Civic architecture, more than any other kind of architecture, can be symbolic of many things. People tend to project onto these buildings the aspirations they have for modern society, and often times these aspirations clash with one another. The West Kowloon Station in Hong Kong provides us a perfect example of that tension. It’s a high-speed rail hub that services 1.5 million passengers per month, and its architecture signifies several diverging views of the world.
Whether a passenger is departing or arriving, they’re sure to be shocked by the scale of West Kowloon Station. Boasting the same grandiosity as many airport terminals in Asia, the soaring roof here twists and rises like the back of a monstrous beast: a dragon of steel and glass helping to bring influence from mainland China, sneaking its way into Hong Kong only to rise its head right in the middle of West Kowloon Cultural District.
If someone wanted to take such a nefarious view of the station, they’d probably be right. Another view of the station is that of a grand palace celebrating the triumph of advanced transportation. Then there’s the benign political view — surely in the minority in the city if recent events are any indication — that the station represents a coming together of mainland China and Hong Kong. Mixed in with all of the politically-charged symbolism around the site, there are also those who see it as just great civic architecture. But no matter what, there’s no denying that the scale of this building provokes people to consider all of these competing interpretations of its form.
Since it first opened in September of 2018, visitors to West Kowloon Station have used it, and the seven acres of public space around it, as a park. Its curtain wall is made up of over 4,000 curved glass pieces, reflecting sunlight and giving the area’s many plazas and paths an extra glow. And since the roof of the station begins from the ground on one end, visitors can gently walk up steps between its garden spaces, taking in the view of the city as they climb. Don’t worry, though — this ascent is gradual and understated. Before visitors realize it, they are right on top of the highest point of the building, some 80 feet above the ground.
Aedas, the international architecture firm known for its stunning large-scale projects, designed the station’s interiors to be chalk-full of memorable moments for visitors. Here, people move through a capacious public atrium framed by 8,000 tonnes of curved steel. The ceiling is a representation of the relationship between mainland China and Hong Kong, in that it is hard to demystify patterns that exist elsewhere, either from the inside or the out. The fluidity between ceiling and roof, and between the station’s different ribbons of fenestration, is also difficult to predict. Columns rise from one part of the slab, seemingly curving to form a part of the roof, but then curving unexpectedly again to support another part of it. However, within that visual chaos are opportunities for sunlight to shine deep into this mainly underground station. As the bands of windows follow the form of the roof, they contort to create these moments where the arriving passengers can catch their bearings as they ascend from the trains. The flowing interchange between clerestories and skylights gives people an even greater sense of the city outside as they take their first steps back into the real world.
For departing passengers, the high-speed trains featured in West Kowloon get them faster to mainland China than ever before. Hongkongers now have easy access to 44 cities in the Chinese mainland, and they can even get to major Chinese hubs like Beijing and Shanghai in under 9 hours. The station has 15 tracks in total: nine of which are for long-haul trains, and the other six for regional ones. The overt division between those two types is another aspect of the architecture that has proved controversial in the country.
Although it takes several hours to get there, the influence of Beijing is still right there in the station thanks a co-location arrangement that allows mainland Chinese customs officers to screen passengers prior to boarding. Yes, departing passengers must first pass through Hong Kong customs, after which they enter a corridor called the Mainland Port Area. Along the way, they walk over a yellow line demarcating where the laws of Hong Kong end and the laws of mainland China begin. Once across the line, even before passing through mainland customs, passengers are no longer subject to Hong Kong law, even though they are still physically in Hong Kong.
This co-location operation creates a series of checks for passengers to navigate, and it all takes place underground out of reach from the sunlight in the atrium above. The arrangement can also be interpreted as yet another example of Beijing trying to encroach upon Hong Kong territory.
West Kowloon Station is a symbol of many things. It represents the converging of high-speed train lines from across China at a single massive hub. This convergence is also represented architecturally in the structure of the building, especially on the ceiling and roof. Last but not least, the station represents the converging of disparate world views. It is a work of architecture loaded in meaning: attractive enough to be a favorite location for selfies, but unsettling enough to start an uprising.