Project for a New Dimension

Over the past few years cultural districts teased further discussions, in face of a number of gigantic initiatives, such as Abu Dhabi Cultural District (generating a heated debate around the setting up of the first ever Louvre Museum out of France) and West Kowloon Cultural District, in Hong Kong. The latter, in particular, aims to be more than a district, becoming a cultural hub not within Hong Kong, but in Asia. The way this intention is officially referred to, though, seems to reflect more the willingness to bridge Hong Kong to the world, than an ambition to foster potential connections within and across the city. OMA is one of the three master-plan consultant teams – together with Rocco Design Architects and Foster + Partners – invited to compete the masterplan for the WKCD. The office guided by Norman Foster won the completion a month ago. The other two proposed plans may also be integrated into the final design. Nicola Desiderio, editor in chief of, has met with David Gianotten, Partner of OMA in Asia, to know more about the main planning and architectural aspects of their project titled Project for a New Dimension.


© OMA l Project for a new Dimension.

Nicola Desiderio In 2009, OMA established a new office in Hong Kong. How is your office structured? On which project are you currently working on?

David Gianotten The Hong Kong office is OMA’s headquarter in Asia, we also have an office in Beijing. The office is headed by myself and I am one of the seven partners of OMA. We set up the Hong Kong office based on three projects – WKCD, the Shenzhen Stock Exchange and the Taipei Performing Arts Centre – after we established the office here we got many new opportunities in Asia. Our office in Hong Kong currently has 50 staff from around the world, among which over 20 are from Hong Kong. Our goal is to set up an office with a team of 70 to 80 people.

OMA Hong Kong targets the whole Asia market and has various projects in the region. We have design projects in Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, etc. OMA’s first major building in Hong Kong – the Chu Hai College’s new campus – will break ground in May. The Shenzhen Stock Exchange, with a three-storey cantilevering podium floating 36m above the ground, is scheduled to open in August next year.


© OMA l Project for a new Dimension.

ND OMA has designed and built cultural venues around the world. For the dimension of the WKCD project your team included experts in the fields of culture and finance. How have these consultants and advisors helped you to define your vision for an integrated arts, cultural and entertainment district in Hong Kong? Do you believe in the “Bilbao effect”?

DG For the WKCD project, we did not just work with cultural and financial experts. We had a team of professional people from Hong Kong, China, Asia, and the rest of the world specialized in many disciplines to help us. We also involved different stakeholders and the public at large. We gathered various thoughts and opinions on the WKCD project, and then there came the question about how to organize the opinions. It is very common for one to have prioritization of the opinions and say that, for example, the academics’ opinions are more important. But we think that all opinions should be taken seriously, so we decided to not organize and not prioritize the opinions at all. We just collected them and we started building with all these opinions in mind. We simply analysed what kinds of words were used in the opinions and started deriving elements important to WKCD. We got inspired by all the opinions and started designing our plan based on that inspiration and aspiration. Afterwards we went back to the opinions and analysed if the aspirations of the stakeholders and public were reflected in the design.

As for the “Bilbao effect”, it obviously works for Bilbao. But as a research based company we do not blindly apply a phenomenon to any project. For the WKCD project, we did an enormous amount of research. We ourselves produced a Hong Kong fact book and data book with lots of interesting information about Hong Kong. Based on that knowledge we developed the plan, in other words the plan is rooted in Hong Kong through its context and the opinion of the stakeholders and public. Therefore our plan is made with interest in the city, and we see it as a plan where the knowledge and skills of an international architect has been transferred into a project inspired by Hong Kong culture.


© OMA l Project for a new Dimension.

ND Three key ideas distilled from Hong Kong underpin your master plan: the village, agricultural field patterns, and urban streetscapes. In your view the combination of these programmatic types should make Hong Kong sustainable as a city and a culture. For sure this vision allows transforming a reclaimed waterfront land, left vacant for more than 13 years, into an urban microcosm where people interact more than within a metropolis allowing so to facilitate dialog and so culture. The Art Village, the Middle Village, and the Theatre Village occupy key locations in the plan and define distinct zones. Although this solution helps to make recognizable the respective activities inside the district, their operations demolish the multifunctional density that characterise this part of the city. Separating the cultural district in parts, could it determine a competition between the villages or even the formation of “elitist enclaves”?

DG I disagree that the villages form “elitist enclaves”. We believe that the strategic arrangement of programme is essential to make WKCD a microcosm within Hong Kong; a bi-polar arrangement that encourages proximity and exchange, competition and relative independence between the performing arts and the visual arts. To charge the entire site with cultural tension, we project a Performance Hub on the west side and an Art Factory on the east and street life in the Middle.

The East Village is characterized by the Art Factory of M+. The Middle Village is a hybrid connecting east to the west, offering small-scale entertainment. It is also interpreted as an extension of the commercial parts of Elements to orchestrate mutual benefit and organic coexistence. The West Village accommodates a Universal Theatre with all the possible scales and types of the performing arts collected in a single complex. So if we interpret the site itself as a single 360 degree stage, the format of the villages – like three actors with different roles – can address precisely the potentials and problems of each section of the site. In the east, we focused on how to establish the crucial but complex connections to Kowloon that are essential for effortless access and the seamless continuity of urban life. In the centre, we tried to respond to the enormity of the Union Square complex without being crushed by it, but also without turning our back to it. In the west, we tried to do justice to a 180 panorama of a mountain range, the robust Kowloon skyline, filtered by the business of the typhoon shelter, a wide-open island seascape with sublime sunsets, and the Hong Kong skyline.

The three villages are embedded in a single park. From the other side of the harbour, they will be more recognisable than individual buildings and offer a more varied image than the single, all-over identities that have characterised previous efforts. In imagining a landscape for the district, we draw from tropical agriculture not only a mechanism for organizing communal action. The fish pond, a typology that, like the village, evokes old, essential patterns, seemed to us an apt metaphor on which to found a new territory. Implying both sacrifice and bounty, the fish pond provided not just an aesthetic but a philosophy, a system of collective commitment and shared nourishment that goes to the heart of our plan. In other words, the three villages do not just make recognizable the respective activities inside each village. On the other hand, the typology of village, a strong and recognisable identity in itself, liberates us as architects from an obligation to express the identity of each individual attraction as “iconic” at the expense of all the others. The village enables us to absorb the almost overwhelming scale of WKCD’s ambition into manageable portions that in themselves resist delusions of grandeur and neutralise the threat of an alienating confrontation between the “old” and “new” Kowloon. Through its modesty and scalability, the village introduces a deliberate effect of miniaturisation – aided, of course, by the enormity of the Union Square elevation.


ND A cultural district with no strong connection to the whole urban context can well be economically successful, but its sustainability is at constant risk, as it may suffer the competition of other districts with no uniqueness. Since your scheme is – as its title says – a Project for a New Dimension – did you consider this eventuality?

DG We avoided the generic “world class” approach in our design of WKCD. We instead looked for a grouping of performance and museum spaces that does not exist anywhere else in the world and that offers, therefore, the most promising conditions for genuine interaction between WKCD and the city. We viewed the excess vitality of Kowloon as the lifeblood of WKCD and therefore our plan has a strong connection to Kowloon. It is important that the current frantic atmosphere of trading is not replaced by the plastic perfection of contemporary public space. We proposed to enliven the existing streetscape with cultural outposts of the WKCD, such as galleries, studios, workshops, theatre rehearsal spaces, etc., so that Kowloon and WKCD will eventually merge into a single, hyper-diverse community.

We also proposed to organize various events before any construction takes place to prepare the ground. One of the first actions of WKCD should be to instigate preservation projects in Kowloon so that early WKCD activities and programmes can be initiated cheaper and faster than the new architecture. During the district’s various phases of development, a spectrum of activities could be launched that only in the final instance are accommodated in built form. To broadcast the imminent creation of the district, a series of temporary facilities – tents, floating platforms, insets in shopping centres and at the airport – should be initiated. So under our plan, WKCD is a district with a strong connection to the whole urban context.


© OMA l Project for a new Dimension.

ND Architectural artifacts as the open-air (Greek – Roman) amphitheatre (Mega Performance Venue), the parabolic arc (Loop Bridge) or the obelisk on the tip of the peninsula are all buildings that bring a sense of monumentality (easily understandable in Europe or in America) into an urban and cultural context poor of these kind of symbolic contents. On the media level your proposal seems to reflect more the willingness to bridge Hong Kong to the world, than an ambition of foster potential connections within and across the city. On the conceptual level, instead, the articulation of different urban episodes could create the condition to extend the district out of its boarders involving places, public spaces, new and existing buildings as well as fragmented areas of the city. Do you think your scheme could play the role of pulling the city together, or even drawing an “anarchy map” able to bring the cultural district into question?

DG As mentioned in my previous answer, we made a plan for a WKCD that is well connected to the city. Just to add on that, we drew the typologies of both the built and unbuilt components of our district from Hong Kong’s existing stock. We looked for models of thinking and practice that offer familiarity to Hong Kong’s inhabitants, while providing us new sources of inspiration and experimentation, particularly in mobilising the “small” and the “local” against the assumptions of “bigness” and the “global” that hang like a cloud of negative expectation over the project. So I would answer yes to your question. Our plan pulls the city together.


ND The Loop Bridge holds a spectacular cantilever viaduct over the sea and works as landmark Gateway Arch for Hong Kong. Therefore, this is a unique piece of engineering and architecture. Was your intention to play a competition between it and the nearby cable-stayed Stonecutters Bridge? Could you explain the technical aspects of this infrastructure? Is this “muscular architecture” necessary to reorganize the road system in Kowloon? In term of accessibility what benefits will it give to WKCD? Did you also consider its economic impact?  How does your transport strategies interface with the existing and future transport system?

DG Competing with the Stonecutters Bridge was never our aim and we see no reason to compete with it. The introduction of the bridge simply stemmed from real needs. Undeniably prominent, WKCD is a site barely attached to the rest of the city. It is now an isolated appendix to a notoriously congested section of Kowloon. Its future accessibility will be heavily overtaxed with the additional traffic loads of the XRL station and the district itself. Under our estimation, the traffic at least five road junctions – on Jordan, Austin and Canton roads – will worsen critically when the arts hub opens. The reserve capacity at the junction of Austin Road and Nathan Road will fall to -4%, which means that the junction will be traffic-saturated. It is estimated that the reserve capacity at Canton Road will be 3% by 2031, and that at the Austin and Canton Road junction will be -4%. To avoid a traffic meltdown, and at the same time to connect the district more emphatically to its hinterland, we proposed, across the typhoon shelter, a suspended arc that makes the WKCD directly connected to Austin Road. The bridge will drastically improve the traffic conditions at a number of notorious intersections. With the loop bridge, vehicles could move from Jordan Road through the bridge to the west of Austin Road and enter WKCD.

To avoid new land reclamation, this arc will hover above the Typhoon Shelter and provide a continuous boat access to the shelter. The suspended bridge consists of an arc holding the other arc up. The bridge will have a prominent presence in the backdrop of the WKCD and will provide a strong character to this part of the plan in relation to the roughness of the Typhoon Shelter. The loop bridge provides a grand approach to WKCD, comparable to Fifth Avenue in New York, the Champs Elysees in Paris and the Ginza in Tokyo and gives the site an address.

Our plan connects WKCD to all of Hong Kong’s available public transport system. In our scheme, most people will arrive at the WKCD by public transport and then travel within the district on foot. We therefore proposed extensive links to the bus, mini bus, MTR, ferry and water taxi services.

Of course we did consider the economic impact of the bridge. We cannot disclose the financial details, but I can assure you that the bridge is financially viable and the cost of the bridge is far less than the economic loss caused by the traffic congestion problems.


© OMA l Project for a new Dimension.

ND The final images of the project, displayed at the Hong Kong Convention Centre last August, stand out for a “unconventional” and strong graphic language. Composed as collages, these images have the strength of the original design concepts and show the district as a flexible, dynamic and “uncompleted” body: “Here everything can happen”. Do you think this “naïve” and sophisticated way of representation – instead of stimulating the imagination – have disoriented the visitors and the client, compromising so the result of the completion?

DG We gave lots of thoughts to the presentation of our plan. We tried to make the presentation as understandable as possible for everyone interested. We did not want to make our presentation generic and boring or simply about urban planning, which is static. We wanted it to be about the possibilities of the activities that can happen in the district. So we represented our plan under the theme of activities. We often use collages as images for representation to get people confronted with the essence of our project.

Through the presentation of our WKCD plan, we tried not to give a conclusion for the WKCD district. We wanted to share our ideas about WKCD and what we learned about the project. We came up with a cultural master plan, which is a framework for culture – it is not something that has been finished, not something that has been digested, not one that reflects everything everyone says, but one still with a lot of possibilities. The presentation records our thoughts about the project at that particular moment of time when the presentation was made.

When the responses to our plan first came out, we were amazed by how people could simply understand our project based on the press coverage, the small booklet, etc. A lot of people understood what we were talking about. We were very happy that a lot of our ideas were picked up. I think Hong Kong people are very capable of thinking about their own lives and the structure of urban development.


ND Mr. Henry Tang, Chairman of the Board of WKCDA, has declared that a detailed development plan, which may include portions of the Koolhaas and Rocco designs, will undergo a public consultation before it is confirmed. Which “part” of your scheme could be incorporated into the Foster’s masterplan?

DG I think it is too early to say which part of our plan could be incorporated into the chosen master plan as the design of the final master plan is still ongoing and we do not rule out any possibilities at this stage.


© OMA l Project for a new Dimension.


David Gianotten is Partner of OMA. Amongst other projects, he is in charge of the design and management of the making of the Conceptual Plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong, the Taipei Performing Arts Centre in Taipei, and the Shenzhen Stock Exchange Headquarters in Shenzhen. Before David Gianotten was overseeing the operation of OMA in the whole of Asia, he established the OMA Hong Kong platform for design and he was the Executive Manager – Architect of Rem Koolhaas. Prior OMA David Gianotten was Managing Director – Architect at the SeARCH in Amsterdam. The office won the Aga Khan price for Architecture 2007 for the Dutch Embassy in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia.


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