Architecture and Design

Here’s how Hong Kong fails the buildings test: West Kowloon station is no Grand Central, New York

  • West Kowloon station is a prime example of what is to come: unique, complex exercises to generate identity at the expense of civic pride
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 8:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 14 November, 2018, 8:03am

We have lost the idea of building types. For centuries, building typologies have defined how we read our cities: think of a railway station, a theatre hall, a library or even a post office, and one conjures up an image of a building that is defined by its variation on the type. One can question the style of the Palais Garnier in Paris, but few can deny that it is an opera house. Typologies are a kind of urban lexicon that allows architecture to evolve, adapt and to ultimately be finely calibrated to the present “here and now” conditions we live in, that is, they allow buildings to remain relevant.

Now that we have lost these subtle distinctions, buildings are no longer conceived as types. Rather they fall into two simplified categories: generic boxes vs exceptional structures.

This reductive architectural dichotomy is no more evident than in Hong Kong, a city which I would argue is undergoing an architectural lobotomy. The new West Kowloon railway station is a prime example of this banality in practice. Surrounded by a sea of extruded boxes, the station crystallises from the ground as a faceted land formation, as if the result of a design concept drawn from the theory of plate tectonics.

Here, architecture has gone beyond the world of metaphors and into the realm of science fiction. It is one thing to watch a Star Wars film, quite another to inhabit a cinematic reality.

The West Kowloon station is a prime example of what is to come, it represents the general trend of what public buildings in Hong Kong will look like in the future: unique, complex exercises to generate identity at the expense of civic pride.

The secrets of Grand Central Terminal, New York

To date, I have visited the West Kowloon station on three occasions, each time its structural aura fades and is replaced with a dull monotonous hum. It is the exact opposite of what I feel whenever I visit Grand Central Terminal in New York, a building that always captures my imagination, a building that in many ways is emblematic of New York. Do buildings have a role in defining our cities? It might be time for a louder debate.

Peter W. Ferretto, associate professor, School of Architecture, the Chinese University of Hong Kong