Hong Kong's system for grading historic buildings is dated and inaccurate

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 July, 2012, 12:00am


As a solicitor, I feel that the issue concerning the redevelopment of the west wing of the former central government offices reveals the flaws of our grading system for heritage buildings.

In Hong Kong, historic assets are classified into 'monuments' and 'graded buildings'. Protection of monuments is governed under the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance while the non-statutory grading system classifies historic buildings into grades one, two and three. The east wing, main wing and west wing of the former government offices were constructed in 1954, 1956 and 1959 respectively. The question is whether they should be graded separately or as a whole. The current practice of the government is to grade buildings/structures constructed in different periods individually.

In the ordinance, a wider definition of heritage assets is adopted, thus monuments are defined to mean 'a place, building, site, or structure which is declared to be a monument, historical building or archaeological and palaeontological site or structure under section 3' (of the ordinance).

The grading system, on the other hand, envisages a narrow idea of 'building' only. A larger concept such as 'sites' or 'areas' is not embodied in the grading system.

Further, the element of time is lacking. One single grading could be given to several buildings and structures if they were built at the same time, such as a walled village in the New Territories. Yet it remains unclear whether the three wings of the former government offices should be graded separately or as a whole.

These uncertainties show the insensitivity of the law and policy towards heritage assets and inconsistencies in definition.

In England, in 1967, the Civic Amenities Act was passed to embody the concept of conservation area in heritage conservation, which required local authorities to identify areas of 'special architectural or historic interest' which were worthy of preservation. Similarly in Macau, historic assets which are protected under its laws, include monuments, buildings of 'architectonic interest', ensembles and sites, that is, not merely a building.

In architecture, form could be understood as a composition of parts. A house is a composition of rooms but it is also a part of a city as a whole. Similar thinking should be incorporated into heritage conservation in Hong Kong so that the focus is no longer on a 'point' (a particular building), but extends to 'line' (a street) and 'surface' (an area).

Yvonne Leung, Mid-Levels