The Vertical City, Part III: The West Kowloon Walled City

Courtesy April WaeCourtesy Christopher DeWolfCourtesy April WaeCourtesy Christopher DeWolf

Whether it’s the apex or the nadir of Hong Kong-style urban planning depends on your perspective. Either way, Union Square is the culmination of all the economic forces and planning policies that have turned Hong Kong into the world’s most vertical city.

You may not have heard of Union Square, but you have almost certainly seen it: a kind of walled city in West Kowloon, it is a self-contained metropolis of 16 towers built atop a shopping mall and train station, with nearly 1.1 million square metres of floor space, 8,356 apartments, 2,230 hotel rooms and 100 floors of offices.

For whatever reason, the name Union Square is rarely used, and most people know the development for its constituent parts, including the Elements shopping mall, the International Commerce Centre (ICC), the W Hotel and luxurious apartment complexes with names like The Arch and Sorrento. All of these are components of a singular whole: Hong Kong’s largest building. You can work, shop, eat, drink, send your kids to daycare, go swimming or ice skating and catch a train to the airport, all without setting foot outdoors.

Union Square combines two common types of Hong Kong development, multi-block housing estates and podium towers, and takes them to their logical extremes. The groundwork for the development was laid in the 1990s, when 340 hectares of land was reclaimed from Victoria Harbour to make way for a highway and rail link to the new airport on Chek Lap Kok, which opened in 1998.

British architect Sir Terry Farrell won the bid to design a master plan for the development around Kowloon Station, one of the railway’s new stops. “It still is the most complicated thing we’ve ever done,” he said on a visit to Hong Kong last year. He said the MTR initially wanted a dispersed train station with discreet entrances, like in Central, but he thought the site needed a grand station hall that would serve as a focal point.

Looking up from Union Square

What he produced was a complex, intricately layered space oriented around Kowloon Station. Underground, there are loading facilities and platforms for trains on the MTR’s Tung Chung and Airport Express lines. The ground level is occupied mainly by bus stations, parking garage entrances and mechanical rooms. Upstairs, Elements sprawls across 146,000 square metres, with luxury shops and chain stores, restaurants and a high-end supermarket, as well as some community facilities.

It’s on the roof of the shopping mall that Union Square begins to feel like another world entirely. Here, three tall storeys above ground, a kind of artificial ground level has been created, complete with roads, gardens and a central plaza surrounded by outdoor cafés and bars. This is where you’ll find the main entrance to Union Square’s towers. Residents are deposited by taxis under the watchful supervision of security guards. Others take a series of escalators through the MTR and Elements, then a lift to their building and another lift or two to their apartment.

On paper, Union Square is a model of high-density development. Around 70,000 residents, hotel guests and office workers share just 0.14 square kilometres of land – not including the many shoppers in Elements or the travellers passing through Union Square’s train station or cross-border coach terminal. The entire place revolves around public transport. This is about as powerful an antidote to urban sprawl as you can find.

“The real problem in the world right now is sprawl, not density,” said ICC architect Paul Katz shortly after the building opened in 2011. (He passed away three years later.) Rising 108 floors and 484 metres — making it the tallest building in Hong Kong — the ICC contains Grade A office space, restaurants, an observation deck and the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. Katz said he was particularly enthusiastic about the way the tower was integrated into Union Square, with its multiplicity of uses. “The thing about tall buildings is that they need to be built in clusters,” he says. “When you have that great density of people, it means that 80 or 90 percent get there by public transport and foot. That’s the way to build tall buildings.”

And yet in many ways Union Square feels anything but connected. In a 2013 study, University of Hong Kong researcher Sin Ho-ting found that many people in the development found it isolated and cut off from its surroundings. Anyone who tries to approach Union Square by foot can understand why: it is surrounded by highways. To get from the street to the public space on top of Elements, you need to walk past blank walls and garage entrances and make your way up through the shopping mall. “It is accessible and visible only for local residents and commercial users – this not public,” says urban planning critic and Southern District councillor Paul Zimmerman.

Even Terry Farrell has concerns about how Union Square turned out. He says he still has reservations about the “new ground level” and its “lack of integration” with its surroundings. “That had all been pre-determined and we were not able to unravel all of that,” he says. In his view, Union Square’s biggest problem is that it has no real streets – and therefore doesn’t feel like it’s part of the city. “In good streets you feel a buzz,” he says.

That underlines one of the biggest challenges faced by a vertical city. High-rises are essentially gated communities. With the right amount of connectivity, and with enough good public spaces, high-density fosters the kind of dynamism that makes cities great. But without those crucial elements, the scale tips towards alienation.

As it stands, Union Square seems to be what Hong Kong cultural critic Ackbar Abbas calls “not so much a place as a space of transit.” (He said that about Hong Kong as a whole, but it seems particularly apt for West Kowloon.) Paul Zimmerman sees Union Square as a cautionary tale for future urban planners – an island of the rich disconnected from its surroundings. We should “think, hope, pray we have learned” from it, he says.

Hong Kong’s planners may have taken note. Plans for more recent mega-developments, including the former Kai Tak Airport and plans for another new town in the northeastern New Territories, place more emphasis on public space – with no shortage of high-rises, of course. The vertical city continues to evolve.

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