harbor view—but in fact the other sides of Kowloon are also interesting.”


PLUS: Understanding the major criticisms of the contentious district and commentator Vincent Ng's thoughts on each of the three proposals.

The obstacles WKCD had faced since 1996.

See how you can influence the future of the arts in Hong Kong at the Thematic Exhibition Gallery and InnoCentre, Kowloon Tong.

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