3 stages of HK Cultural Development

The state-support cultural development in Hong Kong can be understood to begin from the post-war period in the late 20th century. With an influx of immigrants from mainland China since the 1950s, the population of Hong Kong has reached two million, for which increasing effort was placed on social provision by the colonial government, mainly through the Urban Council. Formerly as the Sanitary Board, the early work of the Urban Council focused on environment and sanitation issues, it is only until 1973, after its structural reform, that cultural development has become a major area of its service. The reformed Urban Council has gained autonomy in budget and administration, leading to the development ambitious projects such as the Hong Kong Cultural Centre complex. After the dissolve of Urban Council in 1999, its cultural function is passed to the Leisure and Cultural Service Department (LCSD), arguably playing a more passive role in cultural development. The discussion for the need of a new cultural district in Hong Kong began around year 2000, proposing a different model (PPP) to develop cultural infrastructure for the city. Through years of debates and iteration, the West Kowloon Cultural District is now the largest cultural and urban development currently under construction, with the first project, the Xiqu Centre, opened in 2018.

Three key projects – the City Hall (1962), the Cultural Centre (1989) and the Xiqu Centre (2018) – represent three stages of cultural development in Hong Kong with distinct characteristic. Compare to other public buildings (such as schools or hospitals) that are confined with rather strict function-oriented design, cultural architecture seem to have greater liberty in design approach. There is the opportunity during the process of making cultural architecture, to explore and debate new architectural (and institutional) concepts. As a result, these projects can be studied as the physical artifacts that manifest the cultural policy intention at that time. This article will look at the design and spatial organization of these projects, to discuss the different stages and the changes of state-attitude towards cultural development in Hong Kong.

The study would focus on the spatial organization of these projects through a reading in plan diagram. The clarity of a figure-ground plan diagram that porche non-accessible space as solid allows us to see the continuity of public space that trespass interior/exterior threshold. Spatial qualities such as accessibility and permeability can then be examined against the context of the institutional design intention.

Beginning of Cultural Service – City Hall (1960s)

Opened in 1962, the Hong Kong City Hall is the first public cultural building of the then-colonial city. As part of the Edinburgh Place complex together with the Star Ferry and the Queen’s Pier, the City Hall is an integrated civil building with cultural facilities such as theatre, concert hall, library and art gallery, as well as a wedding registry. Designed by British architect Ron Phillips and Alan Fitch, it was built with the dual purpose as a ceremonial place for arriving dignitaries as well as a civic and cultural venue for the citizen of Hong Kong. The population at that time was a diverse mix with large number of immigrants and refugee from mainland China, and the colonial government believed that cultural activities can “clam the crowd” and restore order, allowing residents to adapt into local life (Wood, 2017) [1]. As described by the chairman of the Urban Council, Mr. A.de.O. Sales, the opening of the City Hall signified the Council’s commitment to the city’s cultural development including performing arts, museum and library services (Lau, 2002, p115).

Despite its modernist appearance of geometric form and utilitarian details, the City Hall’s plan organisation shows a rather classic layout for formal procession. The main entrance aligns with the Queen’s Pier (now demolished), planned for the lobby to be used as a reception hall in conjunction with the exterior plaza for important ceremonies such as the swear-in of governors. The adjacent large outdoor space is designed as a walled memorial garden, with an elevated promenade connecting to the high-block that house the art gallery, library and a wedding registry. The modest lobby act as the foyer for the performance space as well as programme display and box office, while populated with audience during intermission, it has very little space and no sitting area to accommodate social activities. The mezzanine and upper level house the cafe, ballroom (now Chinese restaurant), and exhibition hall in a compact layout, with a design approach for functional efficiency instead of creation of public space for audience and everyday user to gather and linger.

The utilitarian design of the City Hall is a reflection of the city’s cultural policy attitude in the 1950s/60s. It was an effective solution to provide for a cultural venue advocated by Sino-British groups since the 1950s, fulfilling also the need of a proper civic centre for ceremonial events. Stated by the then-governor Sir Robert Black in his opening speech, the “City Hall” in Hong Kong is not a cluster of government offices as the term is commonly known, but is meant to be “the centre of the social and cultural activities of the city” (scmp, 1962). It was a message to project the government’s vision towards the city’s cultural development, although the Urban Council (who will operate the premise) at that time has rather different priorities than cultural life. Therefore, the City Hall as a cultural public space is rather catering to the leisure/recreational needs of a limited group of expatriates and local elites, while it will be still another decades before it grew a strong local audience base for the next cultural infrastructure project.

Local Cultural Icon — the Hong Kong Cultural Centre (1980s)

Hong Kong’s economic development was blooming in the 1970s and 80s, slowly cultivating a well-educated middle class with an increase need/interest in leisure and cultural activities. The demographic of the city has also evolved into a majority of second generation Chinese immigrants born in Hong Kong, gradually building a distinct identity for the city. Conceived under this social context, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre were conceived with an integration of local element since the early stage planning. Located at the harbour-front site of Kowloon peninsular that used to be the Kowloon-Canton Railway station, along with other commercial development along the waterfront, it was a period of rapid development of the Kowloon harbor front, the making of a second city centre across the harbour from Central with more emphasis on local life and identity.

The overall “Cultural Centre complex” masterplan consist of four components – the Space Museum, the Auditoria Building, the Art Museum and a public garden. It was the first significant public cultural project designed by local architects, led by Mr. Jose Lei, the Chief Architect at the government’s Architecture Office. In contrast to the formal spatial sequence at the City Hall, the HKCC complex masterplan is designed with a dynamic flow, centred around the interior foyer of the Auditoria Building. It is open and accessible from multiple directions, as an inter-connected network between the different functional components and waterfront public space. It was an ambitious proposal to establish a new cultural institution that express an urban vision for the energetic and growing city. In this article, we would focus on the analysis in plan organisation of the Auditoria Building and its surrounding open space.

The design of the Auditoria Building adopts a non-descriptive but iconic aesthetic, which suits the purpose of reducing colonial symbolism as a forward-looking landmark ranking among international cities (Chung, 1989)[2]. Opened in November 1989 with a full month arts festival featuring first-class international performance group, it was an event to proclaim that Hong Kong is to be on the map of the Asian cultural scene and no longer the “cultural desert” as it was known (Kwan). Besides the state-of-art concert hall and theatre where most attention was put upon, the throughly open atrium space of the is perhaps the less addressed by equally (if not more) important public space within the project. Reading from the figure-ground plan diagram, the atrium space makes a significant public passage through the monumental auditoria building, connected to the waterfront plaza and promenade to the rest of the complex. The generously scaled atrium space was used for a 400-people banquet on the opening day, as the Royal couple and the soprano opera singer Jessey Norman descend from the grand stairs it was one of the most memorable scene for people involved and also feature in news headline local and abroad. In regular days lunchtime concerts or demonstration performance were held, usually free for the public, became some key opportunities to engage the general public into cultural performances.

The original design intended for a multi-level public space to include the upper-level foyer of the theatres, connecting to the exterior terrace and the outdoor amphitheatre facing the harbor. It could have been a dynamic space for the public to enjoy and animate the whole complex with everyday activities. However, due to operational consideration the upper levels became accessible only to ticket-holders of the performances, and cutting off the connectivity with the terrace level that it became less used nowadays. This reveals an issue of bureaucratic structure of the HKCC management and that of public cultural venue in general, where venue management is a separate entity to the cultural presentation (programming) office, resulting in the disjunction in communication between the designer and user of the space.

The Urban Council, and its chairman (1973-81) Mr A.de O. Sales, was the greatest supporter to push forward the development of the Cultural Centre complex, which also set the direction of cultural service and emphasis to elevate the city’s cultural development for the citizen as well as gaining an international status in the Asian cultural scene. However, limited by the departmental structure of public cultural facilities, the Cultural Centre itself did not have its own executive board and director, and therefore did not have the opportunity to grow into a significant cultural institution with its own artistic statement or identity. It remains one (despite its importance) of the many cultural venues managed by the Urban Council (later LCSD), where operational consideration (control and efficiency) often override the possibility to create a public institution with a vision that is more engaging. Although there was a recent public realm renovation that feature additional seating area and digital displays, the rather conservative management mind-set has limited the opportunity for this public space to fulfil its greater potential. The state-run atmosphere at the Cultural Centre is rather striking in contrast to the adjacent art-themed commercial space, the K11 Art Mall, or the upcoming development of the West Kowloon Cultural District.

The Contemporary Cultural “Lifestyle” – WKCD / Xiqu Centre

The Hong Kong Cultural Centre complex was the last large-scale cultural project built by the colonial government. In the decade following the 1997 hand-over, only two regional theatres and the Central Library were built with mediocre public reception. The post-1997 transitional government had a weaker cultural vision and remained a supportive role for smaller projects, while the arts and culture sector of civil society has become more developed and proactive in cultural development. Since 2000, key cultural projects are mostly funded and operated by semi-public organisations or the private sector, when these new institutions have more liberty in terms of development and operation.

While there are more concerns over operational and financial sustainability, cultural development discussion since then is aligned with economic output instead of social outcome, and even the government departments has adopted this perspective. While considering public cultural space as part of the urban development strategy, the focal point falls on tourism revenue and real estate value. This was the background of the new cultural district development initiated in the late 1990s. After public disapproval of the first round developer-led consortium proposals, the current West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) project restarted in 2008, with enhanced consultation with the local artistic community and supposedly to nurture growth in local cultural sector. Instead of a public-private-partnership model, the project is now fully funded by the Government endowment, through a statutory body, the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority (WKCDA) that is responsible for development and future operation. Independent from the governmental system, although it is a public cultural institution, it is run as a corporation with concern over its own financial sustainability. As a result, its operation is inevitably capitalistic. The masterplan designed by Norman Foster is pragmatic with a straight-forward vision for arts and culture, but in substance it follows the typical development logic that emphasises maximise land utilisation. Approximately half the land plots are allocated for commercial use, in addition to the adjacent luxury apartments, offices, hotels and shopping centres that have already been built and sold since 2007.

The design of the Xiqu (Chinese Opera) Centre, the first WKCD project opened in 2018, reveals this dilemma between market force and public (cultural) vision. It houses a 2000-seat grand theatre, a 400-seat teahouse theatre and various rehearsal spaces cater to chinese opera performance, with an a semi-open atrium space. This prominent public space is described by the architect as a celebrated public plaza, resulting from an innovative strategy to lift the auditorium 24m above ground. In plan, the thoroughly open ground floor space connecting the city with the future district through ample open area for public leisure activities. While the design strategy aims to creates an open public space with no gates, to resolve the level difference between the external and internal streets, the actual space has a number of design barriers in reality. In addition, surrounding the atrium there is a significant amount of floor area allocated to shops and restaurants that is planned for a larger capacity beyond the expected audience, with the main circulation and storefronts reminding visitors of a shopping centre where all paths lead to consumption. This is perhaps necessary to maintain the high operating cost of the Centre, and it could perhaps bring benefit to increase cultural visitation, however, it will require careful monitoring to not fall into pure commodification.

Established in 2008, the WKCDA is a relatively young institution that has yet to develop a strong vision or identity. It has inherited the traditional exclusiveness and a market-oriented mind-set typical of the cultural sector in the city. In the future, there could be more opportunities for the project to succeed in social engagement or commercial operation. The relationship between the institution and the public manifested through its space should be a key topic of investigation as more projects are currently under construction, asking the question about the social responsibilities of these soon-opening cultural institutions.

**article also available in Chinese.

[1] Chris Wood, SCMP “What the opening of City Hall 55 years ago meant for Hong Kong”, March 2017

[2] ChungWN(1989) Contemporary Architecture of Hong Kong

Ref: LCSD HK Urban Service book

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