Starchitect Koolhaas Lands HK “Cultural District” Project. WTC Languishes.


Koolhaas headshotAccording to the Architect’s Journal, Dutch starchitect Rem Koolhaas, with British starchitect Norman Foster and a local fellow named Rocco Yim Sen-kee have been chosen to create the master plan for a $2.7 billion project in Hong Kong called the West Kowloon Cultural District. How designers and urban planners in the U.S. must envy the cities and countries of the Middle East and Asia: It really seems they actually get projects of size and scope off the ground and, at some point, completed, and generally featuring dynamic, innovative, occasionally head-scratching architecture that’s at least forward thinking, provocative and sometimes loved.

Here in the well-cored Big Apple, meanwhile, it’s been nearly eight years since the unspeakable tragedy of Sept. 11 and clearly the stasis, in terms of rebuilding the WTC, is unshakable. We’re simply nowhere near the level of work on the site that the citizens of New York were clearly promised. (For the record, I thought Daniel Libeskind’s master plan was awfully daring, but I’d have preferred not to rebuild at all. Advocates for rebuilding the Twin Towers as they were but higher are just channeling their grief and patriotism into showboating and no one in New York has the brains to realize that converting the site into affordable housing, while a beautiful idea, will never work when the land itself is so highly valued.)

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Of late, the governor has stepped in, the mayor has stepped in, yet nothing of significance or import is really going on. Between the offensive intransigence of Larry Silverstein, the zillionaire developer whose ownership and stewardship of the WTC site, not to mention his penchant for litigation, would make a long opera, and the fiscal trough New York State is stuck in, the WTC site itself is in the urban-development equivalent 0f muck. So when I read that Koolhaas — who designed the nifty auditorium that Second Stage Theatre uses on West 43rd Street — had been chosen for another master plan project, my heart sank as it soared.

Case in point, by the way: As Robin Pogrebin of the New York Times recently reported, at least one of the elements of the heavily touted arts complex designated for the WTC site may not even rise where first imagined. The new home of the Joyce Theatre may instead be shuttled to the current site of the Deutsche Bank building now being demolished. (The change of site would finally be a way to get something arts-related built near the WTC — the idea is to use the foundation of Deutsche Bank building as a place to start.)

Also, when I read the story on Koolhaas being selected for the Hong Kong project, a bell went off. Yes: Koolhaas was also selected, as the Clyde Fitch Report reported in March 2008, to design the master plan for (to quote the Times one more time) a “1.5-billion-square-foot Waterfront City in Dubai” that aims to “simulate the density of Manhattan on an artificial island just off the Persian Gulf.” At the time I learned about that project, I asked: “Where are the theaters?”

A visit to Koolhaas’ excellent website,, provides a few updates. The most relevant to this topic is that the Dubai project is “on hold.” So I guess things aren’t so great on the other side of the globe, either.

Here are two renderings (one used previously by the Times) of what the Dubai site might look like:

Koolhaas Dubai II Koolhaas Dubai