What is currently taking shape on the site of the former Kai Tak Airport is like nothing Hong Kong has ever seen. 28 hectares of land will be dedicated entirely to sports and leisure, with facilities ranging in size from a 50,000-seat stadium to green spaces where the public can relax or exercise. “Nowhere in the world is there anything like the level of integration between international sports and entertainment facilities combined with community recreation, retail and leisure facilities,” says the project’s lead architect, Richard Breslin.
He would know: Breslin is a senior principal with Populous, an Australian firm that has worked on athletic and recreational facilities around the world, including those that were used for 14 Olympic games. “Whilst the building typology is highly technical in its nature, they are also places where people, towns, cities and nations gather to express their collective belief and joy,” he says. “They are highly social spaces, expressive of the places they sit within. Ultimately, they are places for the people – we have learnt over time there is a considerable responsibility to design these places for people.” That’s true, he adds, whether it’s tens of thousands of people attending a concert or “one person reading a book in the park.”
It’s an important point, one that underlines that sports facilities are never just about sports; they’re about communities of people. In that sense, the role they play in the city is similar to that of a public library or neighbourhood park, even if the individual components of a sports complex—such as a basketball court or a swimming pool—are highly regimented in terms of their design requirements. And in a city as densely-packed as in Hong Kong, finding ways to provide space for people to gather, interact, exercise and compete in athletic activities requires no small amount of design ingenuity.
Sometimes that ingenuity comes from the ground up. Here and there, all around Hong Kong, ordinary citizens have built their own recreational facilities. Near Waterfall Bay, a spectacular stretch of coastline on the southwestern side of Hong Kong Island, ocean swimmers have built a shed where they can change before their morning dip. In Tseung Kwan O, an undeveloped slope known as Duckling Hill has been transformed by nearby residents into a user-friendly space for hiking, with handmade bamboo railings, shelters and water stations.
The same has happened on Bishop Hill in Sham Shui Po. Before it became famous for the forgotten 19th century reservoir at its summit, it was known in nearby areas for its improvised exercise equipment, like pull-up ropes attached to the branch of a tree. “For a long time, the community has been using that hill as a de facto backyard,” says architect Fredo Cheung, who has been observing Bishop Hill since the reservoir was uncovered. “It’s their only open space because there has always been a shortfall of open space in that particular area of Hong Kong.”
Space has always been Hong Kong’s biggest challenge, so when the government did provide sport and recreational facilities in the past, they were often tucked into out-of-the-way locations or stacked atop other community facilities like wet markets and libraries: space-efficient but not particularly welcoming. Now that is beginning to change. “There’s a huge budget now for these community facilities. The government is making a big effort,” says Stefan Krummeck, director of Farrells Hong Kong, the architecture firm established by Terry Farrell after he won his bid to design the Peak Tower. Since then, Krummeck and his team have worked closely with the MTR to design new railway stations – along with community facilities on land adjacent to those stations.
The most prominent example is the Kennedy Town swimming pool, a curving zinc-clad structure that opened in 2011. Krummeck says that, in order to save a row of towering wall trees on Forbes Street, Farrells convinced the MTR to shift its location for the new Island Line terminus a few hundred metres to the west. That required the demolition of an old public pool, so Farrells was tasked with designing a replacement – and it had to be done before the old one was demolished. According to government policy, notes Krummeck, “you can’t demolish a community building before you’ve provided a replacement,” says Krummeck.
The new pool occupies a wedge-shaped plot of land near Victoria Harbour. The site had a number of challenges. Along with its awkward triangular shape, an underground nullah runs beneath part of the land, which meant there could be no basement facilities, and the pool would have to be built in two phases, because half the site was being used to pile up dirt from the MTR’s tunnel-boring machine. “We referred to it a little bit like urban surgery. It was complex,” says Krummeck. On top of that, the architects had to contend with a strict budget and rigid design criteria from the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD), which would operate the pool. “They’re very strict about materials and elements,” says Krummeck.
The end result is a shell-like structure with indoor and outdoor pools on the first floor, with mechanical facilities located at ground level. A sheltered plaza sits atop the nullah to reduce the load on the culvert. Farrells managed to convince the LCSD to use a material that was outside of their wheelhouse – zinc, which Krummeck liked for its earthiness. They also managed to create a large window giving indoor swimmers a view of the harbour, despite concerns that too much glare could be a distraction in swim competitions. “It took a long time to convince them but we managed to do it,” says Krummeck. The pool went on to win the 2016 Large Project of the Year award from the UK’s Institution of Civil Engineers.
The pool served as a warmup for another MTR-related sport project: the Harbour Road Sports Centre, which opened in 2017, replacing an existing training pool and indoor sport facility that were demolished to make way for Exhibition Station on the East Rail Line’s cross-harbour extension. “The site was extremely tight but we managed to squeeze it in,” says Krummeck. That was particularly tricky given the government’s new sustainability standards, which require a minimum amount of greenery in new developments. “We didn’t have any space on the ground, so we provided it in the form of green walls and green roofs,” he says.
Whereas the old sports complex and pool were tucked away at a dead-end corner of the Wan Chai North elevated pedestrian network, the new one offers a gateway to the recently built harbourfront park. “It was clear we needed the pool to link into this network and offer a step down to the waterfront,” says Krummeck. Like Kennedy Town, though, site constraints meant the pool’s mechanical infrastructure needed to be located on the ground level, which creates a dead space on the streets below the footbridges. “I think that’s a bit of a shame, maybe even a lost opportunity, because we should activate the ground space,” he says. “I would have put the [mechanical] plant underground and activated the streetscape with some shops, cafés or community functions. But it was too tight.”
Krummeck says it’s crucial to consider these factors because a sports facility is not just a collection of game rooms, pools and gyms stacked atop one another: it’s a hub for the community. Historically, that wasn’t the case. “They were built in a very pragmatic way – normally concrete structures that were very monolithic, daylight was kept out on principle, and the human factor was largely ignored. But these community buildings should be for more than just sports events. They need to be inclusive,” he says.
He’s not the only Hong Kong architect making that argument. “What I’m trying to do is open things up,” says Thomas Wan, chief architect of the Architectural Services Department (ArchSD), which designs most government facilities. “Cities and buildings are closely connected – they should not be separated. There is a negotiation between the city fabric and a building and public penetration is important. It enlivens the streets, it makes for connections between people and it allows the people and the city to become one.”
A case in point is the Che Kung Temple Sports Centre, which opened in 2020 a short walk away from Che Kung Temple MTR station. The complex is nestled into a feng shui hill in Lei Uk Village, which posed a design challenge right off the bat. “The villagers told the government the building cannot go higher than the top of the hill. We had to respect that,” says Wan. “The thing about sports centres in Hong Kong is they need to be stacked up [because of high land prices]. There is usually a swimming pool at the bottom, multi-use rooms above and an arena up too. For badminton and other sports, they really don’t want to have windows at all, so it’s blank boxes stacked up top. Here we had a beautiful hill and I didn’t want to ruin that. I also wanted to bring the hill’s landscape through the building, to bring in the nature, so it filters through to the main road. I wanted to make it into a more transparent structure.”
Wan envisaged an open-air passageway that wove through an internal courtyard, connecting all of its different facilities the way a street connects a neighbourhood. Part of the courtyard is sheltered from the rain by a glass roof, and another section has a glass floor to illuminate the community facilities below. Wan strove to make each individual room as transparent as possible. “I want mums and dads who are playing sports to actually see their kids playing in the children’s playroom. I want people to see the feng shui hill,” he says.
As with Wan’s other projects for ArchSD, the complex makes use of timber, a material he appreciates for its warmth as well as its sustainability. “In Hong Kong you usually have a concrete structure and you plaster it with various kinds of tiles. But timber has a calming effect. It’s not harsh.”
All of this was a hard sell for the LCSD, which was sceptical of a project that strayed so far from its conventional approach to a sports centre. “I had a very rough time with the LCSD,” says Wan. “[But] they finally gave in and I’m very glad.” The result is a sports centre that functions as a community hub. People living in the nearby villages and public housing estates linger in the courtyard and use it for morning exercises.
It’s a microcosm of what the Kai Tak Sports Park will be when it opens next year. Like Wan, Richard Breslin and his team have envisioned the project not as a collection of sport facilities but as a neighbourhood in and of itself. “The sheer scale of the site has been the single-largest challenge for the team,” he says. “So we took a view from the outset that we needed to balance our approach to the bulk and mass of the built form.”
With such a vast programme, the architects broke the site down into smaller components, such as a “Dining Cove” with restaurants, as well as green space, children’s play areas and a main plaza that can handle the large crowds going to and from mega-events. “There is a hierarchy to these spaces, layers to get through,” says Breslin. “No one space is the same as the other, they all have their own identity and opportunity for a unique experience.”
He says it’s also crucial for the Sports Park to have good connections to the surrounding areas, including new residential developments on the old airport land that will be home to 158,000 people, as well as existing neighbourhoods in Kowloon City and To Kwa Wan. “It was important within our design to create a means by which people, either local residents or visitors coming to Kai Tak Sports Park, could gain access through the site from all its edges,” says Breslin. “It needed to be permeable, accessible, inviting and essentially a part of people’s daily life.” Because it’s not just about sport – it’s about people.
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