Amsterdam-based UNStudio brings its signature financial and social sustainability credentials to Hong Kong's West Kowloon Cultural District
“I love to design theatres. I love the idea of escapism. Dance, or music or a play, is different than the cinema because it's lively and it stays with you," says UNStudio founder and principal architect Ben van Berkel, relaxing between presentations at Hong Kong's Business of Design Week. He's also in town to check up on the progress of the Lyric Theatre Complex in the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), for which UNStudio won the design competition.
UNStudio was uniquely positioned to work within the parameters and demands of the WKCD. The 41,000sqm (440,000sqf) complex will sit on a relatively small footprint and will need to be a typically compact Hong Kong building. But its location facing the harbour and backed with an open plaza (Artist Square) led to a transparent design focused on connection and liveliness. The design would also be challenged by the necessary underground infrastructure, and WKCD's demand there be direct connection between the theatre and an access road for deliveries. "It was hard to crack the puzzle, but the nice thing was we could go quite deep into the site," recalls van Berkel. "We go almost four floors down."
I love to design theatres. I love the idea of escapism. Dance, or music or a play, is different than the cinema because it's lively and it stays with you
UNStudio was founded in 1988 with a mandate to crack precisely the kind of puzzles the Lyric posed, and to "future-proof the future". The studio's hallmarks are a commitment to financially and socially sustainable architecture, designs that integrate technological built-environment solutions on a human scale and research that binds them all together. The vertical infrastructure of Melbourne's Southbank by Beulah, for instance, aims to integrate and connect retailing, dining, residential, commercial, cultural and the public realm in a connected indoor-outdoor framework. And Lane 189 in Shanghai reconfigures the vertical commercial complex as a place for socialising and accommodating leisure activities, as well as work.
In addition to the head office in the Netherlands, UNStudio has had a branch in Shanghai for a decade and in Hong Kong for five years – a city that van Berkel doesn't believe is anti-innovation, contrary to the belief of some. While he admits there is an enviable level of open discussion of "new, interesting, contemporary topics" in the Shanghai office, and that he enjoys the fact his clients in China are keen to bring diversity to their projects, he insists Hong Kong isn't the hopeless wasteland many media outlets have portrayed it to be.
"There's not a lot of separation now and, contrary to popular belief, Hong Kong is more innovative in some ways; innovation is indeed encouraged here," says van Berkel. "The reason for that [negative] impression may be related to speed – speed of construction, of decision making, of choosing an architect and so on. But the danger then is that if you make neighbourhoods too monofunctional, with not enough innovation, you don't create any diversity in the architecture. The nice thing about Hong Kong is, going back to the 1970s and '80s, many international architects designed many great buildings. There's plenty of innovation in the city's history."The Lyric Theatre Complex, scheduled for completion in 2022 or 2023, is designed around what van Berkel refers to as a central spine, with inner alleyways that connect the Artist Square at the back with the harbourfront. The design included public spaces to accommodate the access roads, exploiting the theatre's inherently sloping forms to make them part of the solution.
"When I first took a look at the district there was nothing there. Not even M+ was under construction," says van Berkel, reflecting on his perceptions of the site after winning the bid. "But I knew it quite well because an old student of mine organised an art festival there. I couldn't quite imagine what it would be like, but when I dug into [Foster + Partners] master plan… I could imagine a building that would generate more public life. That was my hope. I thought it was a great opportunity."
Technology always helps, but if acoustics aren't engineered through the architecture itself – the height of the room or the texture of the walls – then it's irrelevant
Though UNStudio typically incorporates new technologies into its designs, van Berkel admits that this approach is not always the right one for cultural venues. As the child of a musician and brother of an actor, he was sensitive to the peculiar requirements of performing arts venues. The Lyric Theatre Complex will be UNStudio's fourth, following Lelystad's Theatre Agora and Theatre de Stoep in Spijkenisse (both in the Netherlands) and the Beethoven Concert Hall in Bonn, Germany."Technology always helps, but if acoustics aren't engineered through the architecture itself – the height of the room or the texture of the walls – then it's irrelevant," he says. "Chairs can be wrong; wood on the back creates an echo. There are a million little details that really count, which you can call 'analogue'."
The defining spine is made up of two curving, stacked ramps (wheelchair accessible) in a figure eight that solved entry problems to each of the complex's venues. The building breaks down into three functionalities: retail, dining and entertainment, in three colour-coded auditoriums. Red and bronze characterise the most formal venue, the Lyric Theatre; purple and walnut define the intimate Medium Theatre; while the black-box experimental atmosphere of the Studio Theatre is blue. Skylights located above the spine's figure eight infuse the volumes with light, and a series of outdoor terraces (including a rooftop) open the space in conjunction with the glass facades. Each auditorium has a dedicated foyer that merges with the spine for simultaneous use with the terraces overlooking the Artist Square or the harbour, creating a de facto fourth performing arts venue. "The idea was to see the life inside the building; that you would notice the festiveness. That's the beauty of the theatre. You step into another world," concludes van Berkel. "And it's important to see that from the outside."