Urban Drama: Hong Kong’s Lyric Theatre is Finally Taking Shape

When the first audiences take their seats in the Lyric Theatre, they’ll be sitting in a building held up by over 650 giant springs. It’s a hint of the technical complexity required by the 41,000-square-metre performance venue that will become one of the crown jewels of the West Kowloon Cultural District when it finally opens in 2025.

By then, it will have been more than a decade since the Asian offices of the Amsterdam-based architecture firm UNStudio began work on the project. “You always wish  that things would go faster, but the Lyric Theatre went through a very difficult phase with Covid,” says studio founder and principal architect Ben van Berkel. He recently visited the theatre for the first time since 2019. “When I was there the last time, we were working on the basement, and now the building is almost up to the last floor,” he says.

Nothing has been easy for the cultural district, which extends along 40 hectares of dazzling harbourfront land. It has been in the works since the early 2000s, and just as its most significant venues came online — notably the M+ museum of visual culture — the pandemic dealt a serious blow to the district’s finances. Faced with the prospect of running out of cash by the end of this year, West Kowloon Cultural District CEO Betty Fung Ching Suk-yee was forced to slash operating budgets to save enough money to last until 2025. The Lyric Theatre, perched right on the water’s edge, adjacent to M+, is likely to be the last major venue to open for quite some time.

But it promises to be spectacular. Van Berkel and his team have designed a structure that positions the theatre not as a black box but as a window between the city and the stage. When it is completed, the building will contain three performance halls: the 1,450-seat Lyric Theatre, the 600-seat Medium Theatre and the smaller Studio Theatre, with 270 seats. A series of atria, lobbies and other public spaces weave their way between the venues, connected to the outside by large balconies and three double-height lobbies with curtain glass walls.

The Lyric Theatre will use natural light and a limited palette of materials to facilitate movement through the space

“The building is highly inviting,” says Van Berkel. “The building is meant to be seen from the outside in and the inside out. When you’re on the green space outside, you’ll see many people on the balconies when they take a break from the theatre. You’ll see people walking [through the lobbies and corridors]. You might catch a glimpse of dancers behind milky glass in the rehearsal rooms. Even from the other side of the city you will get a glimpse of how this building works as a lamp – an inviting lamp to bring people to the theatre.”

The interior will benefit from that sense of transparency, too. “We played with daylight to create a little bit of drama in the lobby spaces,” says Van Berkel. “When you walk through the building you have the whole panorama of Hong Kong in front of you. The building then opens itself up over three or four floors with a fantastic high ceiling where you can see the drama of the whole city. But don’t forget, it’s not all about the drama. It’s also about comfort and wayfinding so you really walk easily in the right direction through the guidance of the pathways we introduced. There is a play between calmness and excitement in the way you walk from one part to the other.”

The material composition of each space also helps guide the public through the building, in addition to wayfinding based on UNStudio’s research into crowd movement. “The building is built out of only three major materials: steel, concrete and glass. And for the floors we did something really special with terrazzo,” says Van Berkel. “Many people will [visit] so you have to make sure you have one group walking on a bridge over the lobby and another stream walking towards the theatre. It’s something done through wayfinding but also the play with light we introduced into the building, and we also use colours and materials, so one direction of the lobby has a different finish of materials on the floor than the other lobby. We’ve learned this from a lot of infrastructural projects that we did.”

Since it was founded in 1988 by Van Berkel and art historian and principal urban planner Caroline Bos, UNStudio has worked on more than a dozen theatres around the world, including the Agora Theatre in Lelystad and the Dance Palace in St. Petersburg. That experience has allowed the studio to build a framework for effective theatre design, which it laid out in a 2015 research paper. The Lyric Theatre hits all of the points that bind UNStudio’s theatres together. There’s a central foyer that brings visitors together, a vertical foyer allowing for circulation and views on a number of different levels, a variety of performance spaces, back-of-house activities fully separated from public spaces, restaurants and retail spaces that attract visitors even if they aren’t seeing a show, and a visible connection between interior and exterior spaces.

A rendering of the Lyric Theatre as it will appear along the West Kowloon Cultural District waterfront

“We’ve always liked to work on projects that have a cultural edge,” says Van Berkel. “I think we’ve become good at it. You become trained in judgement about how theatres need to be organised and what the international standards are.” And for him, the interest is personal. “I go a lot to the theatre and to dance [performances] as well, because the Dutch have a beautiful history in dance,” he says. “So for me, this was a wonderful project to work on. Cultural projects bind people together. They make communities. It’s good for the city to have these projects.”

That civic ambition is underscored by the fact that the Lyric Theatre won’t only be a new cultural space for Hong Kong as a whole, but it will also serve as a lynchpin for the West Kowloon Cultural District. The area’s master plan, which was developed by Foster and Partners, envisions a neighbourhood more than just a collection of cultural venues. The Lyric Theatre will be a gateway to mixed-use blocks of shops, offices, hotels and apartments that will eventually extend to the Xiqu Centre at the far eastern edge of the district. And it will all be car-free, with vehicular access and services restricted to a vast basement level.

That basement has added to the cost and complexity of each of the district’s developments; it’s the reason the Lyric Theatre sits atop over 650 springs, which are meant to absorb vibration from all of the underground infrastructure. But it’s also key to making the theatre a real part of the city. “For many architects it may be difficult to work with the ingredients of the master plan, but in the end it will be quite beautiful to have so many walking areas around the site,” says Van Berkel. “There will be a possibility to move easily from one building to another, which wouldn’t have been possible with too many cars around. I like that the theatre is so accessible and so approachable. That’s why the building is so open – and hopefully communicative towards the city.”

The potential was clear on Van Berkel’s recent post-pandemic return to Hong Kong and the cultural district. “There’s a beauty in what is going on there at the moment, which is that you can almost feel how it’s going to be in five to seven year’s time, when many more buildings will be finished and people can stroll around,” he says. “I’m enjoying it a lot.”

This story was produced with the support of bodw+. Zolima CityMag maintains editorial independence over its content. To read this story on bodw+, please click here.

BODW presents its annual design conferences from 27 November to 2 December 2023. For more information on this year’s set of conferences under the name of Game Changers, visit here

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