Why study HKCC?

Since the time of its opening in November 1989, the Hong Kong Cultural Centre (HKCC) has been a subject of debate as the new cultural landmark of the city. Situated along the Victoria harbour front, it was criticised by the public for its windowless facade, while initial acoustic quality of the concert hall was also complained by its performers. Yet over the years, the HKCC has inevitably became the major venue of the city’s cultural events (perhaps until current development of the West Kowloon Cultural District). As an urban public space, together with the waterfront promenade, it is a prime sight-seeing location for tourist visiting Hong Kong, also enjoyed by the city’s residents whether they are arts lover or not. It might be easy to dismiss the significance of the HKCC, as in-depth discussions are often overshadowed by a general sense of public disapproval. Looking forward to the prospect of Hong Kong’s cultural development in time of celebrated openings at the WKCD venues, it might be worthwhile to revisit how the HKCC was made, not only as a visual icon but as an institutional and architectural concept.

Watercolour rendering of the HKCC concept design in 1980s (Chung, 1989)

Conceived and designed in the 1970s and 80s, the HKCC marks a significant time in urban and cultural development of Hong Kong. The process of its development was in parallel to the city’s growth into an international financial center with a particular cultural identity. To study the making of HKCC allows us to discover clues and traces of the city’s cultural landscape as we know today, and to project future positioning of cultural development. It was the first major public project designed by a local architect, Jose Lei, with a team of young HKU graduates at the government’s Architectural Service Department. It was the time of transition as the government offices began to include more local professionals as higher ranking officials. Although there has been voices in the local professional circle to state that for such important public projects should be designed through open competition (Prescott), the decision was made that it would be designed internally at the government’s office. This is related to the fact that the Urban Council, who would be the operator of the HKCC, gained financial autonomy from the government in 1973. The newly independent council was ambitious to complete this landmark in the most efficient manner and to maintain control, therefore declined the opportunity to hold international competition for the project (Kwan).

The architecture and its design process represented a new approach to public architecture in Hong Kong that proliferates in the next two decades. In the early days of colonial development, the government’s architectural office was dominated by appointed British architects, who were keen on the modernist ideals as seen in many post-war European public architecture. Based on an austere principle to construct cost-effective public facilities, public architecture in Hong Kong in the 1960s, such as the City Hall, were recognised for their simple form and bare concrete (Brutalist) aesthetic. The HKCC, while still follow a pragmatic approach as it is publicly funded, it has an additional ambition to create an iconic cultural landmark for the city, often making reference to the Sydney Opera House. It signified a turn into the post-modern approach that celebrates visual iconography, also in accord to the rising economy of the city in late 20th century. Although it is more often seen in commercial buildings, but it is also apparent in many public buildings built by the government’s Architecture Office.

The design and conception of the HKCC also overlaps with the time when culture center as a institutional type was popular in the post-war European cities. In Western welfare states, including the UK, cultural development was placed in the core of a larger social reconstruction effort. The institution of cultural centres has a purpose to construct an ideology of democratic civil society (Grafe), manifested through architectural space and programming. Hong Kong, as a British colony, would have been influenced by this social purpose in terms of cultural policy. However, comparing to its European counterparts, did the Hong Kong Cultural Centre follows these directives?

The temporal distribution of cultural architecture development over time in Hong Kong (author’s diagram)

Reviewing the trajectory of public cultural facilities developed in the past few decades, it is noted that dozen of new venue were built in form of Town Halls and civic centres. A model of compound function cultural center was adopted, and their design in terms of spatial and functional organisation is looking up to the HKCC as a benchmark. The significance of the HKCC therefore goes beyond itself as a particular project, but became a precedent for many cultural project designed by the ASD to follow. Particularly for public projects, the architectural outcome is often preceded by the formulation of the design brief, and reflecting multiple influence on an institutional level. The brief is not only a technical schedule of accommodation, but institutional vision and objective should be formulated in the process of debates and discussions. In the case of the HKCC, what are the different forces behind the formation process from the brief to the design, and how does it reflects the ideas in cultural policy and development?

The following articles will investigate the process of HKCC’s development to unpack the ideas behind the making of this cultural public space. The project was developed over two decades from the first discussion in 1965 to initiate a new project in response to the city’s cultural need, to the first masterplan revealed in 1974. The original schematic design was produced in 1984, disrupted by budget issue to halt construction for a year, it was finally opened in Nov 1989 with a full month of festival cultural programme unseen in the city. The prolonged development process gives us the space to carefully examine each stage in conjunction with social context at that time, ultimately to reflect upon the contemporary role and development public cultural institution.

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