designing hong kong  

What is the concept for the Central waterfront?

Without a clear concept first, the design process will produce a mediocre compromise. Hong Kong deserves better.

By Dick Groves. This is an edited version of the article 'Shore Success', published in the South China Morning Post on 1 February 2008.

The Central waterfront may be the most important urban development site in the world - a uniquely large and prominent harbourfront, set against the backdrop of one of the most recognisable and spectacular cityscapes. What we build there will stand as a measure of our society's creativity and competence, at a time when both matter to our city's competitiveness.

The Planning Department has hired a firm of architects to develop two design options for use in its public engagement process. While this initiative might appear sensible, it is a step in the wrong direction.

Why? The answer lies in two words: "concept" and "design". The design profession observes an important maxim: form follows function. Put another way, a good design begins with the right concept. As yet, there is no published concept for Central waterfront - just a growing collection of designs.

A proper concept would answer the questions: what activities and experiences do we want along this waterfront, and who are the intended operators and audiences? What is the overarching vision - how might we create a whole greater than the sum of its parts? And how might we finance the development?

A proper concept would help the design by providing relevant benchmarks and a detailed programme of required buildings and spaces, as determined from discussions with likely end-users.

The Planning Department continues to put design ahead of concept; the cart before the horse. If it endorses a design at this stage - even one labelled "draft" - it risks ending discussion of the concept before it has begun.

Fortunately, it is not too late to get the Central waterfront right. The Planning Department can adopt a better course of action. Here are the recommendations:

  • First, fix the process. Develop a clear concept before advancing the design. Let the desired software determine the required hardware - let function guide form. Engage a team of creative social and business minds to develop alternative concepts. Then, contract one or more design firms to help work those concepts into master plans.
  • Adopt a blueprint for the entire harbour, so each use finds its appropriate location. If the city's arts venues are to remain concentrated in the West Kowloon Cultural District, envision the Central waterfront as our "gateway" - a cosmopolitan, urban district that extends the city's energy to the water's edge.
  • Simplify the conceptualisation of the Central waterfront by dividing the problem. First, allocate part of the planned development - say, 30 per cent - to the types of high-profile public uses that distinguish great waterfronts. Entrust this portion of the waterfront to a blue-ribbon creative panel - leaders who possess the vision, experience and relationships to engage the arts, culture and business communities, and produce an outstanding scheme.
  • Second, envision the remaining 70 per cent as a great, low-rise, low-density streetscape. Contract a team of top urban planners to conceive a live/work/play district comparable to London's revitalised South Bank - whose success owes as much to new restaurants, offices and homes as to attractions like the London Eye and the Tate Modern.
  • Aim to encourage a wide variety of local and international developers to compete to build innovative, world-class, low-rise buildings - by developing a master plan that features a large number of development parcels, introducing innovative zoning and land pricing, and establishing high standards for design and sustainability.
  • Avoid reinventing the wheel. Produce a comprehensive benchmarking study of leading urban waterfronts found in cities like Sydney, Singapore and Baltimore - identifying what works and what doesn't. Use images of those waterfronts, rather than computer-rendered designs, to engage the public's imagination.
  • Send a team to meet major waterfront authorities like Hamburg's HafenCity and Sydney's Harbour Foreshore Authority to discuss process, public-private partnerships and financing solutions.

The Planning Department should recognise that the Central waterfront is too important and complex a problem to solve by consulting the public on designs produced, with little concept input, by architects. The public is capable of voicing its dislike of a design - witness West Kowloon - but it is neither equipped nor organised to propose an outstanding alternative. At best, the process now under way may produce a mediocre compromise. Hong Kong deserves better.

In seeking a great waterfront, there is no substitute for a strong, clear concept.

The government can correct this oversight in a matter of months, by fixing the process and selecting leaders capable of developing the concept that the Central waterfront deserves.

Dick Groves specialises in retail development, and was a member of one of the four winning teams in the Central Waterfront design competition organized by Designing Hong Kong