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Story of a shell: Kennedy Town Swimming Pool

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Terry Farrell’s zinc-clad swimming pool heralds a sea change for Hong Kong’s Kennedy Town, writes Felix Mara. Photography by Marcel Lam

It would be an understatement to say that much of Terry Farrell’s best architectural work in recent years has been in the Far East.

Farrell’s Hong Kong office is one of the Special Administrative Region’s great expat survivors and the lightweight, sinuous, streamlined work of the practice in the 1990s - very different from its chunky 1980s’ PoMo excesses - remains in tune with Hong Kong’s enduring appetite for flamboyant architecture and engineering prowess. This has been exemplified by Phase 1 of Farrells’ Kennedy Town Swimming Pool, which opened in May 2011.

Perhaps more than any other, Hong Kong is a city where the natural and economic environment shapes its distinctive, if not always distinguished, urban form and architecture. Known as the world’s most vertical city, its dense population and rugged terrain integrate with a ruthless commercial ‘logic’ that launches clusters of buildings with miniscule footprints upwards to form canyons, forges relentless chains of malls through the urban fabric and spawns oddities such as seven-riser escalators.

Kennedy Town, named after the region’s seventh governor and lying at the western end of Hong Kong Island, has evaded this logic and retained an unusual proportion of older buildings because of its peripheral location. Lying beyond the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) but not the double-decker tram line, it has a distinctive atmosphere.

All this is set to change upon the opening of the Kennedy Town MTR terminus, scheduled to complete in 2014. The chosen site was home to a large outdoor public swimming pool complex, which the government only allowed the MTR Corporation (MTRC) to demolish on condition that it be replaced with a new pool. The facilities then had to be augmented with an additional phase, which is scheduled to open in 2017.

So until Phase 2 is complete, the capacity of the original complex - which had two large outdoor pools, replicating the facility near the Chai Wan terminus at the east end of the MTR - will only be partially replaced and Hong Kong’s seven million souls will have to make do with the region’s 40 other public pools and many beaches.

Farrells, the architect of both phases of the new complex, conceived it as a ‘green gateway’ to Kennedy Town and a ‘building in the park’. Adjacent to Belcher Bay Park to the west and a proposed waterfront park on the Victoria Bay quayside, the site is integrated with its neighbours by landscaping, trees and green walls. Although 23m high, the complex stands out as a linear, horizontal feature in juxtaposition to the nearby towers, helping to retain view corridors toward the harbour.

Approached from the west, it will resemble a Brobdingnagian high-speed train hurtling around the bend at the harbour’s edge between Praya Kennedy Town and the elevated road to the north. Seen from above, it will resemble a zinc-clad tusk with a large slice cut away to reveal its hollow interior. The removal of this section, creates a shell-like form, while the glazed openings in the cladding supplement views across the harbour from within the complex, some from a viewing deck at second-floor level.

The ground-floor corner entrance within Phase 1 opens to a lobby, which leads to the first-floor changing areas, adjacent to the outdoor primary and leisure pools, or to the viewing deck. The deck is served by a lift and staircase in a blocky tower, incongruous with the complex’s curvaceous forms. The east end of Phase 1 forms a sheer vertical face to which Phase 2, with the tip of the tusk, will be added.

Phase 2 will be enclosed and separated from Phase 1 by a glass wall, which will slide open to connect the two sections in summer. It will feature a reinforced concrete base supporting steel portals, spanning a column-free space with transparent ETFE cushions overhead to admit daylight, offer views and reduce heat loss, and echoes from hard surfaces. While glass walls and windows that can be opened are proposed for Phase 2 to provide cross-ventilation, the coiling roof of Phase 1 will provide solar shading, allowing visitors to enjoy protection from the elements and the pleasures of swimming under the stars on a balmy summer night.

Zinc cladding was chosen for its ability to self-heal damage to its surface through oxidisation and as a material which would, with time, take on a homogenous appearance shared by both phases once they weathered. Zinc’s low sheen and matt finish also reduces reflections affecting neighbouring residential buildings and the effect of sunlight on the curved surfaces creates subtle diurnal changes in the cladding’s appearance. Its malleability and workability suit the building’s fluid and curvilinear form and allow details to be modified during construction.

So far, the quality of detail and execution is promising; it seems to be going in the direction of the practice’s 1996 British Hong Kong Consulate-General rather than The Deep aquarium in Hull.

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