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Jake's View
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 3:14am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 04 June, 2013, 4:31am

Pitch for culture concrete is just the same art form

If it's good enough for bridge builders, it's good enough for arts chief to go cap in hand for cash


Jake van der Kamp is a native of the Netherlands, a Canadian citizen, and a longtime Hong Kong resident. He started as a South China Morning Post business reporter in 1978, soon made a career change to investment analyst and returned to the newspaper in 1998 as a financial columnist.

Rising construction costs have put pressure on the West Kowloon arts hub and it will need more financing in the future, its chief says.

SCMP, June 3


I entirely understand the demands of the arts industry for the culture bunkers it was promised at the West Kowloon reclamation.

After all, every other infrastructure project regularly comes back to the government to demand more money. The high-speed railway to the border has just done it, citing unexpected costs, and the Macau bridge people did it before they even got started.

What is more, the West Kowloon Concrete Dumping Authority (WKCDA) was never given that much of our money anyway, just  HK$25 billion. In contrast, the airport is already talking figures of well over HK$100 billion for a third runway, and it won’t take long for that railway to get into as many zeros.

Let’s be fair about this.

It all comes down to the same thing. You call in the concrete mixers, you tell them where to pour, and you fill the empty spaces between the concrete with glass. Bridges, railways, theatres, what’s the difference? The point is to award contracts. The job is done when the concrete sets.

But lest the arts industry be unjustly deprived of its fair share of the concrete-pouring loot, let me suggest a few pointers on how WKCDA chief Michael Lynch should make his sales pitch.

  • Pull out the philistine card. Remind everyone that the supposed objective was to prove that Hong Kong is not a cultural desert. We’ll instead show the world that Hong Kong  is one if we don’t get down to business soon and pour that concrete. At this rate Singapore will soon have more square feet of culture display floor area per unit of population. Tell ’em so.
  • Don’t complain too much about rising construction costs. Someone might actually check and find out that in the public sector they have risen barely a third over the last five years, not the more than doubling you claimed in the last paper you leaked.
  • Get us more pretty pictures. We haven’t seen any from you for a long time. You know the kind – a shimmering glass building  at dusk on a mid-summer’s eve with beautiful people in beautiful clothes. It’s how you sell concrete. Put some airbrush artists to work. You’re in the arts business, Mr Lynch. Don’t you know any?
  • But play down the greenery in these pictures. Greenery may remind people that the best idea yet put forward for West Kowloon was the Swire proposal for a forested park. In this town, we reserve our tree money for cutting trees down. They get in the way of concrete. They’re budget killers. Stay away from trees.
  • Ignore other culture bunkers, too. We have lots of them all over this town, some built at great expense, and all of them whistling for trade most of the time. For you, they don’t exist. Recognising them weakens your funding demands.
  • Talk up jobs. It works wonders for bridges and tunnels. Tell everyone that you’ll create 20,000 jobs at West Kowloon, 30,000 if you want. No one is checking. True, we would create just as many jobs elsewhere if we spent the money on something else, but don’t worry. No one ever makes the connection.
  • Ditto economic benefit. It’s almost as good as talking up jobs and even easier, because no one knows what it really means. The idea is that if you spend HK$100, you can make it look like HK$1,000 because the money just keeps flowing through the economy. Don’t go low. A nice round figure for you is HK$150 billion. It worked for Disney, and you’re really in the entertainment business too, aren’t you?

Most of all, don’t let people know that Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life, that Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave and that most great artists whose memories we prize were so far ahead of their times that the art industry of their day ignored them and they were only fully recognised years later.

It’s the way of the art industry. It prizes yesteryear’s stale favourites. It looks backwards, not forward. Mix government money with art, and that’s invariably what you get. Don’t let them know, Mr Lynch.



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Many important museums were not originally built as museums. We could have adapted Wanchai Market and Central Market (Bauhaus-style buildings, easy to convert to a different use) as contemporary art museums (better location, no need to provide transport links) and just planted West Kowloon to create a pleasant urban park for all to enjoy and the occasional open air festival and gig. But hey, too sensible and not wasteful enough. Our government likes white elephants!
Sorry, did I miss something? Although the earlier Foster design (the one with the giant oyster dome) was shot down, Foster + Partners did still win ultimately the master plan contest with their 'City Park' design.

The current plans do allow for a large waterfront park with plenty of trees. The thing is, that this is in addition to a myriad of buildings (M+ Museum, Xiqu Centre, a Mega Event Venue, a concert hall, a theatre and a bunch more). These buildings and their surrounding infrastructure (partly-underground roads, underground parking, a sound wall around the tunnel entry and expressway, a walkway above the tunnel toll plaza etc. etc) are now apparently becoming so expensive that a doubling of the construction budget is asked for. And construction (or even tender for construction) of many of them hasn't even started yet, so the doubling of this budget might only be the beginning, with more to come once the real costs become clear.
I agree with you, instead of having all those venues with a park in front of them (or behind them if you wish), let's have more park, more trees and less buildings. Especially another Mega Event Venue (in addition to already under-utilised AsiaExpo and HKCEC) is completely unnecessary. So is another concert hall and theatre, with the excellent facilities we already have at the HKAPA, the HKCC and beyond.
Finally a column by Mr van der Kamp I can completely agree with. Somebody needs to stop this Cultural District madness. HKD 25 billion is already way too much. The demand to double it is insane. If it isn't enough, then just give us less art buildings and more trees. Trees have a much higher cost:utility ratio, and are a lot more pleasant to look at than most of what passes for contemporary art these days.
Culture Bunkers work in London's South Bank by the Thames - so why not Hong Kong by the harbour? Singapore is thrashing us right now, so here's how the original team could
give HK it's own Singapore Flyer and Gardens by the Bay.
We'd even have our own bespoke wheel set into an extended park, part Greek - part Chinese, part Art - part Science. What better way to brand HK as Asia's Fusion city?
Culture bunkers work brilliantly in that other "philistine, mercantile" city, London.
Here's how HK can best emulate the South Bank (and compete with Singapore - which is currently thrashing us), complete with it's own extended park featuring an iconic, city-branding wheel symbolising one-country-two systems, designed by the original team of Aedas-Arup-Asynsis:
****www.alivenotdead.com/asynsis/Hong-Kong-Spin-for-West-Kowloon-Cultrural-District-profile-1469783.html ****twitter.com/ASYNSIS
John Adams
Did I miss something ? Does Mr Van der Kamp mean that govt concrete-pouring civil projects are normally NOT completed on or under budget ?
Well - there's a thing !
If so , it seems like they learned their budgeting skills from our FS : a superb role model of mathematical excellence
It is not the case that architect planting a tree in front a design which looked unsatisfactory; it is unfortunate Foster’s wooded scheme was not picked. I am all for it. Hong Kong needs art in culture as well as trees in our urban environment. The Central Park in New York City of over a century and half years old still works wonderfully after an outbreak of TB in keeping its original mission as a city lung for the residents. Of its near 27 ha of woodlands there are 24,000 of trees happily coexisting with the Metropolitan Museum of Art. All said, what we have now is a lot better than otherwise in the hands of property developers growing housings and office buildings mainly. For the latter, they won’t have to beg for money. People just hand them over most willingly.


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