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Following is a reader’s critique of the conceptual plans for the West Kowloon Cultural District. Join the debate and send us your views: info@designinghongkong.com

Difficult odds

An isolated and awkwardly-shaped site surrounded by hostile infrastructure and megablocks. An ambitious cultural program in a city known as a cultural desert. A history of false starts, a wary public, and a government desperate for face-saving success. Three brand-name architects are called in and offered generous time and public money to go against these difficult odds and come up with something good. So what did we get?

Good ideas should be stolen

The folllowing critique does not mean to diminish the considerable achievements of all three teams in tackling this enormously complex problem; all schemes have something to learn from, and contrary to the latest conventional wisdom that says one scheme should be selected and implemented completely, as if they each represent an unassailable fortress of design integrity, good ideas should be shamelessly stolen from the lesser schemes and incorporated in the final version of the best one.

Rocco: Troubling

Rocco gave us a greened-up version of his IFC development – a big podium with a landscaped rooftop. It is really a very large building, rather than a master plan; it is architecture, rather than urban design. It would be difficult to design and develop incrementally, and even in the hands of a skilled designer like Mr. Yim the architecture would be far too monotonous for such a large site.

Most troubling, the pedestrian circulation system is confusing and uncomfortable; almost every journey requires one or more level changes between podium-top walkways and plazas, the rooftop park, ground-level tram and waterfront promenade, and the various bridges and subways connecting to the surrounding areas. This kind of messy, multi-level circulation may work in Central, where regular users know the shortest and most convenient path, but for a destination district you need something more intuitive, and for a greenfield site, there is no reason why it couldn’t be.

Finally, the enormous sloping green roof is difficult to access, enjoy, and maintain - a water-thirsty, largely treeless meadow best seen from the window of an airplane.

Koolhaas: Cleverisms

Koolhaas, true to his philosophy, gave us clever miniatures of Hong Kong, the good and the bad: pockets of dense urbanity teeming with street markets and myriad human activities (good!), which are also, at the same time, disjointed developments accessible only via bus or a vast underground pedestrian network (not good).

There is no easy way for pedestrians to move across the entire district in an east-west direction, not even along the water. Austin Road, which the other two designers used for moving people on a monorail (Foster) or tram (Rocco), is a lifeless road between the barren podium walls of Elements and Koolhaas’s own shopping structure, before it turns into the most bizarre element in the scheme - the curved signature bridge, an expensive touch of irony which this infrastructure-burdened site could live without. The large parks, too, feel like they separate rather than connect the different sub-districts.

Snappy graphics and urbane cleverisms, hallmarks of Koolhaas’s style, don’t mask the fact that the result feels a bit like a string of Disneylands: three themed “villages” separated from each other and from the rest of the city, all dressed up for vitality but lacking the programmatic DNA and organic connectivity that animate the precedents they are trying to emulate.

Foster: Simply the best

Foster’s scheme is “safe and boring” (as a previous writer claimed) in the same way that the Manhattan street grid is safe and boring. In fact, Foster’s scheme may be the most radical precisely in that, unlike the other schemes, and maybe even in defiance of the WKCD brief it manages not to look like a “project”: no podium, no architectural gimmicks, no “special places” requiring contrived programming.

Instead it offers a few simple features which make it not just the most feasible, but also the best: a simple, intelligible ground-level pedestrian network, which makes the waterfront more accessible from the entire site; small-parcel incremental development; concentration of most activities on the more accessible east side, with large event venues at the “dead end” west; a real terra-firma park rather than a landscaped roof.

Replace the monorail with Rocco’s cool tram, add more ferry links and a good public plaza, and you have an excellent development framework, still with a whole lot of empty cultural boxes waiting to be filled with exciting content, and still with weak links to the outside world.

Getting there will be no fun

In all three schemes the XRL station, with its welcoming street-level plaza and direct access to the waterfront, offers the only true civic gateway to the new district. A great welcome to Mainland visitors, but not so for Hong Kong people, whose most convenient option seems to be using a public transport interchange or car park in the basement.

It is ironic that it will be quicker, and certainly more gracious, to arrive in West Kowloon by rail from Shenzhen than from almost anywhere in Hong Kong, as the typical MTR journey to West Kowloon will require multiple transfers and a long walk in a pedestrian bridge or a subway. It is sad, but unsurprising, that even the best brains in architecture couldn’t overcome this fundamental and probably intractable problem.

What is your view? Join the debate and send us your critique of the conceptual plans for the West Kowloon Cultural District at info@designinghongkong.com
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