Planning for the future

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 15 March, 2011, 12:00am

The winning design of the controversial West Kowloon arts hub has been finally chosen although members of the arts community remain unconvinced.

British architect Norman Foster won the competition to design the arts hub earlier this month with his 'City Park' concept.

He actually won the competition in 2002, and his design included a huge canopy. But then-chief secretary Rafael Hui Si-yan announced the scrapping of a single-tender and canopy in 2004 because of public pressure.

The West Kowloon Cultural District Authority's announcement matched the results of a public poll and seems the popular choice. But architectural professionals said the decision reflected the government's usual conservatism.

Announcing the choice of Foster's plan over two other designs, one by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and the other by local architect Rocco Yim Sen-kee, the authority's chairman Henry Tang Ying-yen praised it for allowing the highest degree of flexibility. He said the public had cited Foster's plan, with its big park, as their favourite.

The plan features a large 'forest' at the hub's western tip, puts traffic underground and boasts zero carbon emissions.

Perhaps a more compelling reason for the choice is Foster's compliance with planning requirements - that, and the fact that the plan cuts the project into small phases, reducing its financial burden.

Bernard Lim Wan-fung, of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design, said Foster's plan was the safest choice and required the fewest rule changes. 'The design by the Dutch team is too visionary and difficult for the authority and Rocco Yim's plan needs strong project management,' Lim said.

'These two designs will be too challenging for the authority with the absence of its CEO,' he said, referring to the unexpected departure in December of Graham Sheffield.

Architects and artists alike said the realisation of Foster's plan faced steep challenges. 'If the authority decided to stick with Foster's plan, it'd better focus more on the design details so that the plan will be enhanced with more creativity and local characteristics,' said urban designer Vincent Ng Wing-shun.

Ng said the Foster plan needed improvements, particularly to its waterfront, which lacked vibrancy, unlike the swimming pool and art pontoons proposed by Yim and the water taxi service for theatre-goers by Koolhaas.

Tang said the merits of the other plans would be incorporated into Foster's plan and the final master plan submitted to the Town Planning Board by the end of this year. Some people question whether the project will end up a mishmash and the goal of zero carbon emissions will be reduced to just a slogan.

Foster and Partners were delighted by their victory, while OMA and Rocco Design Architects, the other two contenders, said they would continue to contribute to the arts hub.

But the executive director of art group Zuni Icosahedron, Mathias Woo Yan-wai, said choosing Foster's plan was 'a wrong choice. Everyone wants a park, but what has this park got to do with the arts? The idea isn't innovative at all'.

Woo favoured Yim's design for his sensibility towards local culture. 'I'd rather have an Asian architect handle the master plan and architects of different nationalities contribute to individual designs.'

Fellow art critic Oscar Ho Hing-kay agreed, calling it the 'worst choice'.

'Is Hong Kong turning itself into a personal exhibition hall of Foster? We have already had two architectural icons by Foster - the HSBC building and the airport,' Ho said. 'But it appears that someone in the government really likes him.'

Some are less critical.

Art critic John Batten liked Foster's plan for the abundance of open space. 'It's sensitive to the climate of Hong Kong,' said Batten.

These are edited versions of articles which appeared in the South China Morning Post on March 5 and March 6