Supercruiser (Kai Tak Cruise Terminal, Hong Kong, China)

The heart-stopping approach to Hong Kong’s Kai Tak Airport’s runway 13 was a vivid reminder of just one of the reasons civil aircraft pilots are worth every penny they earn. With the airport sitting in Kowloon Bay and surrounded by hills and tall buildings, aircraft had to make a sharp turn and rapid descent to land. It wasn’t an approach for the nervous passenger.

When the last plane flew out of the improbably located Kai Tak Airport in 1998, a hush descended. Flights moved to the new offshore Chek Lap Kok Airport, leaving behind the question of what do with the site of Kai Tak Airport. Even in the overcrowded environs of Hong Kong, it has taken time to work out what to do with this huge, flat, empty piece of real estate. It’s right in the middle of Kowloon Bay, but when the airport closed it had no roads and no services that would support its immediate re-use for other purposes. Even now, it is only slowly being turned over to residential use.

Part of De Novo, a housing develoment being built on the old Kai Tak Airport site. Photo by Wpcpey (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Two new metro stations are due to open at the edge of the site in the next year or so, which will help improve access, but the redevelopment of Kai Tak is evidently going to be a long job. If something takes a long time in China, a country famed for its ability to get infrastructure built quickly, then you know it’s genuinely difficult. It’s worth bearing in mind when people suggest closing London’s Heathrow Airport and opening a new one in the Thames Estuary, freeing up the footprint of the current Heathrow Airport, as they still do from time to time, despite the Airports Commission rejecting the idea in 2015. Having a huge piece of ex-airport land available for redevelopment doesn’t mean it’s either a quick or easy job to do so.

However, one piece of land at Kai Tak has already been successfully redeveloped, as a facility catering for the seemingly unstoppable rise of the cruise ship holiday market.

Kai Tak Cruise Terminal. The egg-shaped structure on the tall column is a radar dome. Photo by Ceeseven (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By the end of the 1990s, Hong Kong’s Ocean Terminal clearly had insufficient capacity to handle the increasing number of cruise ships wanting to berth in Hong Kong. Ships were often forced to anchor in mid-stream, tendering their passengers ashore. The newly vacated land at Kai Tak Airport was the perfect place to locate an additional cruise ship terminal.

In 2013, after three years of construction, Kai Tak Cruise Terminal opened, right at the seaward end of the old Kai Tak Airport runway. It was designed by architecture practice Foster+Partners.

Kai Tak Cruise Terminal detail. Photo by Wpcpey (Own work) [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

At its heart essentially a rectangular cuboid, and planned to allow the easiest possible throughput of large numbers of passengers, the terminal is dressed with an attractive exterior, each one speaking to its main function. The ground level is the least ornamented, and caters for baggage handling, customs, administration offices and passenger arrival –  it is somewhere to be passed through relatively quickly.

The level above caters for passengers being picked up by taxis or private cars. A concourse on the seaward side projects out slightly over the ground level, and is where the bridges connect ships to the terminal. It is lined with windows to give a view over berthed ships, and externally features long runs of glazing, polished metal cladding, and rounded corners.

The third level incorporates the main passenger check-in and waiting areas and associated shops and Cafés/restaurants. Externally, this level has striking curved sides with triangular windows, designed to give views of the harbour through their wide bases, but reduce glare at their narrow tops.

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At each end of the terminal, these curved sides extend upwards in eminently suitable prow-like fashion. The upper level’s sides also extend slightly above the terminal’s third level, because one of the building’s highlight’s is its open-air fourth level, a public roof garden.

The Kai Tak Cruise Terminal roof garden. Photo by By Wpcpey (Own work) [CC BY 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The roof garden includes sheltered areas too, so informal picnics can be had on the roof, whatever the weather.

The terminal also features four full-height atria which allow daylight down to the lower levels of the building, and let stale air back out.

One of the dramatic atria. Photo by Chalongapasstrea (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s a big building, 850m long and 35m wide. This simply reflects the huge size and capacity of the latest cruise ships. Kai Tak Cruise Terminal is designed to handle two of the largest cruise ships at once, and cater for the disembarkation of 8,400 passengers and 1,200 crew.

Kai Tak Cruise Terminal from the land side. Photo by Ian Glen [CC BY 2.0] via this flickr page

Mindful of the need to kickstart the regeneration of the ex-Kai Tak Airport area, the cruise terminal was planned as a building which would feature activity even on days when there were no cruise ships visiting. The interior layout was designed to be highly flexible (the building is column-free inside) so that it can be adapted for events and exhibitions, which it has successfully done. It has hosted, amongst others events, boxing matches and fashion shows.

Flexible internal spaces in the cruise terminal mean it perform other functions. Photo by Baycrest (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s been a surprisingly influential building. Many of its design concepts were too good to resist re-using elsewhere, and Foster+Partners’ new surface building for the Crossrail station at Canary Wharf features some striking similarities with Kai Tak Cruise Terminal. These include the roof garden, triangular windows and curved/projecting upper level. Sensibly, given its location, the garden is largely sheltered by a roof comprising translucent ETFE cushions.

Canary Wharf Crossrail station. Photo by Michael Fallows (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Further Reading and Bibliography

Foster+Partners project page for Kai Tak Cruise Terminal (here) and press release marking foundation laying, here

Briefing about Kai Tak Cruise Terminal by the Architectural Services Department of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, here

…and anything else linked to in the text above

How to find Kai Tak Cruise Terminal

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

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