This is the third instalment in a series of critical essays produced in collaboration with Design Trust and architecture critic and curator Mimi Zeiger. Today, we present an article by urban designer Melody Yiu.
ENVISIONING A PUBLIC PLAZA
The West Kowloon Cultural District is on a building spree and the first of its venues to open is the Xiqu Centre, dedicated to Chinese opera. It is hard to miss, perched at the corner of Canton Road and Austin Road, its wavy volume inspired by the drapery in traditional opera costumes. It garnered plenty of attention when it opened last December, but while its exterior is instantly recognisable, another key feature—the public plaza contained within the building—has been less discussed. And yet this is arguably the most important part of the centre, serving not only as an entrance point to visitors to the opera house, but a physical gateway to the entire cultural district.
We experience this kind of cultural venue in two different ways. One is the exterior image it projects: a highly curated architectural image meant to project grandeur. The other is the eye-level view we have as a person passing through the building. At the Xiqu Centre the experience of these two views can be quite different – and sometimes even conflicting.
The Xiqu Centre has no doors and no grand entrance as you would normally expect for an important building. Visitors reach its two theatres by passing through openings in the curtain-like metallic façade, after which they are greeted by a public plaza in a ground-floor courtyard. This open space was realised by elevating the main auditorium 27 metres above ground, a decision made partly for practical reasons such as protecting the theatre’s acoustics from the noise of nearby traffic, while also making construction more efficient. But it also had the happy result of making the ground level of the Xiqu Centre thoroughly open to its surrounding and publicly accessible around the clock.
This was always the intention of the centre’s architect, Bing Thom, whose Vancouver-based firm, now known as Revery Architecture, saw the project to completion after Thom died unexpectedly in 2016. His vision was to provide a welcoming open space for the public, dotted by trees and places to sit and rest, as in any good urban plaza. The Xiqu Centre has indeed proved very popular, and its plaza is often full of visitors taking pictures of the sleek interior. Yet somehow, a certain quality of urban space seems to be lacking. If anything the atmosphere evokes something familiar to any Hong Kong resident: the atrium of a shopping mall.
Part of the problem is that, strictly speaking, the plaza is not exactly at ground level. Looking at the floorplan, it seems to flow naturally into the surrounding streets, especially Canton Road, a busy shopping thoroughfare. Walking north along Canton Road towards the Xiqu Centre, we pass a fire station before encountering the opera house, warm light glowing from its interior. Rather than flush with the street, however, the centre’s plaza is reached through a number of steps leading up to the building, followed by even more steps into the plaza. It’s enough that, on a recent visit, some elderly women needed to take a rest halfway up before reaching the plaza.
This degree of elevation above the street makes the entrance experience less direct and intuitive than it should be. Instead of a spontaneous journey into an extension of the street, walking into the Xiqu Centre feels more like a pilgrimage into a palace of culture – an elite high-culture approach that seems at odds with Thom’s original vision.
Inside the plaza, the centrepiece is a large sculptural bench that circles the space, with multidimensional curves clad in polished precast concrete. It is certainly a beautiful object that integrates art and technology. But while plenty of effort has been made to ensure perfection in its fabrication, there seems to be less consideration in terms of human proportion and usage. The far end of the bench is slightly too tall to sit on – and a bit too wide to lean and rest against. Visitors still use it as it is the only seating in the plaza, but their feet are dangling from the edge and they rarely seem to linger. With all these installations, plus additional programmes that take up even more space, the plaza begins to lose its sense of scale as a grand plaza. The space appears fragmented.
A good urban plaza should allow for all sorts of spontaneous social activities: kids running around, people enjoying coffee, and buskers playing music. For the time being, a wooden pavilion in the shape of a traditional Chinese pagoda occupies the centre of the plaza with photos of the Xiqu Centre’s design and construction. It looks quite out of place within the polished, curvaceous interior, and it blocks the noontime performances organised by the centre. As the abundance of selfie-taking visitors suggests, this is a space to be looked at but not really used or enjoyed.
This may come down not only to design but to management. Although funded by public endowment, the Xiqu Centre is responsible for maintaining a financial balance, which might lead to the approach of a shopping mall operator, who sees it as their imperative to maximise real estate value, leaving no square inch empty. But urban space is created through a process of constant negotiation. The question to ask is whether, in a city like Hong Kong where cost efficiency is the golden rule, there can be a chance for a cultural building to be what it is meant to be: a genuine public space that is monumental yet humane.
The Xiqu Centre’s public plaza is designed to be open and welcoming, but in practice it feels more like a place to be admired and not lived. The issues of scale, accessibility, usage and control are all crucial to the making of public space, which needs to be reconciled between many parties and beyond the vision of a single person, whether architect or administrator. I would like to believe that the Xiqu Centre is going through some early growing pains. There is still time to adjust; the rest of the Cultural District is still taking space, and the urbanistic vision of the Xiqu Centre’s plaza can still be fully realised. It still has a chance to be enjoyed by citizens as a true public place.