What is Hong Kong's biggest eyesore? Ugly side of city exposed by decades of bad decisions
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder... then so is ugliness.
Yet although it’s subjective, in a recent informal poll of around 100 people on what they consider to be Hong Kong’s biggest eyesores, some examples were cited again and again.
Every city has its blots on the landscape but, unlike in similarly modern Singapore, Hongkongers seem to find unsightliness at every turn.
That includes some of our biggest landmarks, despite the city being a magnet to some of the world’s most famous architects.
The Cultural Centre on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront was repeatedly mentioned by respondents, and has long been derided as a monstrosity.
Although it should offer the perfect view of the skyline, it is a windowless slab of a building, covered in pink tiles, that some critics liken to a giant public toilet.
Culture clash? The Cultural Centre in Tsim Sha Tsui is on a prime location on the harbour but is windowless and covered with pink tiles.
Sun, sand and a sorry sight: The Lamma Island power station's three chimneys stick out like sore thumbs from miles away.
“It is a glaring example of how little attention was paid to good design, site and user research,” cultural critic Ada Wong Ying-kay says, commenting on the poll results. “This is a harbourfront site and the architect did not think about connecting the Cultural Centre to our harbour.”
A recent addition to the skyline, the Central Government Complex – dubbed “The Door” and symbolising openness and transparency – also didn’t get many points for design.
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“Holes in buildings is so 1990s,” says design publisher and editor Tony Smyth.
“Here we had a perfect opportunity to showcase the architectural and master-planning talent that we have in abundance in Hong Kong, but, despite a public consultation, we ended up with the most conservative design that again reflects all those over-familiar architectural elements we have seen since the ’80s.”
Time for a new chapter: The Central Library's design has been called a hopeless "mishmash of neoclassical and postmodern styles".
Surprise and disbe-leaf: The Golden Bauhinia in Wan Chai, ingloriously nicknamed the “Golden Pak Choi”, got a big thumbs-down.
Another unpopular sight is the Lamma Island power station, located next to a once-pristine beach, its three chimneys visible for miles.
“It looks like the set for an X-Files sci-fi drama, a huge industrial eyesore,” one Lamma resident says.
Successive governments can be blamed for a lot of the city’s blemishes, through poor planning and dismal design, poll respondents agreed.
Participants complained about boxy “toilet-block public buildings” and the “clinical uniformity” of public housing estates.
Smyth attributes the problem in part to development and zoning plans that have hardly been amended since the 1970s.
“Transport and the mass-construction of new towns have been prioritised to the detriment of planning open spaces in urban environments. If you look at the Central harbourfront, the roadway is the priority with some prettification work to mitigate its impact,” he says.
Wong agrees the problem stems from “the system”, which gives government architects – known more for their preference for functionality over design flair – a great deal of influence.
And “design is not as important as the cost”, Wong says. Arts critic John Batten blames bureaucracy for the city’s “monopoly on systemic ugliness”.
“Administration of public spaces can involve other layers of bureaucracy, and decisions can often then be justified by always-conservative outside committees or district councils. With so many people involved, decisions are made through consensus and compromise – resulting in bland designs.”
The hole shebang: The Central Government Complex, nicknamed "The Door", has been criticised for the inefficient use of expensive space.
Hook, line and stinker: The Central Ferry Pier's faux Georgian facade has not won it many fans.
For Batten, the city’s biggest eyesores include long stretches of road with unsightly fencing, “that cannot be crossed except by using an ugly, bulky concrete footbridge or descending under an overly brightly lit underpass”.
Elevated highways are a huge gripe, particularly the Eastern Island Corridor, cutting a swathe through a stretch of what could have been a scenic harbourfront.
According to Paul Zimmerman, a Southern district councillor and member of the Harbourfront Commission, there are many blights on the waterfront, including the long stretches of ugly metal fencing Batten dislikes; and randomly located sewage screening, water pumping and electricity sub-stations.
“The list goes on,” he says. Zimmerman also blames the government’s use of “cheap, lowest-cost engineering, and the inability of the bureaucracy to change its ways due to lack of guidance from city leadership, which is preoccupied with political reform”.
Poll respondents were also offended by examples of design fakery.
As well as the faux-Georgian Star Ferry pier, Central Library in Causeway Bay – a mishmash of neoclassical and postmodern styles – got more than a few mentions.
“Pastiche and puke, more like”, one person commented.
Also criticised was 1881 Heritage in Tsim Sha Tsui. Smyth describes 1881, comprising the historic former marine police headquarters with high-end retail outlets tacked on, as a travesty.
“What could have been a wondrous celebration of our colonial heritage has been bastardised beyond recognition, with the original building taking a far third-place behind rampant commercialism and blatant materialism,” he says.
Public art also took a beating. The Golden Bauhinia in Wan Chai, ingloriously nicknamed the “Golden Pak Choi”, got a big thumbs-down, while the golden dragon statue at a junction in Causeway Bay, and the goose in Sham Tseng, rated more than a few mentions.
Railing against it: Unsightly fencing forces pedestrians to "use an ugly, bulky concrete footbridge or an overly lit underpass".
Elevated roads cut a swathe through a stretch of what could have been a scenic harbourfront.
Public sculptures from the 1980s and 90s are particularly bad, Batten says. It was an era “dominated by a generation of sculptors with a ‘technocratic’ pseudo-abstract approach. Van Lau is the most well-known, with his sculpture in the Cultural Centre foyer.”
Besides landmarks, residents also find ugliness in their own backyards. In the west of Hong Kong Island, a Kennedy Town resident complains about the waste of prime space in the neighbourhood:
“What could be a beautiful waterfront is occupied by a building site that that used to be a pig abattoir and an incinerator, and an industrial building.”
An abandoned quarry in the Kowloon hills blights the view for residents in the east of the island. (There was once a proposal to paint it green.)
The natural beauty of the New Territories does not escape uglification, either. Yuen Long district residents cited farmland stacked with empty shipping containers.
Those in Sai Kung pointed to the wide concreted bed of the Ho Chung River – layered after it flooded one spring. Similarly, if a power station wasn’t insult enough to Lamma islanders, a natural stream with a lily pond in Yung Shue Wan had also been given the concrete treatment.
Then there’s the random planning of villages and badly placed rubbish collection points – usually at village entrances. Abstract elements also contribute to the mix. Although we have a skyline the envy of many, the view is often blighted under a blanket of grey haze by another eyesore – pollution.
Rubbish floating in the harbour, and washed up on beaches, is another source of eye pollution for some. It’s not just plastic and Styrofoam bobbing about on the water, either.
Grid and bear it: Locals have complained about power sub-stations' seemingly random locations, like this one on Kimerley Road.
Bad air days: Perhaps the most serious blight on Hong Kong, one that has pushed away both tourists and residents, is the dirty air.
“I once saw a TV set, or computer monitor, floating in the harbour,” a regular ferry passenger says. A half-submerged refrigerator had also been spotted. In design terms, at least, all is not lost, Wong believes.
“Nowadays, the more important public buildings will have a design competition, such as Tamar, the M+ Museum and the Xiqu Centre.
Of course, there are many critiques of these new buildings, too. But at least there was a process.” Wong hopes smaller design competitions will be held to encourage local architects to take part in the design of public buildings.
“They are our hope for a better built environment – and a greener and energy efficient one – so they must learn by taking part in competitions,” she says. For the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront, in particular, Wong says we might see change in the next few years to help mitigate the unsightliness of the Cultural Centre.
“The Salisbury Sculpture Garden has recently been revamped and it is now very open and spacious with nice public art. With the closure of the Museum of Art towards the end of this year, the whole area will be redesigned and the museum will have a nicer facade and better connectivity to the harbourfront.”
In general, Hong Kong could learn a lesson from the Lion City, Batten says.
“One difference is that Singapore’s outdoor areas revel in and emphasise its tropical weather – they are happy to fill space with tropical plants and green lawns. What are brutal, bare concrete overpasses and flyovers in Hong Kong are deliberately designed in Singapore for dripping tropical fernery and creepers.”
- Cultural Centre
- Central Ferry Pier
- Central Govt Complex
- Central Library
- Elevated roads
- Golden Bauhinia
- Lamma powerstation
- Other (Leave comment)
You have already voted.
- Cultural Centre 10
- Central Ferry Pier 3
- Central Govt Complex 3
- Central Library 8
- Elevated roads 3
- Sub-stations 0
- Fences/railings 5
- Golden Bauhinia 6
- Lamma powerstation 4
- Pollution 54
- Other (Leave comment) 3