West Kowloon Cultural District: Hong Kong's ambitious experiment

West Kowloon Cultural District: Hong Kong's ambitious experiment

Lead architect for the West Kowloon Cultural District says his scheme will undo Kowloon's "total nightmare" of urban planning

West Kowloon Cultural DistrictHopefully, the WKCD will end up something like this.You certainly can’t say the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) has been starved of attention. Over the past 10 years, the HK$21.6 billion project has been discussed, nitpicked and reworked ad nauseam.

In the lead up to the selection of Norman Foster’s “City Park” scheme as the master plan for the district, just about every artist, cultural group and politician in town has had their say on the matter, from the size of the planned theaters, exhibition spaces and museums to the role that “cultural software” -- programming and education -- will play in the district’s success.

But for all the talk, one thing has been largely overlooked: the fact that WKCD is Hong Kong’s most ambitious experiment in urban planning since the creation of the New Territories New Towns in the 1970s.

When the district is finally completed in the mid-2020s, it will not only include 18 new cultural venues, but also apartments and shops, new streets, parks, plazas and transportation links.

In other words, this is the creation of an entirely new neighborhood, one that will eventually be home to thousands of full-time residents, 16,000 workers and countless visitors. This isn’t only about building arts and culture -- it’s about building a new model of urban development.

But just what kind of city does WKCD represent? The answer, at least on paper, is environmentally-sensitive, pedestrian-friendly, small-scale and full of greenery. Whether it will actually turn out that way depends on how much Hong Kong’s government is dedicated to seeing Foster’s vision through to the end.

To learn more about how WKCD will take shape, we pay a visit to Colin Ward, lead architect on Foster’s West Kowloon design team. We meet him inside the Foster + Partners office in Admiralty, which has a view over Victoria Harbour, where Ward enthusiastically discusses the nuances of the master plan.

West Kowloon Cultural DistrictA rendering of the future arts hub.

Keep it lively

Ward starts with a warning.

“Exemplar cultural districts can be, if you’re not careful, terrible urban districts,” he says; so the Foster team focused on what they termed the “19th venue” -- the public realm.

Ward says the district will put an emphasis on the kind of convivial streetlife and informal activity that makes a neighborhood like Mong Kok interesting.

“Culture should be embedded in the city -- wrapped in the city,” he says. “Two thirds of this brief is ‘city,’ the filler that goes in between the cultural venues.”

That brings us to the WKCD’s first major challenge: its setting.

The only reason the space for the cultural district exists is because it was left over from the vast Airport Core Programme reclamation project in the early 1990s, which created 3.4 square kilometers of new land to accommodate a highway and rail line heading out to the new airport at Chep Lap Kok. It still feels like leftover space.

Most of West Kowloon is now a muddled collection of big roads and huge developments like Union Square, a fortress-like complex that includes Kowloon Station, the International Commerce Centre, Elements mall and several enormous apartment towers.

To the west is the entrance of the Western Harbour Crossing; to the east, a highway-like stretch of Canton Road.

“It’s a total nightmare,” says Ward, gesturing out the window, across the harbor, where the future cultural district will take shape. “As an urban form it’s a series of disconnected, isolated pieces.”

West Kowloon Cultural DistrictColin Ward

Undoing the damage

The success of the cultural district will hinge on its ability to undo the damage of thoughtless urban planning.

Foster’s plan calls for a network of broad elevated walkways that will branch out from the upper floors of Elements, gradually sloping down to the cultural district. The district’s buildings will reflect the transition: taller next to Union Square, shorter near the waterfront.

Water taxis and ferries will serve the waterfront and still more footbridges will link the district to nearby Kowloon Park in Tsim Sha Tsui, King George V Park in Jordan and the Yau Ma Tei typhoon shelter.

The goal is to knit a bunch of stray threads back into the fabric of the city. That urban fabric served as inspiration for the way the district will look and feel -- the “DNA of the city,” as Foster put it -- but with a twist.

“The question we asked ourselves is, how do we make this an extension of the city, but better?” says Ward. They started by banishing cars and other vehicles to the subterranean depths of the district, leaving the ground level to pedestrians.

Austin Road and other arteries will also be buried, which will not only make those footbridge links to surrounding areas easier, but will also allow people to walk straight from the entrance of the Express Rail Terminus into the heart of the cultural district.

When they get there, they will encounter a network of tree-lined streets that takes its architectural cues from old Hong Kong, most notably the sidewalk arcades that were once found throughout the city. Those covered sidewalks, in addition to street trees and water features, can lower temperatures by up to eight degrees on a hot summer day.

“Hong Kong is an incredible metropolis, but what it doesn’t do very well is public open space -- places where you can take five minutes to relax,” says Ward. “The whole idea here is to look back at how we used to build in a sub-tropical climate, before air-conditioning.”

Those climate-friendly features are part of Foster’s long-term goal of making West Kowloon a carbon-neutral district. Other strategies will include the conversion of food waste into biogas fuel and the use of wind and solar energy to power the district’s buildings.

If West Kowloon’s power and cooling systems are implemented as soon as possible, the district could be carbon-neutral as early as 2025. But will it work? The most controversial part of Foster’s plan is the 19-hectare park, planted with the same local flora found in the New Territories, that will take up nearly half of the cultural district’s site.

Critics suggested that the green space would be more useful if it was broken up into smaller pieces scattered throughout the district. Some worried that, like Hong Kong’s other parks, the West Kowloon green space would be oppressively managed by the government. The criticism touches on an important point.

Now that the master plan is complete, Foster and his team have only so much influence over the final outcome of the cultural district. Each building in the plan will now be tendered out to developers that may be tempted to compromise on some aspects of Foster’s guidelines.

The government could also be tempted to cut back on some details, especially after an announcement that the project will be delayed by up to two years because of Express Rail construction, which could raise construction costs.

Still, Ward is optimistic. He points to the existence of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, an umbrella organization that will oversee the district’s development while sidestepping the petty concerns of individual government departments.

The district’s budget has already been set aside. Land sales and retail rents will cover its operating costs. “In essence,” says Ward, “Hong Kong gets a cultural district for free.” And a possible model for city-building, too.

Christopher DeWolf is a writer, photographer and self-styled flâneur.
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