Out and about

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2011, 12:00am

Hong Kong - if one believes the tourism hype - is crammed with 'iconic' modern architecture. But which buildings tell us the most - if we choose to read them carefully - about the broader culture and society within which they evolved?

Probably the city's most telling architectural metaphors are the Central Library, in Causeway Bay, and the Cultural Centre, in Tsim Sha Tsui. Let's deconstruct some alternative meanings.

Design elements are random with the Central Library - vaguely classical pediments offer a clear nod to European design aspirations, in much the same way that Happy Valley's frightful Italianesque furniture shops so strikingly represent nouveau-riche Hong Kong Chinese middle-class tastes. Lacking a coherent unifying vision, the Central Library looks like it was designed by a committee of the now-defunct Urban Council. And basically it was, back in the days when small-town politicking and associated wind-baggery were the preserve of a numerically tiny, largely irrelevant minority, and the vast majority of the local population was too actively engaged in making a living to be bothered.

Tasked with taking care of parks and gardens, cultural venues, hawker control and other fairly safe, uncontroversial activities, the council kept its elected members feeling usefully employed. It also helped divert local politicians away from any troublesome interest in broader, more important political concerns that might have otherwise attracted their energies.

Another disastrous cultural decision by the council was the demolition of the Kowloon-Canton Railway Station, in the face of - for the late 1970s - considerable public protest. And what was built to replace it after 10 years or so as a weed-strewn open space? That much-photographed architectural curiosity on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront otherwise known as the Cultural Centre. Yes, yes, we know, we know - the facilities are world class, but let's not entertain any aesthetic delusions about the building they are housed in.

Will the endless rounds of desperate public consultations result in the same unfortunate conclusions about the West Kowloon Cultural District as they did with the Central Library and the Cultural Centre? If the past is any guide to the future then, sadly, the most likely answer is, probably. A cobbled-together mish-mash that desperately attempts to please - or at least mollify - all possible interested groups will result. Two West Kowloon Cultural District chief executives have already sampled this particular poisoned chalice and spat out the contents in quick time. Good luck to the next one!