The Idea of Place in Urban Planning

Lecture for cuhk SoA elective 5731A – Architecture and Cultural Practice

The previous session laid out an overview of our investigation that positions Cultural Architecture as not just an object. An important concept embedded in it is the idea of Place – besides the physical environment, it is the intangible memory for individuals or collective that cultural architecture can create. In the situation of larger urban development, culture has a special role and potential, as quoted below:

At the intersection of these fields lies the history of the cultural landscape, the production of space, human patterns impressed upon the contours of the natural environment.

Dolores Hayden (1995) The Power of Place

Public Art, Architecture and Place Memory


Distinguished from space as the physical dimension that we are familiar with in architectural design, the place is the intangible notion of people and memory or the human dimension of space. A piece of sculpture can make place when it is experienced by people, beyond the artist’s vision or the commissioner’s intention, but defined by the memory of who inhabited it. The physical space that a sculpture occupies became a “place” when it involves the intangible meaning and memory of the community. This can be considered as the power of public art, as Dolores Hayden suggested that how the community can define their own history and story through cultural/spatial practice [1]. We can also reflect upon the removal of different colonial statues as an act to give justice to the previous occupier who wrote the history. In the case of the Cloud Gate at the Millennium Park in Chicago, (as well as the “Portal” on cuhk campus”, it became a place as it is inscribed with people’s memory, yet it is an isolated object that did not engage with the surrounding.

The capacity of artwork to attract people can be extended into an architectural scale, such as the famous series of Serpentine Pavilions in Hyde Park, London. The brief calls for a place to contain activities beyond the sculptural object it is. It creates both the conceptual Place of memory as well as the physical space with a variety of programs and activities. The image of pavilions is often an exterior object image, but for those who have visited it, it is the space and activity inside that they will remember. The Serpentine Pavilions are considered art and architecture at the same time, as a result of creating place.


It is not necessarily just an object but there is the opportunity to appropriate public space, such as this floor painting outside of the Hong Kong Art Centre. It is part of a series of public artwork commissioned by the cultural institution to utilize blank public space, giving it a new meaning (as a place of memory). It goes beyond the single object sculpture to the “space-defining” pavilion to art appropriating urban public space. The idea of PLACE is not only happening in outdoor space. In many cases, contemporary art also takes the interior space and creates PLACE in a room. And with the magnificent scale of “atrium” space – these are often free for public experience and make good use of pubic area and architectural features. Such as this work by Olafur Eliasson to recreate “sun” where viewers and lay down and experience. There is a certain scale of public building – a special museum such as this – that can accommodate artwork that is interacting with the audience.

As an OBJECT it is this box sitting in the surrounding area – but if we see its public space including the interior, the monumental building is essentially penetrated by accessible public space. In a similar sense but not the same scale or even artistic vision, our very own HKCC in TST has a similar spatial organization that allows public space to pass through the monument. In a 2014 “rejuvenation” project the management asked the designer to create an artwork (i.e. sculpture object) in the atrium, however, the architect created this set of sculptural seating blocks instead. They are conceived as pieces that you can form and reform into different configurations for different purposes, although nowadays the current management didn’t bother to reconfigure the work – Nonetheless, we can see that how the move from making an object artwork vs one that has the intention to interact with people, this area now has arguable become the most attractive or more frequently used space in the HKCC atrium.


The Boston Institute of Contemporary Arts is an example. It is situated along the Boston Harbor, where the overall masterplan is designed as a continuous public path along the waterfront. Normally an architect would respond with a receding building mass and leave a narrow corridor at the waterfront. However, in this case, the architect DS+R proposed to lift up the gallery space, which allows not only a promenade but extending it into the depth of the plot, with the grand steps facing the harbor cladded in wood and wraps around by the underside of the gallery. It also answers to the brief of a single-floor gallery space that technically fills up the whole site area. This is an example of how the design of space is integrated with the idea of making place. The newly created public space gave the opportunity for cultural and everyday activities and became a memorable place for the community in Boston.

Creating Place in Cultural Districts

While the ICA Boston is a single project that makes a place (for the community), the idea of place can be embedded in a different scale from a sculpture to a city/district. As culture became a key component in urban planning in the post-WWII Western cities, two urban projects in 1960s London can illustrate the different approaches to position culture in urban development. The Barbican represents an ideal of modern living that is integrated with cultural life, and the Southbank is an urban-scale cultural planning project that can be seen as a precedent of contemporary cultural district development. Over the years, both of these projects have become world-famous cultural centers that are receiving thousands of local and global visitors every year. The story of how they develop can also demonstrate a changing attitude and priorities of cultural development/ policy.

The Barbican Center, London. 1959-1982

As one of the reconstruction projects of the war-devastated central London, the Barbican Estate is a project housing project of 7000 housing units, designed by Chamberlin, Powell, and Bon. It is now celebrated as a modern classic, an exemplary case of the ideal lifestyle. The city center location calls for high-density development, yet instead of the standard solution of duplicating housing blocks, the Barbican provides dwelling options from terrace houses to high-rise towers, with a variety of public space and amenities [2]. The Barbican Arts Center opened in 1982 as the final phase to complete the estate master plan, and the project has developed from the initial idea of a local arts center and school theatre, into the largest performing arts center in Europe that hosts classical and contemporary music concerts, theatre performances, film screenings, and art exhibitions.

The public space of the estate was originally designed as an internalized terrace and landscaped pool for the residents, yet as the Barbican Centre and its cultural program gained popularity, the public space also became a “hidden gem” of urban oasis for visitors. The cultural institution has refreshed its branding and visual identity in 2013, with improved physical accessibility to integrate with the surrounding urban fabric, its interior atrium and exterior garden is now an everyday public space where visitors can enjoy with or without a specific cultural event to attend. There is a sense of synergy between the programming, the spatial design, and visual identity that benefits both cultural participation and place-creation for urban living.

Southbank Centre, London. 1960-68

Before “Cultural District” became a trendy term, the idea of clustering cultural facilities can be found in a campus setting as early as the 19th century Great Expositions. The expo and festival are planned as large public events where the space is planned to hold a large number of visitors with a variety of cultural offerings. While the purpose of the early expositions is to showcase industrial advancement and imperial power, the Festival of Britain held in London in 1951 took a similar approach to revive national solidarity after the war, through a celebration of arts and creative power. The site at the bombed-out south bank of the Thames was built with temporary structures for the festival as an interim plan before redevelopment. With over 8 million visitors over the exhibition period of 5 months, the well-received festival has led to the discussion of a permanent site as a cultural quarter. The Royal Festival Hall building was kept, Queen Elizabeth Hall and Hayward Gallery were built in the 1960s with the support of the newly established Arts Council. The National Theatre was also built on the Southbank site in 1976, together with the Jubilee Garden and IMAX theatre that completes the overall Southbank Centre as it is known today.

Those grand images of the Southbank Centre are now celebrated as masterpieces of Brutalist architecture, however, it was a problematic public space in the 1980s/90s that is not at all welcoming. The monumental concrete structure was perhaps suitable for the influx of a million visitors but unfriendly to everyday use. With little foot traffic, the undercroft of Queen Elizabeth Hall attracted street skateboarders since the 1970s and became infamous for the sub-culture and its association with urban issues such as crime, homelessness, and drug use. It has created a problem for the Southwark Council and the cultural institution, which initiated a regeneration master plan in 1999 for an improvement framework of existing public space and cultural facilities. At the same time, the cultural institution also considers its role in public engagement. The new master plan works together with the vision of the Southbank Centre, to revitalize the waterfront promenade with the addition of public facilities and improved spatial design.

The skateboarder-occupied public space of the Queen Elizabeth Hall Undercroft has continued to attract debates. While it was seen as a site of an urban issue by some city officials, the user/skateboarders also step-up and negotiated their right to public space over the past years. It is now gaining recognition as a cultural form that contributes to the city’s cultural asset, and the recognition as an Olympic sport certainly helped to build up the argument for it to be endorsed. Through a citizen-initiated campaign to maintain the Undercroft for skateboarding activity, a crowd-funding project to revamp the skateboarding space has gained approval from the Council and recently opened in 2019. Along with the new branding scheme and the re-opening of the Hayward Gallery, it is a collaborative effort to create a place that is inclusive of diverse identities.

Culture as a Tool in Urban Development

Almost in parallel to the European welfare state approach to integrating culture into making a city, over the Atlantic culture is also a key ingredient in urban development, yet as a cover for real estate speculation. A prime example could be seen in New York City of the 1960s, where arts and culture is largely supported by private patronage instead of state public funding, which led to a very different model regarding cultural development.

Lincoln Centre, New York City. 1962-69 (renovation 2002-2012)

The Lincoln Centre is a cultural venue that house the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and other major arts organization of the city, opened in 1962 as a major cultural landmark. However, what it entails was a larger urban redevelopment (“slum clearance”) project of the upper west side, advocated by the city’s “great master-planner” – Robert Moses – for his vision to replace old tenement districts by orderly housing project and a monumental landmark. It was then a very different ideal as proposed by a group of powerful men – architects, city planners, real estate developers – who envision a “cultural palace” for the prosperous capitalistic New York City. What was celebrated was the grand image for the cultural elite instead of that of cultural accessibility for the ordinary citizens, and more importantly, for the economic purpose to boost surrounding real estate value. The major patron of the project is the Rockefeller family, who also owns many of the properties and land in the area. (All these sound very familiar isn’t it?)

Although the Lincoln Centre was built with a modernist language instead of the typical classical motif for the prestigious cultural venue, its spatial organization remains processionally formal, planned for patrons to arrive in a limousine at the plaza on a raised platform, framed by three monumental cultural buildings. It was deliberately designed so that arriving guests would not have to face any “chaos” of the urban surrounding, and as a result, the streets are faced with a blank wall that cuts off any interaction and became peripheral to avoid. The isolating effect of this kind of (anti-)urban project has become apparent during the late 20th century with increasing criticism and debates. With the rising awareness of social issues and the declining public interest in “traditional” art forms such as those at the Lincoln Centre, the cultural institution began to reconsider its positioning for better public engagement and initiated a revitalization project in 2002 to enhance cultural participation. The architect Diller Scofidio + Renefro was responsible for the design of a series of public realm interventions over the next 10 years, with a concept of “Inside-out” to reinstate the connection of Lincoln Centre to the urban fabric. While the monumental buildings are literally “set in stone”, spatial issues were tackled in a manner of acupuncture to open up the Centre to face the public. Key design strategies included suppressing the vehicle drop-off and connecting the plaza level to the street with more accessible wide steps, as well as removing a concrete overpass and revealing interior activities through a transparent facade at street level. Together with the institution’s public engagement program and new digital signage system installed in the vicinity, the Lincoln Centre is gradually becoming a place instead of a monument that is meaningful for the community.

Hudson Yard, New York City. & WKCD, Hong Kong. On-going

The several cultural-themed masterplans reviewed above were projects that originated in the 1960s, and have gone through a revitalization in recent years. Have we learned something from the past to develop a new urban/ cultural district? The Hudson Yard in New York City is currently the largest private mixed-use real estate venture in America, built upon the redevelopment of the rail yard along the Hudson River in midtown west side, it has also included a cultural component – the Shed – designed by the same architect studio DS+R. Compared to the earlier projects, the Hudson Yard is somewhat “honest” as it is, as a full-frontal development project with a small injection of a cultural center. Upon its opening in 2019, an illustrated report by the New York Times delineated the vision versus reality, and question how much it is contributing to the city’s actual user or is it serving just the 1%? The Shed is a new cultural institution with a fascinating “movable” architectural concept that allows innovative forms of cultural production. However, established as the by-product (or ornament) of speculative urban development, perhaps it is not possible to redeem the real estate controversies, and the question remains in how it could utilize this resource to be relevant to the community.

Our local case of the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong bears resemblance to the case above and has had its fair share of criticism over its purpose and potential outcome. As a fully government-funded project with a statutory operating body, the current master plan designed by Foster and Partners provided a pragmatic solution with a heavier share of cultural facilities along with commercial development. However, the WKCD should be viewed together with the development north of the district, which includes the luxury mixed-use project, the West Kowloon High-speed Rail Terminal, and its associated residential property development. In this sense, the cultural facilities are relatively minor within this large-scale urban plan, and the broad-stroke infrastructure development has also resulted in discontinuing urban fabric and a non-pedestrian friendly environment at the periphery. From the discussion of what makes a place in cultural architecture, these would be some key questions to continue in investigation and to explore what are the opportunities of people-scale cultural practices in face of such an overwhelming developmental force.


[1] Hayden, D. (1995). The power of place: Urban landscapes as public history. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[2] Borthwick, G. (2011). Barbican: A Unique Walled City Within the City. University of Edinburgh (unpublished report).

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