SCMP Thursday, May 17, 2001

The folly of shelving people's views


Wisdom is gained from hard knocks, it is often said. But bureaucrats do not seem to have learned much from the prolonged bickering over the Central Library which, after a four-year delay, opens its doors to the public today.
Initiated by the now-disbanded Urban Council about eight years ago, the library was supposed to become one of Hong Kong's finest landmarks, recognised around the world.
And in his address at yesterday's opening ceremony, Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa said the Government was committed to developing the project into a world-class library.
That is all very well. But the controversial design of the $690 million 12-storey building in Causeway Bay has led to it being regarded as something of a joke, an example of how unattractive Hong Kong's public buildings can be.
To some, the problem lies in the monopoly held by the Architectural Services Department on the way our public buildings are designed - from public toilets, schools and hospitals to civic offices and leisure facilities.
Former urban councillor Ada Wong Ying-kay, now appointed to the Culture and Heritage Commission, said: "Hong Kong has a lot of talent. It is hard to understand why architects outside the Government are not allowed to compete for the design of the city's civic buildings.
"Public facilities belong to the people. And it is natural the public should have a say," Ms Wong added. "In Vancouver, residents voted to decide the design of the city's central library."
Some critics argue the building lacks the radical spirit found in the design of the new library in Vancouver and the renovation that houses the Tate Modern art gallery in London.
Ms Wong, now a Wan Chai district councillor, had fought for there to be open competition for the design of the Central Library - the biggest public library in Hong Kong - but to no avail.
Her former council colleague Kam Nai-wai, who chaired the council's libraries select committee, shared similar views. Mr Kam, a Democrat and Central and Western district councillor, said: "The government architects are too conservative. Take a look at those civic town halls, they are all monotonous, boring replicas.
"We pay a lot of money and we end up getting a white elephant. I heard many complaints from architects that they would just shake heads and sigh every time they walk past the Central Library."
Perhaps this explains why the Planning and Lands Bureau has organised a contest to invite ideas on how the West Kowloon reclamation site should be developed.
Ms Wong hopes the Architectural Services Department will follow this example and allow more participation by private architects in major projects.
A department spokeswoman said it would only seek outside help on the design of building projects if it felt it might not have enough manpower or expertise. In 2001-02, the department will be handling projects worth a total of $1.57 billion. The department's architects deal with as many as 400 projects at one time.
Democratic Party legislator Fred Li Wah-ming, also a former urban councillor, suggested overseas architects should be hired to help with important projects.
"If our government architects are not good enough to handle such a big project as the Central Library, we can hire experts from overseas. After all, we pay a lot of money every year to consultancies to do these kinds of studies," said Mr Li.
The Central Library was the last key project of the former Urban Council, an elected municipal body which Mr Tung scrapped last year.
At the heart of the lingering Central Library saga is an arch-like structure on the facade of the building, which attracted criticism from some architects who described it as looking like a toy built with Lego blocks.
Government architects defended the design, saying it aimed to amalgamate Western culture with the wisdom of the East. They said "post-modernistic neo-classicism" was adopted to reflect a "humanistic spirit". The arch-like structure represented a "door of knowledge", while the geographical shapes on the building symbolised earth and the universe, according to the department.
Former director of urban services Elaine Chung Lai-kwok, now a Deputy Secretary for Housing, had sought to react to public criticism of the design, but her move only fuelled more controversy in mid-1997.
Ms Chung spent $400,000 hiring a private architect to redesign the library, but she did not first notify urban councillors. The new design, which adopted a glass-curtain wall, would have cost $100 million more.
Mr Kam said: "I think our bureaucrats should learn a good lesson about accountability from this saga. It is unimaginable a government officer could bypass an elected council."
The council subsequently passed a motion of censure against Ms Chung in August 1997. But she remained defiant and insisted she had the right to suggest a new design for the library. Her proposed design was ultimately vetoed, with councillors voting to keep the original one.
Mr Kam said councillors were reluctant to vote to retain the original design, but a redesign could have delayed the project by two or three years.
The Moreton Terrace site of the library was identified in 1994 and it was scheduled to open in early 1997. At that time, the price of the new building was only $257 million. By April 1997, the cost had risen to $595 million because of delays and rising costs.
But urban councillors were later told the cost would be $792 million because of an unexplained miscalculation by the Architectural Services Department. The project was nonetheless endorsed.
The department apparently did not learn its lesson and added a farcical touch to the saga in 1999, when its architects amended the design without letting urban councillors know. An extra $300,000 was spent on adding six decorative columns in front of a glass wall on the 10th and 11th floors because they believed it would make the library look more elegant. The new layout was not noted until a visit by councillors about six months later. By then, the library building was already 80 per cent completed.
As Mr Tung noted in yesterday's opening ceremony: a library is more than a building, it is the door to knowledge and wisdom.
The construction of the Central Library has undoubtedly provided plenty of material for the bureaucracy to refer to in order to learn how to listen to the public and be accountable to elected public representatives.
Ng Kang-chung ( ) is a staff writer for the Post's editorial pages.