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Mar 08 2011

West Kowloon Cultural District Inches Forward

by Elaine W. Ng

View of the construction site for the West Kowloon Cultural District. Photo by ArtAsiaPacific.

The Hong Kong Government’s artistic aspiration is best illustrated with the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) initiative. On March 4, the government authority overseeing the WKCD announced their decision to award British architect Sir Norman Foster––designer of Chek Lap Kok International Airport and the main headquarters of HSBC––the appointment to design West Kowloon. With an earmarked budget of HKD 21.6 billion (USD 2.8 billion), the 40-hectare complex intermingles commercial and residential space with museums and theaters, a project that the government plans to complete by 2031. Now over 12 years in the making, and mired in controversy, progress is slowly taking shape with an uncanny sense of déjà-vû.

Public support for the arts reached an all-time low in 2005, when architectural proposals for WKCD were announced—including a huge glass canopy designed by Foster—but put on hold by the government. Five years late, on August 20, 2010, a roving exhibition of the master plans by the three shortlisted architects were presented to the public.

Foster + Partners, Rocco Design Architects and Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) displayed their visions of West Kowloon to the public for the first time. In a prerecorded presentation, Norman Foster dubbed their presentation “City Park,” emphasizing green construction and offering Hong Kong a patch of nature on par with New York’s Central Park and London’s Hyde Park.

Local architect Rocco Yim revealed “Cultural Connect: Key to Sustained Vitality” in a live pitch, attempting to incorporate every commercial and altruistic desire driving the project—from a public swimming pool to a community art college and an amphitheatre with a giant water curtain as a projection screen.

Rem Koolhaas also addressed the public with OMA’s “Project for a new dimension,” built around the concept of village life. OMA separated the district into three villages: “Art in the East,” “Performance in the West: Theatre Village” and “Market in the Middle.” Certainly “Market in the Middle” should have appealed to commercial appetites surrounding West Kowloon as a central place of congregation and commerce for the different villages. Also proposed was a floor of studios in M+ (Museum Plus), the main visual arts museum at WKCD that will span high- and low-art genres, from ink painting to comic art––a place for artists to create their wares and sell them directly.

All three plans, on display to the public through November 20, were guided by the principle to satisfy a broad spectrum of expectations. A public poll conducted after the exhibition showed Foster + Partner’s proposal as the popular choice. On March 4, authority chairman and Chief Secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen announced Foster the winner and applauded his plan for its flexibility. Somehow, the Hong Kong government and its citizens have quickly forgotten that not so long ago Foster’s initial proposal of a glass canopy covering 55 percent of the area was a source of widespread public outcry.

Other hindrances to the WKCD have arisen out of leadership debacles. In March last year, Graham Sheffield, artistic director of London’s Barbican Centre, was appointed the second chief executive, yet he mysteriously resigned in less than a year of his appointment in December. His predecessor, former Disney executive Angus Cheng Siu-Chuen, resigned within ten days on the job in 2009. In June 2010, the government selected Lars Nittve, the founding director of Tate Modern and director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm, to head the M+. Nittve began his post in January 2011.

The first phase of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority is due to be completed in 2015.

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