The delicate task of preservation

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 23 September, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 September, 2010, 12:00am

Around the world, governments and organisations involved in conservation projects face the same dilemma: how to renovate and modernise buildings so they are financially viable while retaining their historical character? There is nothing more disheartening to see a building which used to symbolise the character and history of a neighbourhood being turned into a mere tourist attraction or a shopping mall in which there is little trace of its original purpose. At the same time, a building with heritage value would suffer just as much if it fell into disuse and decay due to insufficient funds and poor management.

Sadly, in Hong Kong the government had already allowed several projects to become commercial or tourist attractions before realising the delicacy required in the balancing act, and how much the Hong Kong public value our heritage. No doubt both the Heritage 1881 project, at the old marine police headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui, and The Pawn in Wan Chai are visually impressive and commercially successful. The Pawn has retained much of its structural character and provides a relaxed environment for its food and beverage patrons with upmarket British-styled cuisine and drinks. But that also distances it from its market neighbourhood and pawn shop past. Heritage 1881, on the other hand, has been made into an example of how not to develop a heritage site. It is hard to tell the historic buildings from the new structures built alongside, which include three-storey podium shops with luxury brands. Critics also decry the levelling of the hill on which the headquarters stood and the removal of mature trees.

But lessons have obviously been learnt. A recent scheme initiated by the Development Bureau to give financial support to NGOs to convert and restore buildings for innovative uses seems to be bearing fruit. The latest batch of projects, including the Blue House in Wan Chai, have been awarded to NGOs with a good track record in civic education and neighbourhood projects. The local communities which will be affected by the renovation work also seem to welcome the developments being handled by these organisations. In the case of the old Tai Po police station, the bureau originally included this building in the first batch of projects which were awarded to organisations in early 2009. But since no suitable proposal had been put forward, rather than award the project to an organisation indiscriminately, it withheld the award until a suitable organisation and proposal could be found. Now, the old police station looks set to be reinvigorated with an eco-friendly facelift to provide a 'green hub for sustainable living' hosting courses on horticulture and biodiversity conservation among others.

In total, the latest batch of proposals will cost the government HK$135.5 million in renovation costs and operation seed money, but the NGOs are expected to break even after three years. If these targets are successfully met, then it would seem the government may finally have found a method to preserve historic buildings and their distinct character while maintaining financial sustainability. But it is still too early to celebrate, for within the latest batch of projects there is also a reminder of how difficult it is to maintain this balance. The Old House at Wong Uk Village in Sha Tin has not been awarded to any of the bidders, and government officials fear it may not attract decent proposals due to maintenance and operation costs. It is a declared monument while providing only 198 square metres of floor space. There is no easy formula for preserving and renovating historic buildings, but at least the bureau has not shied away from the task.