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Monday, Jan 18, 2021

Site of Hong Kong's former Kai Tak Airport set for huge transformation

Site of Hong Kong's former Kai Tak Airport set for huge transformation

The site of the old Hong Kong Kai Tak Airport -- famous for its notoriously challenging runway in the middle of the busy city center -- is set to welcome a new sky-high landmark.

Prior to the Kowloon-based airport's closure in 1997 -- it was replaced by the current Hong Kong International Airport -- buildings constructed in the area had to adhere to strict height restrictions to ensure the safety of the facility.

That's what makes this new skyscraper all the more exciting. Standing at 200 meters above ground, when completed in 2022 Airside will become the tallest landmark occupying the old airport land.

As well as breathing new life into a part of Hong Kong that has been largely undeveloped since the airport's closure, it will no doubt stir some nostalgia for the days when gigantic airplanes would be photographed descending through the city's residential tower blocks.

The 47-story mixed-used skyscraper is the first Hong Kong project by Norwegian design studio Snøhetta, the creative mind behind jaw-dropping designs including Norway's otherworldly planetarium and "constellation" lodges as well as Europe's first underwater restaurant.

While a shiny new building isn't likely to draw comparisons to the gray boxy structure of Kai Tak's terminal, the team behind it say they took note of the airport's vertiginous landing descent when considering their design and wanted to pay homage to its dramatic aviation heritage.


Thrilling images of Kai Tak Airport: Iconic scene from Kai Tak International Airport -- a Cathay Pacific jet between apartment buildings in Kowloon City. "This photo was taken in To Kwa Wan just at the entrance of the airport tunnel (now Kai Tak tunnel)," recalls photographer Daryl Chapman.

Best view in the sky: Plane spotters gathered on the roof of the car park at Kai Tak, recalls photographer Daryl Chapman. It was one of the best locations to see arriving and departing aircraft.


Airport in the middle of the city: Sitting partly in the city and partly in the sea, Kai Tak International Airport, which closed 20 years ago, was one of the world's most exciting (and terrifying) airports to fly into.


Cathay Pacific Airways at Kai Tak: Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways began operations in 1946, before the plan for Kai Tak expansion and the promontory into Kowloon Bay was approved in 1954. (The first recorded flight from the site took place in 1925.) Cathay was the last carrier to take off from the airport in 1998.


The turn that made Kai Tak famous: A Lufthansa 747-400 makes the famous 45-degree turn over Kowloon City for runway 13. "It was totally unique," says former Cathay Pacific pilot Russell Davie. "It was the only major airport in the world that required a 45-degree turn below 500 feet to line up with the runway."


"Oops ...": On November 4, 1993, a China Airlines pilot overran the runway while landing in the rain, putting a five-month-old 747-400 into the sea. Fortunately, all 396 passengers survived.


Retired aircraft at a retired airport: One of the most beautiful sights at Kai Tak -- Air France's retired Concorde makes an elegant takeoff.


Only at Kai Tak: A passenger jet flies above bamboo scaffolding and TV antennae.


Better than any in-flight entertainment: Low-flying planes offered passengers a voyeuristic experience -- some could actually see what residents were up to through apartment windows in Kowloon City. Understandably, many locals on the ground didn't always appreciate the attention.


Night light: "With no other runway in the world demanding such a tight, curved approach, the lighting pattern had to be unique to Kai Tak," according to Hong Kong's Civil Aviation Department.


Small but busy: Despite its difficult runway, Kai Tak was for a time the third busiest airport in the world, handling 29.5 million international passengers and 1.56 million tons of international cargo in 1996.


Goodbye, Kai Tak: Kai Tak's observatory deck? Nope, it's the old airport's car park on the last day of operations in 1998.


The project, with an investment of HKD 32 billion ($4.12 billion) will comprise an office building and a retail complex under the concept of "wholeness."

"Whilst respecting the historical context of the site, our initial concepts for the development took inspiration in the diversity of commercial, recreational and retail functions and the opportunity this gave to generate a series of rich and interactive public spaces throughout the development," Robert Greenwood, Snøhetta's managing director in Asia, tells CNN Travel.

"This approach led us to a hybrid solution for the tower -- no longer the traditional tower and podium but a composition of elements combining to form a holistic urban structure, connecting the ground to the sky."

The complex features a balanced range of activities and infrastructure including office space, a retail complex, art and dining offerings, along with plenty of greenery and outdoor space.


Nan Fung Development Limited's Airside will be the tallest skyscraper in the Kai Tak area.


A cascading, green open-air rooftop and terraces will take up about a third of the site area. The multi-story 700,000-square-feet shopping mall will offer an experiential retail space and world-class restaurants, says the developer.

Sustainability plays a major role in the design, too.

There will be a sky farm, natural ventilation, an automated smart waste sorting and storage system and a water-saving and rainwater retention management plan. It'll also be home to the city's first automatic bicycle parking bay.

A nod to Kai Tak Airport and Hong Kong's past

A large area of the complex will be covered by glass panels, allowing natural daylight to flood the space.


The different design elements of the complex pay tribute to the site's aviation past.

"During our research we were impressed by the images of the dramatic landings that took place at the former Kai Tak airport," says Greenwood.

"In the design process, it was important to us to be respectful of and contribute to the preservation of the collective memory of many Hongkongers. The vast retail arcade space at Airside draws parallels to the typology of the airport terminal through its impressive scale and openness."

The structure is filled with natural daylight whereas the exterior plazas and public rooftop gardens offer views over the city -- "much like the visual impressions from the famous takeoff and landing experiences of the original airport."

Nan Fung Development Limited, the local developer of the project and one of the largest privately-held conglomerates in Hong Kong, also loaned inspiration to the design.

Founded in the 1950s, it was the city's largest yarn-spinning business. As a nod to this history, Snøhetta has blended in designs that acknowledge the company's role in Hong Kong's textile manufacturing as well as the city's industrial past.


The former airport's runway is now home to Hong Kong's Kai Tak Cruise Terminal.


"[Some] examples of textile references are the weaved office lobby chandelier wrapping around the office lobby stone pleats, the fluted glass façade, whose panels in different radii are organized in a stylized drapery, or the stone pavers of the public plazas whose different tones form a crest like pattern that invites its users inside," says Greenwood.

Spanning 1.9 million square feet, the skyscraper will be one of the latest landmarks of the Kai Tak Redevelopment projects -- a plan to transform the former airport site into one of the biggest and the newest central business districts in Hong Kong.

Airside will be located next to the new Kai Tak MTR metro station -- where the former North Apron of the old airport was located.

Other highlights in the area include the Norman Foster-designed Kai Tak Cuisine Terminal and its rooftop park (already opened and in use), public facilities, residential buildings and commercial areas.

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