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designing hong kong
CitySpeak: A new identity for the Central Market

Saturday, 16 April 2011
10am - 12:30pm
Fringe Club
To reserve your free seat email
[email protected] or call 2521 7251.
For more details on CitySpeak and the Central Market, click here.


Heated discussions

The unveiling of the options for the new identity of the Central Market has kicked off heated discussions:

"Why keep the Central Market and destroy the Graham and Peel Street open air markets?"

"How can you see that it is Bauhaus when it is covered with wall gardens?"

"All depends on how the Central Market will be managed. Have you been in the Western Market - another URA managed market - lately?"

"The Central Market has great potential to be packaged as a "Market for Intelligence" - a 24-hour book market with cultural entertainment. The renovation must suit that purpose with the least amount of intervention, a clever enhancement, not a monster building with all sorts of gimmicks which defeat the purpose of its preservation."

Join the URA, the four architects, academics and others to discuss the future of the Central Market at CitySpeak on Saturday - 10am - 12:30pm. Fringe Club.

Below - Oren Tatcher does not believe the Central Market is worth saving, while Bernard Chan believes that it could become like Singapore's Lau Pa Sat.

You can't turn a concrete block into an urban oasis

Not everyone agrees that the Central Market is worth saving - read below an opinion piece by Oren Tatcher, architect and a member of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design, published in the South China Morning Post, 12 April, 2011.

It sounded like a great idea: in his policy address in 2009, responding to public calls for more historical preservation and open space, the chief executive announced the removal of the dilapidated Central Market building from the land auction list, entrusting the Urban Renewal Authority with its revitalisation as an "urban oasis".

After a survey of the community's preferences for the use of the site, conducted last year, the authority commissioned four teams to come up with design concepts, the results of which are now on display in a roving exhibition around town.

The design teams produced richly illustrated concepts. But, beyond the glitz of the exhibitions, the results are deeply disappointing, and not for lack of trying: I am quite sympathetic to the architects, who took on this hulking mass of concrete and tried to dress it up and carve it into something it was never meant to be. The designs are mostly awkward, accommodating a contrived programme of activities shrouded in "green walls" which are neither environmentally sound nor sympathetic to the original Modernist architecture.

None successfully solves the fundamental urban design problems of the building. On the one hand, its outsized scale creates a foreboding presence in Queen Victoria and Jubilee streets, with mostly blank facades along narrow footpaths. On the other, the site, surrounded by busy roads and thick rows of skyscrapers, is too small to be a true "oasis"; its roof gardens will not have the breezy, open feel of the roof of the IFC podium, which is unfortunately difficult to access but benefits from a superior location.
There is a sad echo here of the West Kowloon saga, another case where the government gave a site an aspirational label ("cultural centre"), without considering if the site was appropriate for its designated use. In both cases, talented designers struggled to overcome the physical limitations of the site to meet the wishful label. And, in both cases, there is a deep suspicion that the final outcome will be dominated by the one thing we do very well - an upscale shopping centre.

The solution to the conundrum is quite simple: tell the government we don't want this fake "oasis". Whether the existing building is preserved or not (I am personally not convinced of its heritage value), the site should be redeveloped into a couple of Grade A office towers, the kind we are told that are in direly short supply in Central. There is no better site for it in Central: bordering on high-capacity streets with excellent connectivity, and in the middle of an area already full of skyscrapers, the towers will have relatively little negative environmental and transport impact on their immediate surroundings.

The benefits to the public, on the other hand, would be substantial: the ground floor and elevated bridges could be vastly upgraded, including significant public open space (think of the landscaping and open space around Three Pacific Place or Landmark East); the authority's coffers will be enriched, allowing it to pursue more sustainable but money-losing urban renewal projects elsewhere; and, by providing a big boost to the Grade A office supply, the main rationale for the ill-conceived redevelopment scheme of the west wing of Government Hill will no longer exist, allowing us to keep that genuine urban oasis in its current form.

One can only hope that this administration, or perhaps the next, will finally come up with a holistic and comprehensive plan for Central. Perhaps then we will save what needs to be saved (the west wing) and redevelop what can be redeveloped (the Central Market), instead of the unfortunate current vision to turn a green hill into a concrete podium and a concrete podium into an "urban oasis".

Has the penny finally dropped with planners?

Bernard Chan, former legislative and executive councillor, explains in the South China Morning Post on October 23, 2009 that although he thinks that the Central Market is unattractive architecture, he believes it could become something for everyone like Lau Pa Sat in Singapore.

In my public service work on heritage and sustainable development, I hear a lot of comments along the lines of "government doesn't get it". Activists and campaigners complain that officials cannot break out of their traditional mindset, especially the assumption that government revenue should take priority over quality of life in land and planning matters. My response has been broadly to agree, but I remind them that public demand for fresh thinking in this area is relatively new.

It is only in the last year or so, for example, that ordinary citizens (as opposed to activists) have started complaining in a big way about the "wall effect", where buildings are crammed together in a row.

My feeling was that government would take time to adjust. But I knew some officials understood the need for change, and I expressed confidence that, in time, they would "get it". I am glad to say that chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen's policy address last week has helped to prove me right.

The Development Bureau's plans for government-owned sites in Central promise to make a visible difference to the area's quality of life. The idea is to conserve various buildings like the Central Market and much of the central government office complex, to provide more open space on the waterfront and convert the Murray Building into a hotel.

The alternative is to sell the sites to developers and allow redevelopment. That means raising revenue, but destroying heritage sites and increasing traffic congestion, air pollution and so on. This is the traditional, and very pragmatic, way we have handled it in the past. The government is taking a bold step with this new approach in Central.

There are critics in business, the media and indeed the bureaucracy who view the plans only in accounting terms. To them, this has "cost" the government billions of dollars it could have made from land sales. They can't see the intangible value of a better quality of life. Perhaps they will come round when they see the results.

A hotel in the Murray Building would be unique, thanks to the distinctive architecture and location. Some real greenery and imaginative facilities would make the waterfront a pleasure for people to visit. Places like the central police station, the police quarters on Hollywood Road and the old French Mission offer opportunities for all sorts of activities.

Even where the architecture may be unimpressive (as with the police quarters), the locations are ideal, and avoiding more skyscrapers in these cramped areas will be a relief.

Conservation of the Central Market could be an excellent example of the benefits of renovation over redevelopment. I must confess that I don't find the architecture attractive, but the key thing is leaving a low level site in an area that is clearly overdeveloped and overcrowded.

This could become something for everyone to enjoy: office workers, local residents and tourists. Singapore's central business district also has an old wet market, dating from Victorian times and built of wrought iron, called Lau Pa Sat. Today it is a food court, serving hawker food to office workers by day and tourists and others in the evening.

Something like that, offering an accessible and relaxing retreat from the congestion around it, could give Central a new icon. Not a major stunning skyscraper, and not a mall full of designer labels, but a fun place on a human scale where people can sit, hang out and, hopefully, enjoy some traditional snacks.

At the moment, many Central office workers on a normal budget have little choice for lunch but to stand in line for some fast food which they rush back to eat at their desks. Don't they deserve something better? And a fun gathering place in Central Market would become popular among tourists and residents in the evenings, bringing some life to the business district after dark.

How can you put a dollar value on these things?
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