Institute set up to halt damage of historic sites

PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 June, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 07 June, 2010, 12:00am

An institute of heritage conservationists has been formed to promote standards of practice and prevent damage of historic buildings.

As more heritage sites are put up for revitalisation and maintenance, there is no law or guideline to monitor the quality of such work, especially for privately owned sites.

The Institute of Architectural Conservationists will draw up a code of practice and a list of recommended professionals qualified to conduct restoration and alteration works to historic buildings, Dr Lee Ho-yin, director of the University of Hong Kong's architectural conservation programme, said.

'Heritage conservation is a growing field in Hong Kong. In the past, works were conducted by contractors who did not have to be supervised by professionals, and the results were often unsatisfactory,' said Lee who is vice-president of the institute founded by teaching staff and alumni of the university's architectural conservation programme.

The institute will be launched in September and is expected to recognise 50 to 100 professionals in its first five years. At present, when architects and planners start work on historic buildings, they must follow a conservation plan that the Development Bureau tailors for each site. The bureau also had a list of professionals for internal reference.

But on privately owned sites, the owners decide what they want to do with their properties, unless government funding is helping to pay for the work. It is against this background that some buildings were damaged and therefore downgraded in a recent review of the historic gradings of some 1,400 sites in the city.

Tam Kung Sin Shing Temple in Shau Kei Wan, built by fishermen in 1905, was downgraded from grade one to three after a revamp in 2002.

The Tin Hau Temple in Aberdeen is another example of the damage that can be done. It was downgraded from grade two to three because of the Chinese Temples Committee's reconstruction in 1999, which removed most of the original materials except the roof ridge, stone columns and relics such as a copper bell.

Another example is the controversial revitalisation of the former Marine Police headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui into a boutique hotel and shopping mall.

The developer, Cheung Kong (Holdings), had been criticised for adding a new structure to the monument, the shopping mall, resulting in visitors unable to tell which part is heritage.

Curry Tse Ching-kan, a conservation consultant for the project, conceded that when he drafted the plan in 2003, preservation was not a pritoirty in the industry. 'The principle should be that new additions are easily distinguishable from the old, but it was up to the architect to interpret the plan,' Tse said.

To be a recommended conservationist, the person must have completed a masters degree in conservation locally or overseas, a few years' work experience and passed examinations.

Apart from research and working out an accreditation system, the institute is also tasked to draft a charter based on international standards of practice, with a focus on the city's high land value issue, Lee said.

'We will study whether the Town Planning Board should have more legal powers to control development at heritage sites. There should be conservation zoning that covers an area instead of one block, for example,' he said.

Options to adapt the use of old buildings, instead of knocking them down for wholesale redevelopment, would also be proposed, he said. The Development Bureau said it supported any initiatives towards heritage conservation.