Kowloon East regeneration featured in exhibition at Venice Biennale

Kowloon East - warts and all - is under the microscope as part of the 13th International Architecture Exhibition at the Venice Biennale

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 27 August, 2012, 5:59am

Kowloon East steps on to the world stage in Venice today, when Hong Kong's attempts to redevelop the area are put on display at the 13th International Architecture Exhibition, part of the Italian city's biennale festival.

On show will be the government's masterplan to redevelop the 320 hectares of the Kai Tak Development and the 168 hectares of Kwun Tong and Kowloon Bay, turning it into another central business district saturated with shiny skyscrapers filled with more offices, more shops and more tourism facilities.

But the exhibition also asks the question: what went wrong in Hong Kong?

According to Christopher Law Kin-chung, chief curator of Inter Cities/Intra Cities: Ghostwriting the Future, the Hong Kong exhibition serving as part of the biennale's collateral events: "Hong Kong had this great advantage of being diverse. Large corporations and grass-roots shops could stay together in a harmonious way. But Hong Kong is becoming very homogenous, and you can see this in many districts, where public spaces are controlled by commercial properties.

"How can we preserve diversity and compatibility as well as Hong Kong's pluralistic nature under globalisation and modernisation? The planning for the development of Hong Kong has been too scientific. There's always this oversimplification of society, which is governed by logic and science. But cities aren't that simple."

The Hong Kong exhibition features 17 projects by 14 exhibitors dealing with the Kowloon East redevelopment, exploring the issues of diversity and compatibility in response to "Common Ground", the theme of this year's biennale, which was decided by the biennale's chief curator, David Chipperfield.

Common Ground goes beyond shared space and shared ideas, to a culture derived from a "common history, common ambitions, common predicaments and ideals", according to Chipperfield, who is presiding over 69 projects by 119 participants, architects, artists and scholars, including the Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei . Fifty-five countries, including China, are taking part.

The HK$3 million Hong Kong exhibition, co-organised by the Hong Kong Institute of Architects and the Arts Development Council, is appearing in the bienniale for the fourth time, with funding from the government and private sponsors. The organisers selected the proposal by Christopher Law, a director of the Oval Partnership, after a public competition. Law says that he centred the exhibition on Kowloon East for more reasons than it being Hong Kong's largest regeneration project.

"[Its] size is so large that it's [on a scale] rarely seen … The past developments of new towns like Sha Tin were developments of farm lands. But this time it is about redeveloping a densely populated area that already has an existing culture and history," says Law, who grew up in Kowloon City during the 1960s and 1970s.

The government's plan to redevelop the area, branded as "Energising Kowloon East", includes the redevelopment of industrial buildings into offices, shops, services and hotels.

The plan also includes about 1.06 million square metres of office space in Kai Tak, site of the old Hong Kong airport, and some 800,000 square metres of retail and hotel spaces, public and private housing as well as sports and tourism facilities.

Law says: "The operation and functioning of Hong Kong have been distanced from the humanity. By having each exhibitor look at the future outlook of the [area], I want to put the idea of compatibility back into the agenda for public policy-making."

The exhibition showcases works capturing the past, present and future of Kowloon East. On one hand, the exhibition shows the grand redevelopment schemes. There is Foster and Partners' glamorous plan for the cruise terminal, while the Urban Renewal Authority's project Flat for Flat is also on display.

The Flat for Flat exhibition, led by Ronald Lu and Partners' associate director Eugene Ching Yuk-yu, examines the possibility of rebuilding a community in private architectural projects. The scheme allows inhabitants in areas facing urban redevelopment to exchange their old residences for new flats. The exhibition features not only the architectural plans but interviews with residents.

Ching says: "This is a private property project, but we hope to show how architecture can help residents to build their relationships [in a new site] among each other by taking into account the way they live. We hope the audience in Venice can see why Hong Kong people live so differently, and to show the human side of architecture."

The exhibition also shows the imagination of young artists and tells the stories of ongoing local cultural and environment projects that could be buried by the grand schemes of redevelopment.

The young architectural design firm CAVE Design Studio shows its view of how the diversity of cities is under threat from inhuman urban renewal plans in Imaginary Kai Tak. Bridge City by homegrown star Rocco Yim's team investigates the relationship between bridges and cities, inspired by the discovery of Kai Tak's Lung Tsun Stone Bridge.

The Oval Partnership's Benchmark connects Hong Kong and Venice through a pair of twin benches in the two cities that pick up the surrounding sounds. The sounds of Hong Kong will be heard on the Venice bench, and those sitting on the Hong Kong bench will perhaps hear Italian spoken.

HK Farm and HK Honey will demonstrate the possibilities of farming in a neighbourhood of industrial buildings. They will present the urban agriculture and beekeeping projects based in Ngau Tau Kok, showing how organic and bee farming can be possible on rooftops to produce food and honey.

The story of Hidden Agenda, the "livehouse" music venue located in an industrial building in Kowloon East, told in its exhibit Concrete Tribe, will show how, for many, the incompatibility between artistic freedom and regulation in Hong Kong has become an issue. Hidden Agenda The Movie, part of the exhibit, captures how this independent music venue struggles to survive against the pressures of commerce and government rules in Hong Kong.

Kimi Lam Hiu-ha, one of the operators of Hidden Agenda, says: "Kowloon East is an invisible artistic village. Many vacant industrial buildings have become artists' and musicians' studios.

"We talk about the development of West Kowloon Cultural District, but artists' studios are 'illegal'. We are only contributing to the development of Hong Kong culture, but what have we done wrong? Hong Kong's policies are very outdated."

Hidden Agenda sees itself as one of the victims of East Kowloon's urban redevelopment. Since its establishment by local music enthusiasts in 2009, it has had to move premises twice because of the booming property market and stringent government zoning policies.

A year after settling in its first home in an industrial building in Kwun Tong, the group was forced to move out after the building where it was based was sold for a high price. The operators found a new home in Ngau Tau Kok but were told by the Lands Department that the venue was located on a site in the land zone designated for industrial use only. Eventually it was shut down.

Hidden Agenda found a new home in the same district in January but it is paying HK$25,000 a month instead of the HK$10,000 it paid for its previous home. In addition, Hidden Agenda's organisers say, the government is always on their back because the venue does not have a licence. In March a squad of 20 policemen raided the site.

"Will the government issue a proper licence for our space?" Lam asks. The only two licences available to the group, she says, are either for entertainment venues or bars. "But we are neither of them. We are not singing karaoke here for entertainment. The government's understanding of culture is very low, and its bureaucratic nature makes culture development very difficult."

This has not stopped Hidden Agenda from becoming an attraction, locally and abroad. Local bands interact and exchange with those from mainland China performing at Hidden Agenda, and September will see performances by the British metalcore band Architects and the punk metal band Tonight Alive from Sydney.

"I hope the government can see that we are not doing something bad. We can make it to an international platform but why can't we get recognition from our government?" Lam asks. "But I fear that we will be rid of at some point. The rent will go up because of this redevelopment."

Lam is very worried at how the redevelopment plan will impact on her neighbourhood. Using the metaphor of the old-style open-air food stalls that have almost disappeared from the city, she asks, recalling what she has heard from a consultation workshop run by Energising Kowloon East: "Why [does the government] have to tear down an existing dai pai dong that people like to go to all the time and build a fake one somewhere else? The government should conserve what's already there, not just build something new and move us elsewhere arbitrarily."

Law says that as a Hong Kong-based architect he is very concerned about the future of the city. He sees that Hong Kong, as well as being a creative centre, should also be a city that allows everyone, whether they are professionals or grassroots craftsmen, room for development, without being pushed away because of accelerating inhuman urban development. "But I'm not a legislator. I'm a culture worker who is trying to bring these concepts back to the discussion agenda, which is the first step to make it possible," Law says.

The exhibition runs until November 25 in Venice. All the exhibits will be featured in a response exhibition to be staged in Hong Kong in the spring.