When the Beijing Municipal Government invited bids to build the best Olympic swimming venue ever for the 2008 Games, the brief to architects was simple: give us a centre that meets the Olympic criteria for swimming, diving, water polo and synchronised swimming; that would be a popular and well-used leisure and training facility after the Games; and that costs no more than US$100 million.
The result, the now-iconic bubble-wrapped facility known officially as the National Aquatics Centre and nicknamed the Water Cube, was much more than the government asked for. The winning consortium's design included an indoor water park with an artificial beach and water rides - features that added about 40 per cent to the size of the building, driving its cost up to US$150 million.
"We took a huge risk," says architect John Pauline, one of the project's design leaders, "but if you build just an individual swimming building, it will not have any strong use after the Games, and it certainly won't make any money. So we added Beijing's largest indoor aquatic park to the building, which we knew was going to be the heart and soul once the Olympics had gone."
Following major renovations, the Water Cube reopened in August 2010 with a new lease on life: it's now used year-round and generates revenue, not only through sports but also cultural and entertainment events. It's doing much better than its neighbour - the National Stadium, or the Bird's Nest - which struggles to fill its 80,000 seats regularly - and is one of many examples of white elephant sporting venues round the world.
Pauline, the Hong Kong-based design principal for Hassell Architects, has a similar vision for the planned Kai Tak Multi-purpose Sports Complex. It can't just be a sports complex; it's got to have multi-functionality, mixing sport with retail and even residential aspects, he says.
"Getting a real hum of activity merging with sport activity [in the complex] is fundamental," Pauline says.
He and his colleagues are helping to design all the sports venues for a city bidding to host the 2020 Olympics.
The Kai Tak sports complex, which will take up about 24 hectares of the 320-hectare former airport site in Kowloon East, has been labelled a priority by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. It will provide facilities for the community as well as world-class venues to raise Hong Kong's profile as a centre for international sporting events.
Major facilities proposed for the HK$19 billion budget include a 50,000-seat stadium, a 5,000-seat public sports ground, a 4,000-seat indoor centre, office space of at least 10,000 square metres, commercial space of at least 31,500 square metres, and public recreational facilities in a park setting.
The Home Affairs Bureau recently invited the private sector to submit non-binding Expressions of Interest (EOI) to obtain feedback on issues including financing, design, construction and operation. The bureau says the response was "encouraging", with 40 submissions from different sectors, including architects, construction companies, sports and entertainment companies, project management companies, banks and consulting firms.
Hassell did not submit an EOI, says Pauline, but are in talks with various organisations that could lead the complex's development. Based on the government's proposed plan, Pauline thinks it may be too strongly weighted towards sport and may need more significant commercial space.
"I'm not talking about shopping malls, but lots of indoor and outdoor retail as well as restaurants and bars that give people different reasons to go to the site," he says.
"One of the difficult things about major sports buildings and big sports hubs like this is that, historically, they're difficult to make financially viable if they're purely sporting buildings.
"The success of these types of things is really about mixing different types of functions within the precinct in order to give it some day-to-day life."
There are many examples of what Pauline calls "lonely sports buildings" that Hong Kong can learn to avoid. A prime example would be those in his native Sydney that were built to host the 2000 Olympics. Developing the Sydney Olympic Park for residential and commercial use was an afterthought that began in only 2005; only now is the area beginning to "get a hum to it", says Pauline.
Athens' Olympic Park, once billed as one of the most complete European athletics complexes, is in a desolate and derelict state, with many purpose-built venues now eerily empty. Many contend the 2004 Olympics played a major role in producing the debt that spurred Greece's economic downfall.
The Danish Institute for Sports Studies published a report, World Stadium Index, last year that investigated the use of 75 venues that were built or underwent major renovations to host a major international sporting event.
The most successful stadium cited in the report is Atlanta's 50,000-seat Turner Field. Originally built for the 1996 Olympics, it is the home of the major league baseball team and attracted enough spectators to fill the stadium 50 times in 2010. At the other extreme, the 30,000-seat stadium built for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, attracted only 18,000 spectators in 2010.
"In my opinion, I think the London Games have probably done the best case job of stitching major infrastructure into the city," says Pauline. "They've really had a legacy-driven outcome and have delivered."
At the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, major sporting buildings sit next to Westfield Shopping Centre, one of London's biggest new malls; in fact, all spectators at the Games left the venue through the mall. "By putting them together, they begin to feed off each other," Pauline says. "You had this amazing synergy of retail, profit, finance and capitalism alongside the Olympics."
One of Pauline's London Olympics projects - the Copper Box, which hosted handball and the fencing event of the modern pentathlon - is now being transformed into a venue with flexible seating capacity and facilities for various community and high-performance indoor sports training and competitions, as well as cultural and business events.
That's why design is just one part of the puzzle. Pauline says the key to successful sports venues is its operators, who are responsible for bringing the best sporting, entertainment and cultural events from round the world to the venue.
"As long as Hong Kong continues to be a vital and well-used hub in Asia, there's no reason at all why the [complex] can't be utilised from an international operations perspective."
Singapore's Sports Hub, slated to be ready by this year, could provide Hong Kong with some inspiration. The 35-hectare waterfront site next to the bustling Marina Bay district will comprise a 55,000-seat national stadium, 3,000-seat Olympic-standard aquatic centre, 3,000-seat multi-purpose indoor arena, a water sports centre, a sports library and museum, sports promenade and community facilities, as well as 41,000 square metres of commercial space for retail, restaurant and entertainment.
There are already many things the Kai Tak sports complex has going for it for the future, according to Pauline.
First, the area is supported by a good transport network, which does away with the "tyranny of cars" faced by many sports buildings located in the perimeters of cities.
Second, there's a "wonderful urban density" around the area that immediately provides an "incredible feed of people". Finally, it's a valuable piece of land in a valuable location that is surrounded by a beautiful skyline. "Very few cities have this opportunity, so they need to do it right," he says.
The only possible negative Pauline sees is a segment of the public who may oppose allocating prime land for something they may not consider important. "There's always a percentage of the community that don't see the value of major sports buildings," he says.
"But for me, when I look at the city on a macro scale as a master planner, it is fundamentally important to get variety into the landscape. Sporting buildings and sports recreation in the community are just as important as houses."
The Home Affairs Bureau says it will analyse the EOI submissions and publish a report later this month before considering the next step in the planning and procurement of the project. The Kai Tak Multi-purpose Sports Complex is expected to be fully operational in 2019-20.