City protects its cultural legacy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 February, 2009, 12:00am

Efforts to revitalise and conserve historic buildings are creating opportunities for professionals with a passion for the past.

Hong Kong's historic buildings, while chronicling its past developments, remain an important touchstone of its cultural heritage.

Professionals involved in maintaining the city's structural legacies not only need to understand the dynamics of conserving buildings and materials, but also how to maintain the significance of architectural concepts in a modern setting.

'The benchmark of the world standard of heritage protection is changing,' said Edward Leung, chairman of the Heritage and Conservation Committee of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects. 'An evolving social awareness is making professional expectations higher. Lai Chi Kok Hospital served its purpose in the 1960s and, while it can no longer be a hospital, people want its story to continue in some way, through conservation or revitalisation.'

Declared monuments, such as Lai Chi Kok Hospital, Old Stanley Police Station and North Kowloon Magistracy, recognised as having historical, social and cultural significance, create cultural conditions that decide how far buildings can be commercialised.

Mindful of what can happen when a piece of heritage falls into commercial hands, government schemes are sensitive about buildings being revitalised in a responsible way.

A grading system, developed by the Antiquities Advisory Board (AAB), has helped developers assess the historical value of structures. A revitalisation scheme by the government's Development Bureau urges partnerships with social enterprises, such as non-profit making organisations, to take over government-owned historic buildings that are considered ideal for adaptive reuse.

Applicants are asked to submit proposals on how to use these buildings, to provide services or businesses, with detailed plans that show how historical significance can be preserved and how the local community benefits.

The government has noted a rising concern for Hong Kong's cultural heritage. In a message on the website of her office, Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor said Hong Kong was a mature and advanced society, and should become more aware of its historical legacy and seek to devote extra resources for its conservation.

But even as greater awareness about conservation and revitalisation is driving change, commercial projects that involve the adaption of historic buildings are under way, and skills are in demand for a process that includes long-term surveying work.

The Urban Renewal Authority (URA), a government statutory development body that renews old buildings in Hong Kong, has identified 73 pre-war Chinese verandah-style shophouses in and around its action areas. Seven have already been preserved as part of the URA's various development schemes, while another 10 are listed as Grade One historic buildings by the AAB. Most of the other 56 shophouses do not have a grading.

The URA has decided to preserve 48 pre-war shophouses, recently announcing plans for a cluster of 10 shophouses in Prince Edward Road West and another 10 in Shanghai Street.

Reaffirming the connection between buildings and heritage, the URA is engaging in public consultation on adaptive reuse for these buildings.

'We are open to any ideas as long as the suggestions are practical, sustainable and enhance the local feature of the district where buildings are located,' said Barry Cheung Chun-yuen, the URA's chairman.

The revitalisation of Hong Kong's shophouses, after the success of The Pawn in Wan Chai, demonstrates just how complex the process of bringing historic buildings into the present can be. While it provides adequate work for surveyors, architects and engineers, professions in the field also need to have a specialist understanding of how these can retain past characteristics and ambience, making the field of conservation broad enough to attract a wide range of professions.

'Conservation is by definition a multidisciplinary task. Architects cannot do all the work on their own, and they are trained to lead a multidisciplinary team,' Mr Leung said.

'As a conservationist, you need to be part of that team. You can have an engineer base, architecture base or journalism base. Conservation needs to deal with stakeholders, social concerns, the history of buildings and presentations to the local council. If you have good presentation skills, you can present a proposal.'

According to Mr Leung, professionals involved in bringing past structures of historical significance into the present need to think about what is important in terms of heritage.

'You need to look at heritage broadly from its historical, scientific and architectural values,' Mr Leung said. 'If the facade or the room of a building is very significant, for example, that is an important part to keep,' he added. 'It is more than just a case of redesigning a building for a market.'