Key players on cultural infrastructure

Cultural architecture is often celebrated for its distinction in design to the credit of the architect. However, as we unpack the idea of architectural landmark as a public institution, we would find many more factors in its making beyond the architect’s drawing board. This brief review of public offices involved in cultural infrastructure development serves as a background that is crucial to the understanding of how cultural architecture is made. Through the case of Hong Kong Cultural Centre with a development process that span over two decades, the dynamics between different players can be read, reflecting the shifting public attitude on cultural development in Hong Kong during the late 20th century.

Background: Pre-97 Cultural (non-)Policy

Since its early days as a colony, Hong Kong was positioned as an outpost to facilitate economic activities, where matters of civil (and cultural) life was not the priority. It was only until the post-war years, with an influx of immigrants from mainland China, that the colonial government began to address to public welfare matters with greater effort. While culture played an important role in the social welfare policy of post-war UK, this ideology did not seem to translate into a cultural policy for Hong Kong (Liu, 2002) although it has adopted some format of public infrastructure development.

The formation of cultural policy in Hong Kong was largely reactive to local situation, and several incidents in the late 60s/ early 70s in particular. The 1967 riot initiated the discussion about provision of recreation and cultural facilities, suggested in the post-riot report as a mean to maintain social stability. It has translated into the expanded scope of the Urban Council beyond sanitation issues, who became the proponent of cultural development in Hong Kong. The early 1970s was also the time when the colony’s future was brought into discussion, with a basic understanding that the Hong Kong’s sovereignty will be transferred to China in 1997. In reaction to this, the colonial government began to equip the territory to become a semi-autonomous state and increase public spending on infrastructure, which gave an opportunity of many cultural projects to develop. (Ooi, 1995)

Sir MacLehose was appointed as the governor of Hong Kong in 1971, and his Labour party background has brought to the city a series of social welfare policy during the two-terms of service. From housing, education to natural conservation, as well as that of arts and culture, the next two decades can be seen as the golden years for social infrastructure development. The Urban Council played a leading role in cultural development, through presenting cultural events and building cultural facilities across the territory. Before we further investigate into the cultural development of this period and the making of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, it could be helpful to review the relations between the Urban Council and related government bureau for their role in the development of Hong Kong’s cultural infrastructure.

The Urban Council and its partners

The Urban Council, formerly the Sanitary Board, was responsible for civic matters from street cleaning to management of public facilities. Reporting to the Legislative Council, the Urban Council discusses and make recommendation on public policy, with support in execution by the Urban Service Department. The Urban Council has greater emphasis on recreation and culture since its organisational reform in 1973, with increased autonomy in budget and publicly-elected members the Council actively pursued infrastructure development, and was building sports facilities, libraries and civic centres across the territory. The Urban Council’s advocacy in developing the Hong Kong Cultural Centre complex in Tsim Sha Tsui also marked the first large-scale cultural architecture of the city.

Other than housing projects (since the establishment of Housing Authority in 1977), all public architecture in Hong Kong was built by the Public Works Department (PWD) through the annual Public Works Programme for funding by the Government or the Urban Council. Public project proposals were studied, planned and designed by the Architecture Office within the PWD, which in 1986 became the Architectural Service Department. Working in parallel was the Town Planning Office (TPO), who is responsible for land-use planning at district level, to designate nomenclature and land plots for public infrastructure, with District Outline Zoning Plan to be approved by the Town Planning Board (TPB). These are the major governmental bureaus involved in the building of public architecture, with support of other specialty consultants.

The “client and consultant” of public cultural projects

The Urban Council in the 1970s saw the necessity in building physical facilities to provide civil services, which has a “direct bearing on the quality of life of a community…” (Annual Report 1974/75), and became the largest developer/landlord of cultural facilities across the territory. The Cultural Complex in Tsim Sha Tsui was its keystone project in the 1970s, with capital cost funded by the Government while the Urban Council responsible for future operation cost. Within this organisational and funding structure, the UrbCo presumed a role as the “client” and the PWD as the “consultant” architect. The chairman of the Urban Council, Mr. A. de O. Sales, was an ambitious man and made major decisions during the development process, which his authoritative execution has earned him the nickname “the Tsar” (沙皇), taken from the first word in his Cantonese name combined with “king”.

The Architecture Office was the de-facto architect of all public projects, led by mainly British appointed architects in its early stage as a sub-department under the PWD in the 1950s. In cases such as the Hong Kong City Hall designed by British architects Alan Fitch and Ron Phillips, the design direction largely followed the Modernist and utilitarian principles common in public architecture of post-war Britain. Into the 1960s, the Architecture Office grew with a number of local architects, many of which graduated from the newly established Department of Architecture at the Hong Kong University. The architect of the Tsim Sha Tsui Cultural Complex, Mr. Jose Lei of Portuguese decent, became the first local Principal Government Architect in Hong Kong, and later the director of the Architecture Service Department until 1991.

As recalled by architect Mr. Kwan PL, who has worked as Government Architect since the 1970s, the Architecture Office at that time was a small team with heavy workload to deal with increasing number of public projects, and the team was actually inexperienced in large-scale cultural architecture such as the Cultural Complex. The initial master plan drawn up by Jose Lei was appreciated by the Urban Council and Mr. Sales for its impressive presentation as the new landmark of the city, yet there were many details unresolved. While the Phase I Planetarium was a relatively simple building that can be handled by the internal team, the following Auditoria Building was much greater in scale and complexity, which external consultants such as theatre specialist and structural engineer Ho-Happold were necessary and commissioned in early 1980s.

Design Brief for a Cultural Centre

The Hong Kong Cultural Centre Complex – under construction (source: scmp)

A preliminary program for the “Kowloon Civic Centre” was drafted in October 1971 for the Public Works Programme 1972/73, followed by an investigation report published in November 1972 that proposed to integrate the function of the Civic Centre, the Museum and Art Gallery, as well as a Planetarium into one major project, to be renamed as the “Cultural Complex at Tsim Sha Tsui”. The initial Schedule of Accommodation was included as a 1974/75 PWP category B item, which allowed the project to prepare planning study in time for the clearance of the site at the former KCR terminal. A Cultural Complex Sub-committee under the Urban Council Standing Committee of the Whole Council was formed in Feb 1974, with responsibility to review and decide matters regarding the development of the Cultural Centre for the decade to come. During the first meeting of the Cultural Complex Sub-committee, a consolidated programme from various Select Committee discussion in the previous years was presented and documented in a Progress Review Report with details described as follow:

Site: The Kowloon Civic Centre was originally sited at the platform level of the Hung Hom new terminal, planned with exhibition or conference space for potential business hire. This idea was soon dismissed as the function of various public projects were further delineated and the Hung Hom site was allocated for a 15,000-seat indoor stadium, which also absorbed the convention function from the Civic Centre brief. The Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront site started as a smaller plot for the new Museum, and as the two PWP items were combined into a larger “Cultural Complex” program, it has taken up the TST waterfront with a much extended site boundary. The outline zoning plan of the district was them amended accordingly, in which the waterfront land from the Star Ferry terminal to the Holt’s Wharf area was designated as G/I/C function to accommodate the Cultural Complex development.

Programme: The Cultural Complex schedule of accommodation in the 1974/75 PWP was a combination of three separate projects proposed by different Select Committee at the Urban Council since the late 1960s. The core program of the Civic Centre was proposed by the City Hall Select Committee, in response to the inadequacy of the City Hall opened in and benchmarked as the second territory-wide cultural facility. The proposed scale of 3,000-seat concert hall and 1,000-seat theatre made it financially viable to reduce ticket price, which benefits a greater outreach that “will enable the average man in the street to attend these productions” (Dec 1973 Draft item 5U(G)). The planetarium was included in the 1973 Cultural Complex proposal after failing to seek sponsorship from Jockey Club as they the “Oceanarium” or Shatin race course, and as a result, the Urban Council took up the project and assigned to the Recreation and Amenity Select Committee responsible for its planning. The new museum has been under discussion at the Museum and Art Gallery Select Committee since 1965, with the two programs of a museum and an art gallery with a total of roughly 80,000 sf. The recommendation was adopted as Building B and C in the first draft of the Cultural Complex planning, with the museum component later separated as an independent project to be sited in the newly reclaimed TST East area, while the art gallery remained as part of the Cultural Complex and renamed as the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

The first masterplan designed by the Architecture Office was made available for public viewing in December 1974, including four phases with the program of a Planetarium, an Auditoria Building, an Art Museum and a public garden. The initial masterplan was built as such and remains largely the same today. It is an example of execution efficiency of government project at that time, although it also meant decision was made with very little room for discussion and schematic refinement. At early stage there was an alternative proposal with better professional reception, however, it was said that chief architect Jose Lei was in good relationship with Sales who shared similar Portuguese background, and with a more persuasive presentation that his design was quickly adopted as the confirmed scheme. The landmark “spreading wings” architectural form of the Auditoria Building (nicknamed “big bird”) has since become the most iconic image of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre.

During the 1970s and 80s, Hong Kong has developed a significant number of cultural infrastructure under the effort of Governor Maclehose and Urban Council Chairman O. Sales. However, while physical development was actively pursued, the ideological framework of a cultural policy appeared to be absent. The colonial government took a lassie-faire approach in cultural affairs, and the Urban Council carefully positioned itself as the cultural venue operator in a bureaucratic but efficient manner (Ho, 2017), instead of building visionary cultural institutions for the city. This situation has reflected the characteristics of Hong Kong’s cultural development, which its effect is still continuing on the city’s cultural landscape today.


  • Liu, Runhe. A History of the Municipal Councils of Hong Kong : 1883-1999. Hong Kong: Leisure and Cultural Service Dept., 2002.
  • Ooi, Vicki. “The Best Cultural Policy Is No Cultural Policy: Cultural Policy in Hong Kong.” The European Journal of Cultural Policy 1.2 (1995): 273-87. Web.
  • Ho, Louis. “From ‘no Cultural Policy’ to ‘centralised Market Orientation’: The Political Economy of Hong Kong Cultural Policy (1997–2015).” Global Media and China 2.1 (2017): 57-73. Web.

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