The multi-billion dollar West Kowloon Cultural District is taking shape on 40 hectares of reclaimed harbour-front land. Often controversial and plagued by budget cuts, the project represents a government commitment to the city's cultural development
Dressed in construction boots, a hard hat and a high-vis vest, Louis Yu stands on the roof terrace of one of the under-construction concert venues at Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), where he serves as executive director of performing arts, and looks out over the future park. "Young people having a late-night dance party, then old people doing tai chi at six in the morning – this is our dream," he says. "This will not be a quiet park. It's going to be full of activity." He watches a construction crane lift a pallet of materials. "And it's finally coming up."
Following a 2010 competition and public consultation, Foster + Partners was selected to design the cultural district's master plan. It is unclear how much of the blueprint will be implemented now budget shortfalls have forced the indefinite delay of some of the location's smaller venues, but Suhanya Raffel, director of the M+ Museum, which is part of the complex, says work is already underway on the most complicated and expensive part of the plan, a vast underground facility to handle motorised traffic, freeing up the ground level to pedestrians and cyclists.
Construction of the 23-hectare Art Park – quite possibly the most popular aspect of the Foster plan during consultations – is also making progress. The first phase of the park will open in early 2018, with the rest of the park completed the following year.
The multi-purpose centre for the arts set to rock the cityscape
It is a scorching afternoon, but it's surprisingly cool inside the concrete shell of Freespace, a new music and performance venue in the West Kowloon Cultural District. Designed by Dennis Lau and Ng Chun Man Architects in collaboration with acclaimed Dutch landscape designers West 8 and local firm ACLA, the facility will include a concert hall accommodating 450 seated people or 900 standing, live music bar, event rooms – and an indoor/outdoor philosophy that is unusual in deeply air-conditioned Hong Kong.
Thanks to operable windows and folding-glass doors, the building's atrium funnels the summer breeze, cooling the interior. "The whole space is designed to be connected to the outdoors," Yu says. "The building can operate independently, but it's also open to the park around it."
Many Hongkongers might recognise the name Freespace from the Freespace Happening, an eclectic festival that takes place several times a year in the West Kowloon Nursery Park, bringing together live music, craft markets, literary events and romping pets. Those events have served as a testing ground for how this permanent venue will operate.
"We started planning in 2011," Yu says. "Back then, Hong Kong people were still quite hesitant about going outdoors. We assumed they liked to stay in air-conditioned spaces."
Yet for several years there has been a cultural shift as more and more people have embraced outdoor activities and events. "Hong Kong's attitudes have changed a lot," he says.
The permanent Freespace site was designed with that cultural shift in mind. Fresh air and crowds will spill into the building, which will be bookended by green spaces developed for festivals and live music. A lawn will slope up to the building's east side, providing direct access to Freespace's first floor and a view over the drama that is Victoria Harbour.
To the west, an outdoor stage will face a much bigger lawn that can accommodate 6,000 picnickers or 10,000 standing concertgoers. Thick noise-isolating walls will allow diverse events to be held at the same time.
"Imagine a rock concert outdoors and classical music indoors," Yu says.
Hong Kong's first permanent Chinese opera venue makes its debut
Though it will be one of the first of the WKCD's facilities to open, Freespace is just a small part of the overall plan. Even after cutbacks due to the soaring construction costs, the district remains one of Hong Kong's most ambitious design efforts, with 40 hectares of cultural facilities interspersed by shops, restaurants, offices and residences. Next year, the district's first venue, the Xiqu Centre, will open at the corner of Canton and Austin Roads, giving Hong Kong its first permanent venue for Chinese opera.
Bing Thom, the project's Hong Kong-born Canadian architect, who died last year, once described the building as having a "moving quality", with a curtain-like facade designed to invite visitors inside.
"I'm trying to capture the soul and essence of what this art form is about, while giving [it] this contemporary expression of ambiguity," he said in 2013 when the project was first unveiled. The facade, made of curving metal fins, is currently being installed.
The Xiqu Centre will offer a 1,100-seat main auditorium, a teahouse theatre, a 120-seat seminar hall, teaching spaces, rehearsal halls and a variety of retail and dining spaces. Thom's design calls for the main theatre to be raised three floors, leaving the ground floor open to create a public gathering space, similar in concept to the HSBC Building's popular ground-floor atrium, but with more public programming.
Each of the Xiqu Centre's theatres was designed specifically for Chinese opera, which will set them apart from many existing Hong Kong opera venues, such as the Ko Shan Theatre and the Sunbeam Theatre.
"If you create the rake too steeply, following the Western tradition, then everything is foreshortened," Thom said. "The performers seem shorter than they really are, the jumps aren't as high, the headdresses hide the facial expression: the most important part of the expression is the eye movement."
A flexible space signals the arrival of a perfect contemporary art backdrop
The highly anticipated M+ Museum is due to open in 2019 with 17,000 sq-m of exhibition space, three cinemas, a lecture hall, learning centre, performance spaces and a mediatheque. The Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron, also responsible for the Old Bailey Galleries in the revamped Victoria Prison, and renowned architecture practice Farrells jointly won the bid after an international competition that included Renzo Piano, Shigeru Ban, Toyo Ito and Snøhetta.
"They won because they understood the importance of creating dialogue between these different platforms for culture instead of just compartmentalising everything," Lars Nittve, the museum's founding director, said when the design was unveiled in 2015.
Since then, the architects have worked with curators to design a home for the museum's collections of art, film and design objects.
The museum's new director, Suhanya Raffel, who replaced Nittve when he retired last year, says the design puts an emphasis on flexible spaces well suited to contemporary forms of art and exhibition, which tend to blur the boundaries of both genre and physical space.
"We had a dialogue with artists that led to lots of interesting spaces," she says. "Artists are not fettered by anything – in fact they tend to push the envelope of museums."
Even more unusual will be the museum's form: a grey high-rise slab mounted on a low-slung horizontal podium. When the design was unveiled, some critics likened it to a tombstone, but Raffel says the effect will be altogether different when it is completed and the high-rise facade turns into a giant screen that will enable video art to be seen from across the harbour.
HONG KONG PALACE MUSEUM
A spaciousness and dramatic venue, purpose built to showcase China's diverse cultural heritage
Next up will be a surprise addition to the cultural district: the Hong Kong branch of Beijing's Palace Museum. It sparked a storm of criticism when it was unexpectedly unveiled last December. Even the cultural district's board was not told of the plan until a month before the public announcement, yet the museum's design, by Rocco Yim, appeared to be nearly complete. It was in sharp contrast to all of West Kowloon's other major venues, which were the result of architectural competitions. Public consultations on the design were held belatedly in early 2017, but it is not clear what, if any, impact this will have on the project's outcome.
What is known is that the museum will have 7,600 sq-m of gallery space devoted to Chinese artefacts, including jade, gold and bronze objects. There will also be a 400-seat lecture hall, a restaurant, a museum shop and activity rooms. According to press materials, the design is based on "a concept of linked courtyards translated into a vertical series of atriums that draw the visitor upwards".
This is an excerpt from the “Building an art collection" article from the September 2017 issue of Perspective magazine.
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