Tamar blues

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am

Have you seen the Tamar exhibition? It is well worth a look, to test your own alertness to fact versus fiction. There are four large models of the new government office complex, replete with drawings and even videos, in the lobby of the Queensway Government Offices. They give the public a chance to see what the four consortia bidding for the design-and-build project have put forward.

You are asked to choose which design you like: there is a form available to fill in. Should you have questions - such as what was the design brief, and what are the costs involved - there is nothing available for you to read. So, if you want to make a choice, you are presumably going to choose based on the overall look of the models and plans.

On the day I went to see the exhibition, there were about six other people there. While looking at one of the models, I overheard one of the visitors say to her companion that she liked the long waterfront promenade. The video for that model was showing how nice the promenade would be. Indeed, the sales pitch was all about the promenade: all four models paid a lot of attention to its design. The focus on the promenade is not surprising, since the government and consortia know this was a key promise to the people of Hong Kong. They know the public wants open public space and greenery.

However, take a closer look at the models: you'll see a small explanation saying that the waterfront section is not a part of the project. That means the bids are for the design and construction of the office complex area, not the entire waterfront promenade.

No doubt there will be a promenade along the harbourfront, but it won't be based on one of these models on exhibition. We could be forgiven, however, for believing that the models represent a total design.

In each one, the office towers are massive structures. The models make another thing clear about the design brief: the office of the chief executive must be a separate building. In other words, he doesn't want to work in the same structure as other officials.

Each model shows another structure housing the chief executive office. Proportionally, he will occupy a lot of space. Some of the supporting drawings for the models show a palace-like interior. No doubt, the brief requires something large and impressive.

Whoever wrote the brief sees the position of the chief executive as exalted and emperor-like - unbefitting a modern-day politician running a mid-sized city. Then again, the whole of Tamar is excessive. Grandiose offices do not produce better governance: in fact, ostentatious facilities are seldom a positive sign of modesty and efficiency.

One more thing is obvious: the brief must have required specific security considerations. There are high walls that seem to be designed to prevent protesters from getting too close.

We do not know if the design and construction brief include specific measures to ensure that the structures will be built using resources efficiently, from sustainable sources, as far as possible; or, once built, that they will be low-level energy consumers and carbon dioxide emitters. I doubt it, just from looking at the models. There are places where materials and resources are used in a very wasteful way.

The main office buildings will house thousands of civil servants. So perhaps the brief should set out specific conditions about how the interior will have lighting and ventilation that promote productivity and workers' health.

None of the government offices that I have ever visited seem to comply with such conditions. They were unlikely to have been in the design briefs for existing government offices. It would be a crime not to ensure that the newest offices meet the highest possible environmental and health standards.

Can legislators do the public a favour, and get the full design and building brief published as soon as possible?

Christine Loh Kung-wai is chief executive of the think-tank Civic Exchange