When Deng Xiao Ping promised to let ‘Harbour people rule the harbour’, he wasn’t kidding. As if the citizens of Hong Kong were not already busy enough choosing which of two external designs of waterfront tunnel ventilation buildings they want, they are also being consulted on the exciting West Kowloon Cultural District’s three Conceptual Plan Options. In plain English: the proposals by famous architects to turn the patch of wasteland on the northwest of Victoria River into a glistening hub of parkland, museums, concert halls and only limited amounts of luxury apartments and offices.
The story of the West Kowloon reclamation serves as a mini-history of Hong Kong since the mid-1990s. Originally, Governor Chris Patten’s government decided that the new land (arising from the construction of cross-harbour tunnels) would be a decent downtown park for the Hong Kong people – something the city noticeably lacks. After 1997, when older, colonial-style ‘pro-business’ attitudes resurged under Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa, the government decided that frittering land away on residents would be a waste, and the site should be used to benefit the tourism industry by hosting such facilities as a concert venue. This turned into the idea of a bigger cultural ‘hub’ to generate tourist dollars for the usual beneficiaries, namely landlords.
According to the Big Lychee’s traditional, near-autistic bureaucratic principles, such a project had to be self-financing through funds somehow conjured into being as part of the physical project itself. As with Cyberport, this essentially meant Big Ugly High-Rises of Luxury Apartments, and the property developers were soon salivating at the thought of having all that land to play with. Fatally, the government decided that one bidder, promising to chuck some museums and theatres in for free, would get pretty much the whole site. It came under a guise of a cultural project courtesy of a giant canopy, but people weren’t fooled. By the mid-2000s, such blatant handouts of public wealth to the same little group of families were becoming decidedly unpopular, and the new regime of Donald Tsang wisely dropped the idea. After much deliberation, officials finally took the plunge and abandoned cherished principles: at least a bit of the site would be something nice for local people, and the government – sitting on vast unused reserves – would simply pay for it.
The roving exhibition was distinctly under-visited when I dropped by, but it was during working hours and in Wanchai. In coming months it will rove its way through unsophisticated places like Tuen Mun and Shatin, where displays of architects’ models are a huge novelty and the very idea of free admission will draw millions. Much the same content appears on-line, buried deeply and almost secretly away in the West Kowloon Cultural District website. After 10 minutes’ searching through speeches by Henry Tang and self-congratulatory press releases about a biennale in Venice, you might manage to find the three proposals, offered by: the UK’s Foster and Partners, who did HSBC and the airport; Hong Kong’s Rocco, who did IFC; and the Dutch ‘urbanist’ Koolhas, who designed the ridiculous ‘big underpants’ CCTV HQ in Beijing.
Each plan is supposed to be distinctive, but given the awkward shape of the site and the government-sanctioned percentages of gross floor area and number of facilities for each use, there is an unmistakable sameness about the three. How many different ways are there to link Kowloon Park with WKCD across Canton Road? The two proposed designs for the tunnel ventilation building are a study in stark contrast by comparison. A Developing HK mailing gives a summary of each. Essentially, if we focus on where they vary: the Foster concept comes closest to being the park the common rabble wanted all along, the Rocco one is good in parts but let down by some bad bits, while Koolhas is dumb/weird/crap.
When the rival proposals were unveiled, Chief Secretary and WKCD supremo Henry Tang made a throwaway remark about how we could throw together various features from all three. This resulted in a hail of criticism from several hundred thousand architectural, design and similar experts, shocked at the philistinism of this attack on the integrity of the individual visions. Then a smaller but perhaps classier group of cognescenti came forward to say that, even though Henry Tang said it, and no-one had ever heard Henry say anything that made sense before, really smart and sensitive types like themselves could, in fact, blend certain features of the three designs successfully (though of course you couldn’t mix and match the way Henry probably thought).
What would have happened if, in 1998, the Tung administration had conducted a poll and asked the public to vote for one of: a) give it to Li Ka-shing to cover with luxury towers for absentee Mainlanders; b) build a vacuous vanity monument to bureaucratic onanism; c) have an open green space where kids can ride bikes and have picnics? As with the ventilation buildings, the whole WKCD public consultation exercise is a cover for decisions already made in secret by bureaucrats. There will be three theatres of a particular size; there will be a Cantonese opera joint; there will be some arty educational place; there will be an iconic museum. Do you want them over here in the corner, or down there at the end? Wavy lines on the walls, or grass on the roof? Up to you entirely.