Interview: Populous’ Richard Breslin on ‘world benchmark’ Kai Tak Sports Park

Images: Populous

Hong Kong’s long-awaited Kai Tak Sports Park complex is set to open its doors next year.

Spanning 28 hectares, the wide-ranging site will feature a 50,000-seat main stadium, indoor arenas, retail outlets and a public sports ground. Construction work on the Populous-designed complex, which will be operated by ASM Global, commenced in 2019.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic complicated matters and the complex’s 2023 opening date has been pushed back, the finishing line is now in sight. Last month, a new video was released documenting progress over the summer months.

Populous has worked with the Hong Kong government on the project, which was first mooted back in 2005. Richard Breslin, a senior principal at Populous and part of the architecture firm’s management team in its Brisbane office, has been closely involved with the project from the start.

We caught up with Breslin to discuss the design vision behind Kai Tak Sports Park, the challenges posed by the pandemic, and Populous’ upcoming projects in the Asia-Pacific region…

TheStadiumBusiness: What are the key design features of Kai Tak Sports Park?

Richard Breslin: “Populous designed the masterplan that you can see coming to life in Hong Kong now; a 28-hectare multi-purpose precinct and individual venue designs that transform the former airport into an urban destination.

Our design integrates high-quality sports venues with retail, wellness, recreational and community spaces, and to foster a user-friendly environment

“Stadia are significant buildings in themselves, let alone a precinct that contains three such significant buildings; a 50,000-seat main stadium, a 10,000-seat indoor sports centre with a 10,000-seat arena and retail spaces, and a 5,000-seat public sports ground.

“Our design integrates high-quality sports venues with retail, wellness, recreational and community spaces, and to foster a user-friendly environment, four key themes were central to the masterplan:

  • ‘Connected and Integrated’ can be seen through the strong orientation of the north-south axis of the Sports Avenue through to the Dining Cove on the harbour’s edge;
  • ‘Smart and Sustainable’ comes to life through smart provisions that enhance wayfinding, connectivity, customer services and the user experience;
  • ‘Enjoyable and Vibrant’ through the staging of events to enhance the vibrancy of the Sports Park and harbour front promenade; and,
  • ‘Safe and Inclusive’ by providing a safe, barrier-free environment and facilities.

“Purpose-designed to host an extensive portfolio of international, regional, and local events, as well as a full range of community sports and activities, Kai Tak Sports Park has been designed to support the government’s aims to promote sports in the community, champion elite sports, and enhance Hong Kong’s reputation as a centre for major international sports events.

“One of the most important features of the new Kai Tak Sports Park is the public realm. Whilst the main focus is on the venues, the importance of the public open space which holds and connects the venues is critical. The new Kai Tak Sports Park is the centrepiece development within the Kai Tak precinct. As such the public open space needs to invite and welcome all comers to the precinct, as a new park for Hong Kong. What is being developed will enhance the lives of all Hong Kongers, not simply those attending events or using the facilities.”

TSB: What factors need to be considered when designing a precinct such as Kai Tak Sports Park, as opposed to a standalone venue?

RB: “Kai Tak Sports Park as a concept is quite new for Hong Kong. In a city where land is scarce, the 28 hectares dedicated to wide open spaces and facilities for informal and community recreation coupled with a prime harbour-side location shows the government’s commitment to promoting sports and wellbeing to the general public.

“Nowhere in the world is there anything like the level of integration between international sports and entertainment facilities combined with community recreation, retail and leisure facilities that has been designed for Kai Tak Sports Park.

We have broken down the public realm into discrete entertainment, engagement, or relaxation points

“We have broken down the public realm into discrete entertainment, engagement, or relaxation points providing a people-centric solution to moving many people around a large area. During big events, the precinct works efficiently, moving spectators throughout and into the adjacent sites. At other times, the nodal points, such as the main plaza, neighbourhood park, dining cove, and the children’s play area, become their own spaces for hosting mini-events or simply for community enjoyment.

“Of particular importance to the project is the site’s history. We cannot let any of it slip away. The past is as important to the success of the precinct as its future. Whilst most people identify Kai Tak with the old airport, it has a long and deep history, as well as its importance in the growth and evolution of Hong Kong into a major global city. 

“From a technical point of view, we are always considering the operational implications of a multi-venue precinct, and particularly the segregation between back-of-house functions and vehicle movements, and pedestrian movement. At Kai Tak Sports Park we have been able to segregate these two parties with a podium public on top, and back-of-house functions underneath. Having the operational functions under a podium also helps with noise and light spill, important in a residential neighbourhood, as well as providing protection from the elements.

“A number of scenarios are tested when considering ‘peak load’, i.e. the maximum number of people within the precinct attending concurrent events. Ensuring safety of guests and staff is paramount in any venue, made more complex when considering there could be three venues in full entertainment mode, plus the retail facilities.”

TSB: What is the latest on the Kai Tak Sports Park project? How, if at all, did COVID-19 impact the design process?

RB: “A project sitting at the scale and vision of Kai Tak Sports Park takes many years to evolve from thought to reality. When it is complete, it will be a world benchmark for the future of sporting precincts, recognised as a vibrant destination for both athletes and the community; working to bring to life the Hong Kong Government’s sports policy.

“The design, build and operate contract spans 25 years, from 2019 to 2044. With an extensive size of 28 hectares, the project team were confronted with the challenge to deliver the design and project-manage the construction works within a timeframe of four years. However, during the first stages of the project, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the architecture, engineering, construction and operation (AECO) design teams were forced to work from home.

At Populous we had over 150 staff working on the project in nine offices in six time zones. So, when the pandemic hit we were not duly affected

“From March 2020 the single largest factor in the successful design development and delivery of KTSP was the cloud-based Building Information Modelling (BIM360) software which was implemented by Populous during the pandemic. Given the scale of the development, many teams were already working on a digital platform. At Populous we had over 150 staff working on the project in nine offices in six time zones. So, when the pandemic hit we were not duly affected, apart from the opportunity for our people to travel to and from Hong Kong.

“To deliver the design stages with a workforce that was spread across the world, Populous enabled the introduction of the cutting-edge technology of Autodesk’s BIM360 platform that was pushed to its limits in how many people were having to use it.”

TSB: More generally, has the pandemic impacted how Populous approaches stadium/arena projects?

RB: “Effective communication has been essential. But equally important is the sophisticated, state-of-the-art software system that we used, based in the cloud. We continuously make a significant investment in maintaining our systems, software, and training to ensure our teams can operate seamlessly across multiple offices as well as with our clients and consultants.

“The most important is the skill and knowledge of our people as well as the exacting and skilled nature of the work they do. We have drawn on our global offices to ensure we have exactly the right people, with the right experience, working on this project. We have had seven Populous offices around the world involved in the design and delivery; with each person on the team deliberately selected for a specific role.

“The single largest factor in the development and delivery of the design has been Revit or Building Information Modelling (BIM) software. This is the software we use to effectively ‘draw’ the project in three dimensions, meaning we effectively build the Sports Park twice.

With Revit’s BIM… any clashes can be identified and resolved – all within a live, ever-changing model

“We firstly build it in a 3D Model on a digital platform, and then the Sports Park is built in bricks and mortar. The advantage of building it first on a digital platform is that we can ensure everything works properly, that there is enough space for the individual elements and that any clashes can be identified and resolved – all within a live, ever-changing model. Populous has been using Revit for over 15 years constantly upgrading and refining processes over this time.

“The main legacy of Kai Tak Sports Park is the way 3D technology or BIM has been used throughout the project and the knowledge and skillsets this has given people in Hong Kong who have worked on the project. The constant refinement of the processes has been extraordinary, as the team effectively ‘built the project twice’ – once digitally and then in reality. 

“When considering the impact of a pandemic on venues, we ran several scenarios using parametric modelling, which developed seating and ticketing plans for venue owners. At this point, the notion of social distancing is a challenge for venues, as this means significantly reducing venue capacity. We worked with operators worldwide to help them develop operational plans that would suit the intent of the respective authorities.”

TSB: You have previously said that Kai Tak Sports Park will be unique in terms of the level of integration between community, sports, entertainment and retail. Could you expand on that?

RB: “The sheer scale of the site has been the single-largest challenge for the team. So, we took a view from the outset that we needed to balance our approach to the bulk and mass of the built form. 

“Whilst the buildings are the anchors, the destination points within the precinct and the journey throughout the precinct is just as important to the overall experience of Kai Tak Sports Park. A journey along Kai Tak Sports Avenue celebrates sport and leisure in all its forms; from dining and shopping to health and wellness centres, festivals, events, concerts right through to international sports synonymous with Hong Kong like the rugby sevens.

“The design builds up layers of activity along the Avenue, providing the opportunity to watch, join in or inspire future participation. Co-located with retail space and the dining cove, Kai Tak Sports Park will offer the community and visitors to Hong Kong a vibrant destination any day of the year.”

TSB: Are there any similarities between Kai Tak Sports Park and other venues you have worked on? ICC Sydney, for example?

RB: “Kai Tak Sports Park speaks to the core of our business. We are a design firm with a focus on large-scale social infrastructure projects. We have delivered some of the largest venues and events in the world, such as Wembley Stadium, ICC Sydney, Yankee Stadium, Marvel Stadium, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, the London 2012 Olympic Stadium along with Super Bowl event planning and operations for almost 40 years.

Kai Tak Sports Park speaks to the core of our business. We are a design firm with a focus on large-scale social infrastructure projects

“There was an ambition to firstly invite the world to the facility and secondly recognise the importance of the opportunity to enhance one of the city’s most visited outdoor places. When looking at survey data when we were designing the project, in excess of 25 million people visited Darling Harbour a year. The resulting design, with a considerably larger building footprint, provided more public open space and more amenable public space.”

“The similarities between ICC Sydney and Kai Tak Sports Park are principally in their urban design outcomes. ICC Sydney, located in Sydney’s Darling Harbour precinct, sits on the western edge of the central business district.

TSB: Are there any other major projects Populous is currently working on in the Asia-Pacific region?

RB: “In terms of going forward and designing other major precincts, Jamsil Sports MICE Complex in Seoul (pictured below) is one of the main projects we’re working on in the Asia-Pacific region that is similar to Kai Tak Sports Park.

“We are also delivering Te Kaha Stadium in Christchurch, New Zealand, Stage 5 of the GMHBA Stadium in Geelong, Victoria, the renovation of Kansai International Airport in Osaka, Japan, Toa Payoh Integrated Development in Singapore, Bangladesh Cricket Stadium, the Ahmedabad 2036 Olympic masterplan, and many other confidential projects in India, Tokyo and Singapore to name a few.”

>> Meet Richard Breslin and the Populous team behind Kai Tak Sports Park exclusively at our TheStadiumBusiness ASIA 2023 in Hong Kong on 19-20 October. Further details here.