From landmark architecture to everyday space

presentation at CSA Taiwan annual conference 2023.03.11 and sharing at NCKU 03.16

Our understanding of “cultural infrastructure” is usually the landmark architecture like the museum or the opera house, such as this case of the Lincoln Centre in New York City. Built in the 1960s, it is a grand structure sitting on the high plinth as a “cultural palace”, which is isolated from the urban context and public life, represented by well-dressed elites on the balcony…

Since the late 20th century the question of what is the value of culture and who does it really serve was a key debate in both research and practice relating to cultural development (Holden 2006), leading to many public cultural institutions review and reform their positioning in the past two decades (Gielen 2013). In the case of the Lincoln centre, it is manifested through its public space, began as a small plaza renovation project in 2000 and developed into a comprehensive re-design of its public realm over the next 10 years. Working closely with the Lincoln Centre administrators and other stakeholders, the architecture studio DS+R proposed the concept of “inside-out” to turn the internalised cultural space outward and improved its public interface and accessibility (Diller Scofidio 2012). For example, the unwelcoming entrance step to the plaza is extended into a gentler slope with wides steps that covers the vehicle drop-off, reaching out to the sidewalk and reduced the physical barrier for pedestrian to approach the main plaza. Together with public program such as summer outdoor screening, people and leisure activities is brought into public space both from inside the building and surrounding area. This is an example of how of spatial design as an agent of change.

The Hong Kong Cultural Centre (HKCC) was conceived in a similar model as the Lincoln Centre, to be a cultural landmark that presents a world-city image suitable for the rising status during the economic boom in Hong Kong during the 1970s. While many cultural institutions established in the late 20th century are now reconsidering their role and positioning in cultural development, Hong Kong seem to remain celebrating grand architectural objects and prioritize visual quality. The currently still-developing West Kowloon Cultural District (WKCD) is a master plan that is 5 times larger than the HKCC, yet still following similar approach as a series of landmark object on the field of waterfront park, with very little consideration and connection to the surrounding urban fabric and public life. Three decades after its opening in 1989 and as the role of prime cultural venue is shifting to the WKCD, it would be a timely opportunity for the HKCC to review of its public positioning (and public space). Looking at the question of culture from a spatial perspective, what would be the question to ask?

The question of cultural space and participation

Global and local social changes in recent years have presented an opportunity and urgency to rethink public space, which can be extended to the question of cultural development through the framework of spatial agency for (public/cultural) participation. To observe social distancing protocols during the pandemics, activities from dining to recreation are brought to the streets, and in many cases taking over road space. It was an unintended prototyping exercise of how public space can be used and reiterates its essential role in urban life. The cultural sector is facing similar challenge and opportunity as indoor venues are closed, forcing cultural practitioners to consider alternative performance outlets. Other than the virtual space, much attention was put into exploring the use of local open space for cultural activities, not only moving performance outdoor but also new forms of creative work in public space. While the original intention was a contingency response to venue closure, the result effectively took culture out of the institutional “palace” with a stronger public interface, contributing to the cause of cultural participation. How do we make space for culture?

The focus on space also brings the public person to the foreground as the protagonist of cultural activities. Different than the auditorium setting of performer-audience relationship, when public space become the stage of cultural acts, the public is no longer in a passive observant role but become an active participant with their movement and action. Although it is not the subject of this presentation, yet the recent social movement in Hong Kong is a case of active public participation and how the cultural landmark is turned into public space for civic action. Furthermore, the post-movement reality in Hong Kong has put public (and cultural) activities into a vulnerable position, as the authority exert more stringent control in public space – therefore, the creative citizen will need a new way to think about participation in cultural and public life. In the following analysis, we will look at the HKCC not as an object but as inhabited space, to ask the question of culture from a spatial perspective and to investigate the spatial agency for inclusive cultural development.

The cultural public space typologies

The discussion to build a new cultural centre for Kowloon began in the 1960s and took over two decades to complete. The first design concept was revealed to the public in 1974 and remain largely the same as how it is eventually built 15 years later. This drawing of the original masterplan shows the three distinctive architectural objects (the Space Museum, the Auditoria Building, and the Art Museum) on the waterfront site. As suggested by Rowe and Koetter in Collage City, these buildings are “space occupiers” that consume surrounding space as a field (or a backdrop) instead of a “space definer” that define and create urban space. It can be read more clearly as a figure-ground drawing that highlights the architectural object with a purpose to project an iconic image.

However, if we take a spatial perspective and adopt the concept of Nolli Map to redraw the plan in a public space figure-ground, it reveals a different reading that is closer to the actual experience in space. The Nolli Map denotes public space as void (white) and private space as solid, accounting for both exterior as well as accessible interior. It shows public space as continuous flow across building threshold that can be used to discuss spatial accessibility and permeability. In this view, the space through the HKCC Auditoria Building is connected with surrounding fragment spaces, forming a accessible public space network that has a more complex quality than a singular open space. The design of different spatial instances represent varying level of control, which can be examined through the study of spatial typology and public activities that took place in it.  

While this study is specific to the HKCC, the extracted spatial typologies and its implications are also applicable in other cases of public cultural buildings. The three categories of boundary, border, and zone describes the spatial characteristic, set against the indication of convergence, directional, and ambiguous space, forming a matrix of typologies that suggest a “tight” or “loose” quality in relation to control and public participation (Franck and Stevens 2007). Reviewing the different type of cultural activities take place at the HKCC public space, contrast can be found between the convergence foyer space bounded by threshold that is easily controlled, and the ambiguous spatial indication in the zone along the promenade. Performance with a one-way relationship is staged at the well-controlled interior public space, while informal cultural acts such as busking or street dance taking place in the promenade blurred the distance and distinction between the performer and viewer, also allows for more interactive response.

Yet in between the defined boundary and ambiguous zone is the potential of border typologies. There is a subtle but important difference between the boundary and the border as suggested by Sennett in his recent writing on the idea of Open City (Sennett 2018). The boundary separates conditions through a controlled interface, while the border is an edge where different conditions meet that encourages more interaction resulting in vibrant environment. Therefore, the opportunity for participatory cultural activities can be found in the border typologies with a quality of loose space, such as the under terrace passage or the outdoor steps at the HKCC. Currently these are underused transitional spaces sometimes occupied for leisure activities or social gatherings, yet they have the potential to be utilised for participatory cultural performances.

Public space as cultural infrastructure (a proposal)

The purpose of detail examination of space and activities at the HKCC is to extrapolate the condition that allows for inclusive and creative cultural actions. This study concludes with a proposal to reconsider cultural institutions not as a monument but as a network of spatial instances. There is the opportunity to build upon smaller public space units to build a network that function as cultural infrastructure. The individual units are more resilient to changing circumstances, which is suitable in the situation that requires adaptable strategies to uncertainties in urban conditions.

The monument is a manifestation of the institution, which represents a centralised institutional model that see cultural provision as a one-way from the producer to audience. Therefore this proposal of network space is suggesting to change the reliance on institutional provision to the emphasis on individual agency.This is to decentralise cultural institution and to take on a facilitator role that supports the autonomous artist creation. The artist will not only be a producer of cultural experience but to engage in co-creation with the public participant. This cycle also requires the public audience to grow beyond a passive cultural consumer but to become active participants who also feedback to institutional operations. Therefore the operation of small-space network is also the practice of multiple individual, which can be considered as “infrastructural cultural space”, and asking what individuals can do instead of awaiting for institutional provision. This is an initial proposal for next step research on Public Space as Cultural Infrastructure, to seek a model for cultural development that would fit the contemporary urban conditions in Hong Kong and beyond.


  • Diller Scofidio, Renfro. 2012. Lincoln Center inside out : an architectural account (Damiani: Bologna, Italy).
  • Franck, Karen A., and Quentin Stevens. 2007. Loose space : possibility and diversity in urban life (Routledge: New York).
  • Gielen, Pascal. 2013. Institutional attitudes : instituting art in a flat world (Valiz: Amsterdam).
  • Holden, John. 2006. Cultural value and the crisis of legitimacy : why culture needs a democratic mandate (Demos: London).
  • Sennett, Richard. 2018. Building and dwelling : ethics for the city (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: New York).

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