Trial and error

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 October, 2011, 12:00am


Critics and the public have been hard on 1881 Heritage, the shopping complex and boutique hotel built out of the former Marine Police Headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui. But it is also seen as a natural, albeit flawed, step forward in Hong Kong's fledgling conservation movement.

Architects are dismayed at how the building looks. The modern ideal of adaptive reuse is that what's new should look new, and what's old should retain its oldness. But 1881 is an attempt to recreate the past, making what is more than 100 years old look like it was built yesterday.

The original main building, constructed in 1884, was vacated by the Marine Police in 1996. The government awarded a tender to Cheung Kong (Holdings) for a makeover that would save the building, which was used as a Japanese naval base during the occupation in the 1940s.

Construction began in 2003 and was completed in 2009. The former headquarters building is now Hullett House, a white, pillared boutique hotel with room rates that run at about HK$5,000 a night. The rest of the complex houses fine dining and outlets for luxury brands such as Tiffany & Co, Rolex and Cartier.

Brian Anderson, of architecture firm Purcell Miller Tritton, which is consulting on the Central Police Station conservation project, says we should be grateful the building was kept at all, but, 'it doesn't look much like the Marine Police Headquarters anymore; you would be hard-pressed to appreciate that - which is, arguably, its failing.'

He stresses, however, that in these early days of such conservation in Hong Kong, 1881 Heritage is 'a milestone along the way' in achieving what is considered good practice in adaptive reuse: 'Although it has shortcomings, it certainly is no worse that the early conservation projects in the UK.'

Architect Roger Wu, also of Purcell Miller Tritton, adds, 'That project would have been very different if it were done now. I think people's perception of what conservation is has changed enormously.'

Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor acknowledges that the public was disappointed by the result. The main problem when it comes to public perception, she says, has little to do with architectural elements and more to do with the fact the complex is being occupied by designer labels and the like.

'Somehow people expected it to have a more public dimension to it, which means the original idea of commercial tender did not fit in well with public aspirations,' she says.

Lam says the Central Police Station project will not encounter this conflict because the Jockey Club, which is funding the project with public money, is not intending to recoup the HK$1.8 billion capital expenditure. The site will host venues for visual and performing arts.