Heritage buildings are better preserved through adaption for everyday use

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2011, 12:00am


We refer to the letter by K. N. Wai ('Turn Central Market into a merchant marine museum to celebrate heritage', August 6). He believes the market would be perfect for a museum 'of merchant marine cum academy of art and history, providing venues and channels for adult education in history and art'.

In Hong Kong, there still remains in some quarters a popular perception that heritage buildings should be treated as monuments or archaeological relics. This perception is perhaps shaped by the Antiquities and Monuments Ordinance (Chapter 53), enacted in 1976, which reflects the focus of one of the first international documents on the conservation of built-heritage: the 1972 Unesco Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

The ordinance's focus is on monuments and archaeological sites, which generally carry such high historic, artistic and educational values that they deserve to become public museums, as in the cases of the Forbidden City and the Louvre. However, the focus in the conservation of built-heritage, especially that in the urban context, has now shifted to sustaining living heritage valued by communities - ordinary buildings originally designed for practical everyday uses.

For such buildings, such as shophouses, markets, police stations, and prisons, the design priority was their functionality rather than their aesthetic quality. Over time, the public finds surviving examples of such buildings appealing because they have become rarer as similar buildings were demolished. The key to conservation is not to preserve these buildings as dead monuments or museums with limited appeal. Their greater value lies in their ongoing functionality. As such, they should be seen as urban resources that need to be adapted for new uses that serve the needs of local communities. This continued relevancy is the key to the sustainable use of such resources.

We are heartened that Hong Kong now approaches the conservation of such functional buildings through adaptive reuse (termed 'revitalisation' in the government nomenclature). Such an approach is in keeping with international best practice in conservation. For example, since 2008, English Heritage has been promoting the concept of innovative adaptive reuse, under the term 'constructive conservation', which targets heritage buildings of the functional variety. Quoting from its website: 'The aim is to recognise and reinforce the historic significance of places, while accommodating the changes necessary to ensure their continued use and enjoyment.'

Lee Ho-yin and Lynne DiStefano, Architectural Conservation Programme, University of Hong Kong