West Kowloon Cultural District

Men in suits put arts hub on wrong foot

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 March, 2012, 12:00am

The much-troubled West Kowloon arts district - still nothing more than a building site 14 years after the project was launched - is back in the spotlight, with accusations flying over how the original design was chosen.

New information has emerged on how renowned architect Norman Foster won the initial contest to choose a design for the project - apparently after his entry was rejected by technical advisers to the judging panel. Five years later, his concept had to be ditched.

A second contest was launched - which Foster won again.

Meanwhile, Leung Chun-ying, one of the leading candidates in the race to be Hong Kong's next chief executive, has been accused of failing to declare a conflict of interest while serving as a juror in the project's first design competition 11 years ago.

These are just two of a multitude of controversies that have plagued the project. Critics say the plan for the arts hub got off on the wrong foot. It was dealt with like any other massive infrastructure project involving property and commercial interests, they say, instead of being approached as a cultural concern.

But in retrospect, the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) was never meant to be a cultural project steering the city's arts development: it was a tool to enhance the city's appeal as a tourist destination.

Fourteen years down the road, the arts hub remains contentious, triggering numerous disputes ranging from its single-tender process to the high turnover of senior executives. There are many unresolved issues, not least of which is a budget shortfall currently estimated at between HK$9.2 billion and HK$16.4 billion.

Ivan Ho Man-yiu, chairman of the public affairs committee of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design, pointed to another big problem: the likely initial upfront costs of Foster's design at a time when the authority is facing a shortfall of funds.

The scheme is meant to create a pedestrian-friendly environment by keeping all traffic underground - and this subterranean network will probably have to be built in one go before the rest of the project.

Three new tunnels will link Tsim Sha Tsui and Yau Ma Tei to this massive basement area and it is also how scenery, props, artworks and sound and lighting equipment for exhibitions and performances will be brought in and out.

As the arts and performing facilities earmarked for the first phase of construction are not concentrated in one area of the 40-hectare site, it is almost unavoidable that the basement would have to be built in one go, Ho said. 'It will lead back to the same old problem - single tender - that was strongly opposed by the public.'

A key selling point of Foster's scheme, this 'zero-carbon concept' had apparently been dismissed as 'unfeasible' by a consultant to the authority.

And Ho agreed that simply putting cars underground would not reduce the total emission of pollutants and greenhouse gases. 'Ironically, hiding them underground will require mechanical ventilation, using up more energy.'

With Hong Kong's arts 'hardware' still facing funding problems, the city's lack of cultural 'software' - talent and arts administrators, as well as a large enough audience - is another threat to the future of the arts hub that money cannot resolve.

One fundamental issue, says Samuel Leong, head of the Hong Kong Institute of Education's cultural and creative arts department, is that the city's leaders do not have a clear policy driving the city's cultural development, and there has been little research in the area. 'The 'software' problem has been there for a long time but it has always been the second priority,' Leong said. 'What does the government think of culture? Is it high culture to be politically correct but not practically correct?

'The arts hub has been tied up too much with real estate and other commercial interests.'

Audience education would also need to be strengthened, Leong said, with the Education Bureau and the University Grant Council, among others, brought more into the picture. Cultural development was not a Home Affairs Bureau thing nor a WKCD thing, he added, 'but was a lot more complicated'.

Culture has never really been part of the picture of a Hong Kong 'cultural district' over the past 14 years. When the then-chief executive Tung Chee-hwa unveiled the grand idea of developing an arts district in his 1998 policy address, it was based on a survey conducted by the now-defunct Hong Kong Tourist Association, which said tourists had expressed interest in big cultural and entertainment events.

Arts critic Oscar Ho Hing-kay believed it was important the arts hub give definition to Hong Kong culture amid rapid development on the mainland.

'There are cultural districts being built one after another in China. How do you stand out? If you talk about throwing cash, how can you compete with [the Saadiyat Cultural District in] Abu Dhabi?'

The whole project began as a single venue on a 5.5-hectare site and eventually expanded to a 40-hectare arts hub, with an international concept design competition in 2001.

Foster's original 'dragon canopy' design defeated 160 other entries from around the world.

But despite the blessing of the competition jury and the government, the design had to be abandoned in 2006.

The 30-storey-high canopy, covering 55 per cent of the site, raised concerns such as the potential high maintenance costs. Because all the facilities were then to be linked under one roof, it was decided in 2003 to go for a single tender - under which only one consortium would be asked to develop the site. The possible domination by one developer triggered strong public opposition.

The tender was amended with tougher conditions imposed and received a lukewarm response from the private sector. Three consortiums involving Cheung Kong, Henderson and Sino Land, who had previously submitted proposals, pulled out under the new conditions.

When the government was forced to discard the canopy design, it formed a consultative committee to review the planning parameters and the development model. An arts hub authority, led by the chief secretary, was eventually formed in 2008 and Legco members approved its HK$21.6 billion funding.

Then it was back to the drawing board.

Foster was again invited to join the design competition held by the authority in 2010. His new design, again chosen by the authority as its preferred scheme, replaced the massive canopy with a large park, resembling New York's Central Park, and moved traffic below ground. It beat designs by the cutting-edge Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and home-grown star Rocco Yim Sen-kee.

Even on the operations level, the arts hub has had problems. There was the rapid departure of its first executive director, Angus Cheng Siu-chuen, who left within two weeks of his appointment, and the abrupt departure last year of chief executive Graham Sheffield, who quit after five months, citing 'health reasons'.

Although the management now appears stable with the arrival of two international art scene heavyweights - Michael Lynch as the new chief executive and museum expert Lars Nittve as the executive director of M+, the arts hub's visual culture museum - the authority's management structure still has its critics.

Desmond Hui Cheuk-kuen, director of Chinese University's Centre for Culture and Development, said: 'Cultural facilities are different and they should be helmed by those who have that [cultural] background.'

Compared with other statutory bodies in Hong Kong, such as the Hospital Authority and the Urban Renewal Authority, 'none of them is as formal as that of the West Kowloon authority', Hui said. Only the arts hub authority is chaired by a government official. 'And it's a very senior official.'

The first chairman was the current chief executive candidate Henry Tang Ying-yen, who was appointed in 2008 when the authority was set up. He stepped down after resigning as chief secretary last year, and was succeeded by Stephen Lam Sui-lung, the current chief secretary.

It might serve to show that the Hong Kong government is putting great emphasis on the project's development, Hui said, but an arts hub should be chaired by someone who has cultural vision.

Hui said that such examples were not difficult to find: France's first minister of cultural affairs in the 1950s, Andre Malraux, was a novelist and an art theorist, and the renowned Taiwanese author and cultural critic Lung Ying-tai now heads Taiwan's Council for Cultural Affairs.

Hui feared that the civil service culture had infiltrated the arts hub operations.

'People are too afraid of making mistakes, and [the authority] is operating in an opposite direction to the way it should. Culture should be expressive,' Hui said.

'We are proud of Hong Kong's rule of law, but stringent regulations are placed above creativity. Hong Kong's environment does not encourage, or even allow, creativity.'

Because of Hong Kong's unique situation, Hui said, he urged the authorities to focus on cultivating home-grown administrative talents who have a global vision while being familiar with Hong Kong's history and cultural environment.

'We can't only rely on overseas talents,' Hui said. 'Who will take up Lynch's position? He is fully aware of this and he has this great vision, hoping that the future West Kowloon leaders will be among our students.'