Architecture and Design

Winning ideas for pedestrianising polluted Hong Kong business district artery Des Voeux Road Central

  • Dutch-led consortium’s proposal centred on themed tram stops linked to amenities and Central heritage sites wins design contest
  • Competition to make Des Voeux Road Central traffic-free drew 43 entries from 11 countries
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2018, 10:16am
UPDATED : Friday, 04 January, 2019, 9:58am

Of all the city streets in all the world, architects had to pick this one to walk into. From near and far their ideas poured, answering the call of an international competition to pedestrianise Hong Kong’s congested Des Voeux Road Central.

According to the finalists, it was a mixture of nostalgia and challenge that attracted entries to the design competition, begun last May by Walk DVRC, an NGO pursuing a vision for a more walkable and liveable Central business district.

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“As an urban designer, Hong Kong is one of the most fascinating and complex urban environments in the world. The challenge to pedestrianise one of the main streets was something we couldn’t pass up,” says Daryl Mulvihill, architect and founder of Dmau.

Martin Probst, associate director of MLA+, the Dutch firm that led the winning consortium, including Dmau, says Des Voeux Road was also one of the “really worthy causes to work on”.

“All around the world there are moves to rediscover [cities] and give people more space. This is one of the really important projects happening around the world,” Probst says.

Jennifer Walker Frisinger, CEO of Walk DVRC, says Des Voeux Road Central was identified back in 2000 as a potential site for pedestrian placemaking.

“This was the old waterfront, and the heart of Chinese entrepreneurship,” she says. “But the road has been developed for cars, not people, and because it’s so polluted, it’s such an unpleasant pedestrian experience. Also, a lot of the old things are going away and dying. Our goal is to preserve the culture and heritage that still exists here, and to bring back the foot traffic that was there before.”

The judges were looking for how feasible the entries were, as well as how innovative and creative, and how they linked neighbourhoods, according to Walker Frisinger.

“It wasn’t just looking at the strip of Des Voeux Road Central, but how it integrated to the cultural sites that surrounded it, in particular Tai Kwun [a heritage arts complex], PMQ [a fashion, arts and crafts market and events space] and Man Mo Temple [a tourist draw in nearby Sheung Wan],” she says.

The competition drew 43 entries from 11 countries. From five shortlisted entries, the winner was the consortium led by MLA+, and the runner-up a consortium led by Hong Kong’s PangArchitect. The other finalists were MVRDV from the Netherlands, SO-IL from the US and Australian firm Hassell.

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Called High Five in the Sky, the entry from MLA+ proposes a future for Des Voeux Road Central imagined by a little girl called Flora.

“Remembering the ding ding [tram] as such an iconic element of Hong Kong, she dreams about the buses and cars moving out, but the tram staying, and more space given to people on the street,” Probst says.

It features five themed tram stops, each having “a strong relationship” to Hong Kong or to Des Voeux Road itself, he adds.

Pedder Street’s theme is Neon Gateway, which salutes the city’s disappearing neon lights. Garden Oasis provides a sheltered sitting out place and the Cloud becomes a platform for contemporary arts that links surrounding heritage sites. Vertical Playground is an elevated play space for children, and the last stop, Western Market, connects elevated walkways to the waterfront or further up to Sheung Wan, Probst says.

Runner-up PangArchitect led a consortium that included planners from Spain and engineers from Japan. Angela Pang from PangArchitect drew inspiration from her childhood memories of construction in the area. Scaffolding informed the design team’s narrative for harnessing underused spaces – such as private podiums, lanes and back alleys – and reinventing them for public use, in collaboration with private developers.

Pang says the steel system envisaged to create the themed nodes is similar to scaffolding: easily assembled, flexible in size and scale, either temporary or permanent, and able to be utilised in myriad ways for community gatherings.

“This modular system allows more frequent, casual and opportunistic connections between streets and podiums, clawing up buildings like vines,” she says.

It includes a green planted ecological tower (the Eco Power Tower) in front of Western Market; an urban farm at street level; and a series of elevated “urban living rooms” for various activities.

SO-IL co-founder Jing Liu’s Des Voeux Daydream uses a modular mesh system to define a series of usable spaces, including looping a green screen around buildings to create a kind of urban forest.

Given the feasibility criteria, how doable is Hassell and We Made That’s proposal for a 1.4km hanging garden laced along the buildings?

Sharon Wright, principal of Hassell, says it is “absolutely feasible from a botanical point of view”. She adds that the firm has been trialling a particular kind of arbour structure for such an application.

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A garden “floating” on high-rises would be uniquely Hong Kong, Wright says.

“Global examples of pedestrianised streets are usually fixated on the ground plane. But with so much of Hong Kong life taking place higher above, we saw an opportunity to create something truly unique and in sync with the city’s identity.”

However, these are all just proposals at this stage. DVRC is hoping for approval of its proposed Sheung Wan fiesta, involving a two-block road closure from April to June 2019 where the winning designs would be exhibited. This would be the “proof of concept” Walker Frisinger believes is required before any recommendations to government are made.

“After that we will try to progress the development of the entire 1.4km stretch incorporating this design, and maybe more than one design,” she says.