There are some cultural infrastructure developments of a quite fantastical scale at various points around the globe at present. Think of the new Louvre and Guggenheim outposts that will open in a few years on Saadiyat Island, Abu Dhabi. A project costing in excess of a billion dollars. Another with equally extraordinary numbers attached is the £1.78 billion West Kowloon cultural district, which after many delays is now rapidly rising from the ground (or perhaps more accurately, the ocean) in Hong Kong. I was recently invited to an event organised jointly by the British Council, UK Trade and Invest, the Hong Kong Association and the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office in association with the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority to hear about how the vision for this exciting new space is taking shape.
The presentation was delivered by Michael Lynch, an astute choice as CEO of the project as he was a driving force in the revitalisation of London’s Southbank Centre before ending a brief retirement in his native Australia to try and repeat the trick at West Kowloon. You can see the appeal of swapping the beach for this opportunity as the development is on a truly epic scale on 40 hectares reclaimed from the sea (26 of which will be open public space which is impressive in a tightly contained city like Hong Kong). It was not hard to make this post a visual treat as some of the architecture is a genuine feast for the eyes as there will certainly be no shortage of new iconic structures. Built around a master plan by Foster and Partners of London it contains new galleries, concert halls and other performance and creative spaces. The retail and catering aspects are as important which is something Lynch pulled off well at the Southbank Centre which is a complete destination to create a balanced business model. The open spaces around the venues are equally important and the ‘permanent festival’ mind set is another echo of the Southbank Centre which was at the heart of Jude Kelly’s artistic vision for the site.
In the Saadiyat Island development, leading international culture brands have been courted to create a new tourist destination. In Hong Kong the efforts are more focused on local and regional cultural content with the opportunity for international partnerships and touring as the secondary element. This means a significant amount of organisations and spaces are being created from a blank canvas.
The idea of creating institutions from the ground up is in an intriguing one and which excited me most about the project but which clearly has the most risk attached as well. The digital era has accelerated the rise of prosumers or consumers who are looking to play a role in producing a product rather than passively consuming it. For example by customising it at the end of the process. NIKEiD has taken advantage of this trend. If the project team behind West Kowloon were to make a radical departure from the norm they would create platforms for the audience as much as the curators in the development of the spaces, services and content. An interesting example of this in the UK is the new £197 million Library of Birmingham project where technology start-ups were invited to pitch to reinvent the traditional library services from the humble library card to business services. This is where the leadership of the West Kowloon project need to be brave. To genuinely seed some of the central control of the development of these projects to the audience, technologists, commercial partners and others could create a genuinely new 21st cultural infrastructure. It was encouraging to hear that Michael Lynch had visited the new BT Sport studios at iCity, the new technology hub that forms part of the future use of London’s Olympic Park.
The UK’s creative and cultural industries are envied around the world and in London now represent the biggest sector of the economy with only Finance more significant. The experiences we have in delivering projects on the scale of the Library of Birmingham and the Olympic Park puts us in a great position to influence and play a role in projects such as West Kowloon. It was great to see that UK Trade and Investment make this a focus for their work and working alongside the British Council who are able to make intelligent connections with the cultural sector to build relationships that could lead to significant new contracts and partnerships for UK organisations.