CitySpeakXVII: The Battle for West Kowloon
30 October 2010
Three leading architects - Rocco Yim, Rem Koolhaas and Norman Foster - have developed concepts for the future of land earmarked for the West Kowloon Cultural District. Their three firms will join CitySpeak and explain why they have the best solution. Arts and architecture critics will join the moderate the event. Join this battle and discuss how to move forward with cultural in Hong Kong, and how to develop West Kowloon.
Detailed information is available on-line (http://www.wkcda.hk/pe2/en/conceptual/index.html). To check out the models see the latest calendar of events (http://www.wkcda.hk/pe2/forum/eventcal.php?langid=1)
Let me start by saying the obvious, i.e. conceptual plans normally don't go into too much detail, as they're only required to look at the big picture. So my response to them will also be in broad strokes.
Of the three conceptual plans, Rocco Yim's has shown more design details than the other two. It's supposed to be inspired by the famous long scroll "Along the River during the Qingming Festival" that shows detailed day-to-day activities of life in the Sung Dynasty. Turned into an animated scroll in the China Pavilion in the Expo, it's now a blockbuster on its way to Hong Kong. Rocco's idea is to create a space to promenade through as suggested in the Sung painting with waterways, bridges, winding paths and open air spaces that serve to connect with the venues. He also proposes to use old-style tramcars to move people on site.
I admire Roco's attempt to source his ideas from his own Chinese heritage, and think out of the box of contemporary Western design concepts. Don't we all get a bit tired of sporting the same looks on our buildings and urban spaces? But whether Rocco will rise up to this challenge and create something original, or just end up in doing a skin-grafting job is waiting to be seen.
On his proposed use of tramcars to move poeple: the question is, do we want a pedestranised space to be invaded by street vehicles? Trams are not known to be terribly efficient when it comes to moving a large number of people quickly in and out of a large area. Trams also can make a lot of noise; those who live along tramways can tell you that.
In the opening image of Rem Koolhass's plan, there 's a man looking really casual, sitting in a deck chair, enjoying the view from the rooftop of a run-down block. Koolhaas has picked out those back street and alleyway landmark features of Mongkok and Taikoktsui; even paddyfields from the old New Territories to spice up his design. All that is supposed to mirror the city. There's also a sort of hybrid space that reminds one of what Koolohass has previously designed for Prada or Gucci in New York. For the approach into WKCD, he challenges conventional wisdom and proposes to let the traffic flow in from the northwest instead of the southeast side of Kowloon.
Koolhaas's plan probably wants to create something that echoes aspects of Hong Kong's urban landscape. This may have an appeal to those who don't want WKCD to become a Western urban transplant that doesn't quite jam with Hong Kong realities, and consequently not meeting the needs of the wider public. But there's a saying that people who live in slums don't necessarily want to pray to God in slums; they want to pray in cathedrals with stained glass windows, columns and pipe organs. It's true that we don't want WKCD to become precious and elitist, we want it to be accessible and enjoyed by the people. But by creating familiarity will it make it more palatable conceptually?
As for following simple logic of the putting the door closest to where the population is densest, it may defy the findings that in most societies, 20% of the population consumes 80% of the goods. Cultural consumption is no exception to that.
Norman Forster's plan starts off by proposing to create a Central Park in WKCD. It goes on to offer some practical solutions to ease the traffic, e.g. building multi-levelled underground driveways, carparks, loading areas, passengers's pickup points etc. As well as renewable energy and low carbon emission. A sound isolation wall doubled up as a hotel. The MTR venilation tower turned into an architectural landmark. Not exactly headline grapping stuff. This coupled with the park idea have given Forster's plan a plain vanilla flavour. Nothing to raise eyebrows or kick up any storm of controversy, or so it seems. But if we remove the lid and take a good look into it, we'll detect subversiveness in this plan.
Mind you, here the cultural constructions seem to have taken a back seat to the park. What this is saying is, people are supposed to be first drawn to the park, then they might but might not wander into the theatres or museums. I have to admit that I'm intrigued by this concept. Is this a proletarian way to change the general perception that WKCD is only for the arts minority?
Parks, for a lack of better expression, is a great equaliser. Whether young or old, poor or rich, man or woman, they all can get something from visiting a park. What better conduit to draw people closer to appreciating arts than a park?
One final point: none of these three plans have given sufficient attention to what impact WKCD might have on the most vibrant and beautiful harbour in the world in their designs. Overlooking this is not only a mistake, but a crime.
Written by Benny Chia, Director, Fringe Club 2010-10
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