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Michael Schindhelm used to manage Berlin's 150 million-euro Opera budget. Then he went to Dubai and led the cultural council there. I might read his book, Dubai High. Now he is in Hong Kong helping figure out what to do with this 40-hectar hunk of undeveloped land called West Kowloon.

I learned that opera has the biggest cultural budget in Berlin. I'm not surprised.

Schindhelm explained the context of Hong Kong a bit and told us about the project, then gave us the four things he learned from this experience. This talk was partly about the role of culture in urban planning, but also about how to play that role once you understand that it exists and is needed.

My favorite thing that Schindhelm articulated is the idea that it is a mistake for a city to try to build its cultural identity as an international hub. Go Local. Be true to the identity of the city you are. For new cultural developments, appreciate the local culture and talent. Use what is there. I think that this is true not only of big urban planning projects like the ones he works on, but for anything. I felt that Krakow was doing a good job at this. Portland, Oregon the same.

Consider scale thoughtfully. Don't start too big.

Adjust speed. Take your time. Culture takes time to grow. Think about the development of talent and culture and community before the development of buildings, which are fast and easy to build in comparison.

Go Public. Talk to the citizens. Consider the human dimension.

Schindhelm explained that architecture's impact on the culture of a city should not be underestimated. Architects were among the first designers to go global. The Sydney opera house (40 years old) and Bilbao's Guggenheim are examples of cities using architecture as a kind of branding tool. This is absolutely true. The second I see the Guggenheim building I think, "Bilbao."

Architecture is the tangible part of urban planning. Culture is more intangible. It's easy to build a museum. It's harder to figure out what to put in the museum.

Hong Kong has about 7 million people. It used to be predominantly Cantonese-speaking but more are more the city is becoming Mandarin speaking now. Half of HK is a special economic zone. The metro area has a population of 53 million. The city is economically mature and it's huge and growing. China is building a train network which will bring 40 million people a year to downtown Hong Kong. Yet Hong Kong lags far behind other cities culturally, meaning that it has fewer arts venues, museums, galleries, and artists than New York or Paris.

The city is dense and expensive, but there are 40 hectares of unbuilt land called West Kowloon. 3 billion dollars has been given to cultural development for West Kowloon. 40% of Kowloon will be a park. 40% of the 60% of the land which will be built up will be for museums and culture.

Schindhelm worked on the culture master plan with Rem Koohlhaas. As part of the project, they conducted interviews over many months with 40 people in the city to hear their concerns and ideas.

Originally the plan was about consuming culture, not creation. This evolved sot that studios and rehearsal spaces and schools were added to the plan.

They also looked to the local culture for inspiration. The local flavor. Every city started as a village. HK as well. There are 800-year-old walled villages within HK. The way these walled villages form part of the city served as an inspiration to their work. They also looked at the landscaping of the surrounding countryside and the vibrant street life is an essential part of this particular city.

Cantonese and Mandarin culture had to be considered. Cantonese opera (video link) is popular but underfunded, housed in crappy venues, and has not been modernized. One goal of the project is to change this.

80 public presentations of the proposal were done before the gov't made a decision. Now the master plan development is done and the first competitions have started to design the buildings. The Cantonese opera will be the first one built.

HK has more freedom of speech than the rest of China. The city wants to become the most important center of Chinese contemporary art. The museum's exhibit will be based on the collection of Uli Sigg, who is the biggest collector of contemporary Chinese art in the world. Herzog & de Meuron from Basil will design the museum.


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