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:
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