The decade-long making of Cultural Centre

In February 1974, a Cultural Complex sub-committee under the Standing Committee of the Whole Council of Urban Council was setup to coordinate the overall project that was originally under three separate Select Committee (Museum and Art Gallery Selection Committee, Recreation and Amenity Select Committee, City Hall Select Committee). As the master plan was drafted by the Architecture Office of the Public Works Department and reviewed by the Chairman of the Urban Council, the HKCC project is confirmed and set out for its two-decades long development into the 1990s. The initial master plan has remained largely the same as it is currently, although the process itself has faced several near-crisis incidents throughout the year.

Cultural policy: from Sports to Art 

The general public direction seems to be more focus on sports instead of arts (Buro Happold article ref), is it because it was mostly businesspeople in shipping trading and therefore less concern with Arts? (UrbCo 1973 chaired by O. Sales.). “A review in the mid-70s undertaken by the Culture Select Committee, recommended that facilities for the arts to be increased, performing groups in the territory should be encouraged and the Council should build up professional performing companies” (McGregor, 1989)[1].

Since then, UrbCo has built many facilities from stadium to civic centers and library, as well as supporting local arts group and art festival. Mr Forsgate, the second chairman of the Urban Council relates that “The building of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre is the outcome of the Urban Council’s overall strategy of promoting the arts in the territory” (McGregor, 1989) On the occasion of the opening of the HKCC, Mr Lo King-man, chairman of the Culture Select Committee commented that the consideration is to provide “as wide a cross-section of the public as possible” the opportunity to enjoy arts, a turn from the perceived image of expatriate elite status to a more public interest.

Initial Master Plan Design

The development of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre reflects the first Urban Council chairman’s ambition to build a cultural landmark for the city, which also marks the initiation of a cultural policy for the growing metropolitan city in the late 20th century. O. Sales was known to be an ambitious and motivated figure in his work at the Urban Council, who sees the opportunity of the newly reformed Council with an autonomy in budget and therefore decisions in urban infrastructure development. The development plan for the Cultural Complex was to be financed by the government for its construction, and thereafter transfer the responsibility of its operation and finance to the Urban Council. Sales seized the opportunity in obtaining the whole waterfront parcel of the former KCR station, which was initially a modest City Art Gallery that occupies only a small land parcel across from the Peninsular Hotel.

The Government Chief Town Planner presented the preliminary plan of the Cultural Complex in November 1974 (Ref), with a rather simplistic masterplan and conceptual floor plan to illustrate the purpose and key component of the development project. Before further development of design or program allocation details, the Auditoria Building was proposed as a bold formal image dubbed as the “big bird”, along with the iconic structural promenade surrounding it is still the most celebrated element of the HKCC today.  

The original masterplan of the Tsim Sha Tsui Cultural Complex, ASD 1974

The other iconic building of the Cultural Complex is the egg-shape Planetarium. As the first phase of development, it was a more popular project that has a stronger public appeal than that of the concert hall and theatre (the Auditoria Building) and the Art Museum. It was the first budget item to gain full approval in the government Public Works Programme (Ref), completed construction in 4 years and open to public in 1980. The planetarium underwent very little alteration since the original 1974 concept plan. As recalled by the project’s deputy architect Mr Kwan, the young team has in fact very little knowledge of the planning and design of cultural facilities, yet the program for the planetarium was simple enough that they could handle. While the complexity of the construction of grand theatre and concert hall requires more a larger team of technical consultants from structural engineer to theatre/acoustic experts, it is also a project that has attracted lot more controversy in the professional circle of architects.

Professional and Public Voice

For such significant urban project as the Cultural Centre complex, it was very much watched by the professional circle as well as the general public since the UrbCo announcement of the initial masterplan in 1974. A number of opinion pieces (and “letters to editor”) were published in the major newspaper at the time, questioning on issues from cost (“Surely One White Elephant is Enough” 1974 04 14) to the decision-making process (“Whose choice?” 1974 07 14). As represented by the urban middle class publishing in South China Modern Post, two major issues were built around (1) the preservation of the KCR terminal building and (2) the need of international competition. Mr. Jon Prescott, the former president of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA), was the main advocate to the idea, who emphasised that site at the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront and the status of the project could attract several well-known international architects to provision “more imagination” to the project, as well as the feasibility to hold competition with the support of the HKIA (scmp 1975 06 03). 

The idea of an international competition was denied since the first meeting of the Cultural Complex sub-committee in February 1974, for the possibility to immediately execute the project as soon as the KCR site was cleared. While the Urban Council stress on its effort on cultural development for the city, the focus was to seize the chance as the Government agreed to fund the construction, therefore cost and time efficiency was prioritised over more extensive and thorough discussion on the topic of cultural development and the design of the Cultural Centre. This has become a common trait of cultural infrastructure in the decade to come and perhaps a character of Hong Kong’s cultural development. Yet just like any public projects, the intended schedule was an optimistic plan but many circumstances were not taken into account, and in spite of the project being executed by the Government Architects with the Urban Council pushing its progress, eventually it took more than 10 years for the design and construction of the landmark Auditoria Building.

“Golden Age” of Cultural Development (with minimal public engagement)

While there was some the heated debate among the architecture profession and public advocates regarding the Cultural Complex Auditoria Building design, there were relatively few voices from the artist community. It was in part the local cultural sector was still in its infancy and was more active in the civic cultural initiatives such as the Hong Kong Arts Centre, therefore while the government began to support arts and cultural development, the development of the Hong Kong Cultural Centre complex remains at a level of hardware infrastructure just as any other Public Works projects. On the Urban Council cultural committee as well as those in the Legislative Council there was no representative from the cultural sector besides Mr. Lo King-man, educated in the UK with a background in theatre. In both the Architectural Service Department who is responsible for the design and the Urban Council that give recommendation and approval for the project, none of the decision makers were experienced with such large-scale cultural development project.

This condition also revealed an issue of the decision-making process regarding cultural policy in Hong Kong that the hardware and software development was considered in two separate systems. Within the Urban Council in its time of operation until 1995, and its later successor the Leisure and Cultural Service Department, there was a clear distinction between the venue management and cultural programme teams with very little communication. The civil servants in these separated divisions were well-trained bureaucrats that the government is proud of its operational efficiency, yet without an overall artistic director to overlook the Cultural Centre as a whole, the resulting situation is that the venue management took cares of the building and the programme team scout to bring in international programmes. It was neither a service-client relationship, as suggested by an ex-Urban Council official, Ms. Mui, at the Cultural Presentation (programming) division who oversees the inauguration season of the HKCC in 1989, there has been difficulties to have the venue management to accommodate certain request for artistic purpose. This model of operation for public cultural institution has remained the same until today, which has become infamous among contemporary cultural practitioners as they collaborate with the LCSD. Perhaps only until the second round of West Kowloon Cultural District development in 2008 that it began to adopt a more contemporary model of having artistic director with executive power over different departments, which has enhanced communication and collaboration between the curatorial/programming team with venue management.

Historically, there was never a comprehensive cultural policy in Hong Kong, and cultural development was essentially a hybrid of pragmatic and capitalistic intentions. It was characterised by the reactive and ideology-free government policy that was inherited since the days of colonial governance (Ho, 2017). However, also during the last three decades of the 20th century the cultural sector in civil society was flourishing and represents a more refreshing scene of cultural practice. Their involve with the public sphere have since then become the key cultural forces until today.


  • Happold, E. (1990). Tsim Sha Tsui Cultural Centre – Introduction. Proceedings of the Institute of Civil Engineering, 1(88), 753-763
  • Ho, L. (2017). From ‘no cultural policy’ to ‘centralised market orientation’: The political economy of Hong Kong cultural policy (1997–2015). Global media and China, 2(1), 57-73. doi:10.1177/2059436417693007

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