Jake's View

Trees just the start for axe swinging needed at West Kowloon arts hub

It's been a sorry performance from the start, and now with greenery sacrificed to budget cuts, it’s time for the final cut at West Kowloon

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 July, 2014, 12:21am
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 July, 2014, 12:21am

The urban forest rivalling New York's Central Park that was to have graced the West Kowloon Cultural District is reduced to a series of lawns under a cost-cutting design unveiled yesterday.

Money devoted to the park has been halved to HK$1 billion and green coverage of the site reduced from the originally proposed 80 per cent to 60 per cent.

South China Morning Post
July 23

It's time for a proper use of the axe on this bloated wastrel project. Let's not just cut the trees. Let's cut the whole thing. We need to start from the beginning again.

Here is how it stands. A glorious green lung of a park with a number of both performance and arts display venues, which we were to have for HK$25 billion, will now be a much-delayed concrete desert costing probably HK$100 billion with some of its major features unlikely ever to be built.

Meanwhile, the eternally fractious arts community is squabbling as much as it ever has about what to do with the space and getting no further ahead than it was years ago. There is a lesson here - one should never let artists (or journalists) try to do things. Emote, scribble and talk, yes. But do?

At the moment they are all squabbling with the senior government bureaucracy about whether to spend HK$23 billion on a parking garage for one of the buildings. Very artistic these parking garages, you know, such depths of cultural insight.

In performance artswe already have far more space than worthwhile demand for it

The big difficulty is that it all had to be linked into another pointless wastrel project, the new high-speed rail link to the border. But this one was delayed when the tunnel engineers became unhappy about the kinds of stone and mud they found along the way.

With its major transport link in limbo, West Kowloon will remain as remote from us in physical geography as it is in its artistic pretensions for well into the future. You will have to hop over and around several construction sites to get there.

This might still have been worth doing if we had gone with architect Norman Foster's revised proposal for trees and greenery everywhere (as opposed to his original silly idea of covering everything with a glass roof).

But, no. Thrift and economy have now been discovered and West Kowloon is to make a gesture to this new ethos by cutting the trees. Slathering concrete over the resulting open space is cheaper.

Let's remember here that the only reason most of the arts community was ever gung-ho on West Kowloon is that this project had been prised out of the grip of that awful Leisure and Cultural Services Department, which runs the rest of the arts venues in town.

I sympathise. The LCSD bureaucracy is indeed truly awful in most things it does. But I see nothing to tell me that this new arts bureaucracy to take its place at West Kowloon will be any better. We'll just get LCSD (2).

What is more, there is no escaping the fundamental difficulty, particularly in performance arts, that we already have far more space than worthwhile demand for it.

To give West Kowloon any chance at all we would probably have to tear down that windowless spiky culture bunker on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront. It's a sterile, barren place and the demand is just not there for two of its kind. The shows are mostly pretty dull and it's always the same old crowd that goes.

This is not to mention other performance venues that have come our way since West Kowloon was first mooted. Hong Kong University has two new ones and they are right up to mark. I went to a piano recital at one of them recently. More are coming.

There was a time when the West Kowloon project in its original conception at its original cost and with a competent management might just have worked.

But that time is past. The budget is out of control, the schedule will soon be out by a decade and an overstaffed management has nothing to manage while getting no direction anyway from the top. Hong Kong has moved on. This project is stuck in our past.

Don't stop your chopping at the trees now, people. Chop it all.