Look at the bigger heritage picture

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 May, 2012, 12:00am


Fresh hopes have been raised that an office block of the former government headquarters in Central may escape demolition. Antiquities experts have reached a consensus that the entire complex deserves the top heritage grading for better conservation. The proposal, if endorsed by the Antiquities Advisory Board next month, is likely to give the incoming chief executive a new perspective when ruling on the redevelopment plan inherited from the outgoing administration.

Under the present system, only declared monuments are spared the wrecker's ball. Grade I historic status means only that 'every effort should be made to preserve [the structures] if possible'. Given the prime location and the high redevelopment potential of the government's west wing, it remains unclear whether the proposed grading will give the new government sufficient grounds to stop it being replaced with a 32-storey commercial tower.

The latest twist underlines the inadequacies in the existing mechanism for grading buildings of historical value. The three-tier classification system takes into account historical interest, architectural merit, group value, social value, local interest, authenticity and rarity. But only individual buildings are rated, not an entire site. The approach inevitably raises questions as to why some of the city's heritage sites have not been given the protection they deserve.

Government Hill is the first to be graded as an architectural ensemble by the board's expert panel. It is baffling that this approach was only adopted in November, two years after the announcement of the redevelopment. The proposed top grading for the entire site is an embarrassment for the outgoing administration, which insists the west wing can be flattened for redevelopment. The government has argued that the 53-year-old block has less historical value than the main and east wings, which will be preserved for government use. The incident is a good reminder that holistic assessment may be the best approach.