Hong-kongers and visitors alike often say that Hong Kong is culturally vacuous or that the city doesn’t have any culture full stop. For most of Hong Kong’s 170-year existence, the focus has been on building a strong financial centre here while the culture sector, seen as something unable to generate enough revenue to merit any real attention, was placed on the backburner.
That’s all set to change. Last week, three master plans for the West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD), a 400,000 sq m site on reclaimed waterfront land in Kowloon that aims to place this city culturally on a par with New York or Paris, were unveiled at the Venice Biennale and in Hong Kong.Here, the WKCD’s roving exhibition, on show until the end of November, generated a tremendous public response with hundreds of people pouring over the models and scribbling their opinions on a 15-page questionnaire, which will serve as the basis for picking a winner.
The ambitious master plans by OMA, Foster + Partners and local practice Rocco include everything from a contemporary arts museum to Cantonese opera houses to art schools, concert halls, theatres, artist studios, a film school, parks and plenty of retail outlets, offices and apartments.Besides some variations in the cultural facilities on offer, all proposals focus on making the site pedestrian-friendly (something rather radical in Hong Kong where walking isn’t too popular as a method of getting from A to B) by opening up the waterfront and introducing as much green space as possible with large swathes of park areas. For example, OMA proposes a “village-life” model where people mingle in a defined and culturally vibrant space.“In a village, everybody knows each other.
We wanted to create a model where everything happens in one place – life and work – because it creates interaction between people. Interaction means that culture will and can grow,” says David Gianotten, director of OMA’s Hong Kong office.
WKCD Authority, the government-body set up to oversee everything from the ideas-stage to execution and the HK$21.6bn (€2.1bn) set aside for the development, is quick to counter criticisms that there may be pitfalls with transplanting cultural life where there is none. “We want WKCD to develop organically. We don’t want to just build this in one go. It will be an incremental process that will meet demand and the changes in demand. We don’t want to end up with hardware that is so inflexible it won’t be able to adapt to elastic growth,” says Chan Mai Wai, WKCD project delivery executive director.
Although construction isn’t slated to start for another five years, the buzz WKCD is generating is a sure sign that Hong Kong’s future cultural scene will be a force to be reckoned with, both here and internationally.