A solid foundation for success
Standing on the second-floor verandah of the barrack block overlooking the courtyard of the old Central Police Station, it's hard not to soak up the atmosphere of the building.
Completed in 1864, the three-storey structure features archways, cloisters and old-style bannisters from a bygone era. The site is so full of history and charm it's hard to imagine it as anything else but a cultural venue. The Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture is further proof of that. Opened last month at the Central Police Compound, the 21/2-month event showcases works by 60 architects from around the world and includes a parallel biennale festival featuring top local artists.
Part of this HK$7 million exercise is to allow exhibitors to make use of the unique architectural features of the site - which sprawls over the grounds of a former police headquarters, magistracy and prison - without distorting or destroying its overall character.
'This is the first time an exhibition of this scale has been organised in the heart of the city. There is definitely a certain appeal to that,' says Benny Chia Chun-heng, director of Hong Kong Fringe Club.
'The organisers have given access to a place that is otherwise not usually accessible [to the public]. Its rich historical background also adds to the event. They complement one another.'
Chia says cultural events staged in venues steeped in history have a greater appeal.
'Unlike the Venice Biennale, the Gwangju Biennale is held in a purpose-built venue,' says Chia,
an advocate for heritage building conservation. 'While a purpose-built venue means less compromising over the use of space, which is an advantage, there is no dialogue between the exhibits and the venue. And sometimes it is this interaction that adds more to a work. And you won't find much historical character in contemporary architecture.'
Michael Muller-Verweyen, director of Goethe-Institut Hong Kong, also believes the architecture biennale has highlighted, and realised, the potential of the site as a cultural venue.
'This is a good step forward for Hong Kong, making use of its heritage as an exhibition place,' he says. 'There is more to discover.' However, he says the biennale could be more accessible. 'Some of the exhibitions I find are too text-based. There is too much to read. In a way there is a lack of trust in the visual.'
Muller-Verweyen is also not sure who the main exhibition's audience is. 'Specialists such as architects and planners or the general public? I also don't think a biennale is, with a few exceptions, the right place to present student works,' he says.
'These cannot contribute to the profile of the exhibition, which is important if you want to stand out on an international level.'
What impresses Muller-Verweyen most are works by local artists such as Warren Leung Chi-wo's video Block Game (2006) and Kacey Wong's Wandering Home (2007) for their response to the exhibition's theme of 'Refabricating City'.
Asia Art Archive's head researcher and project manager Phoebe Wong Siu-yin also finds Wong's installation as well as the photography by another mountainman (Stanley Wong Ping-pui) full of sincerity. But not the same can be said about a lot of the displays shown in the main architecture exhibition, she says.
'Part of the biennale looks more like a trade show than an exhibition,' says Wong. 'Some exhibitors are using this event as an opportunity to advertise their own projects which I don't think is right. It's unethical. What they showcase has nothing to do with the overall biennale theme.' Wong says while there is a general consensus that the Central Police Station is a good location for exhibitions, organisers must think carefully how to use the space.
'Like this biennale, I don't think what's on show is all great but some at least has sincerity. If you are going to stage a mediocre show, looking at the works is just a waste of time for everyone,' she says.
'I think the important question in the future is, will the organisers be using the space and opportunity correctly?'
Hong Kong-Shenzhen Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture, daily 10am-6pm (closed this Wed-Fri), Central Police Station Compound, 10 Hollywood Road, Central. Free admission. Ends Mar 15