A change of plan

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


Cells with black metal bars line one hall on the ground floor of the North Kowloon Magistracy building. A back stairwell leads up to a small courtroom complete with the bauhinia emblem above the judge's bench, which faces cascading rows of wood-panelled seating. Although distinctly judicial, this is clearly no ordinary courtroom; purple blinds cover the windows, fuchsia-coloured cushions are propped on the benches and a giant flat-panel monitor hangs behind the bench.

The room is now used as a lecture hall and all but one of the cells below, having been carpeted and remodelled, are smart meeting rooms furnished with conference desks and decorated with vibrant paintings. Uniformed police officers and people paying parking fines have been replaced by rowdy - but very stylish - students. The North Kowloon Magistracy has been reborn as a branch of the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD).

'When we saw this place we were blown away ... We just thought, 'This is it,'' says John Paul Rowan, vice-president of the Hong Kong branch of SCAD. When he first visited the Sham Shui Po building, which features a neoclassical facade, it was disused and the government was casting around for renovation proposals.

'I remember standing across the street and looking up. It was so cool because, from that angle, there are no buildings to the right and the left of it and there's this majestic mountainside behind it,' Rowan says. 'And it was just, 'Ah, this is it.''

SCAD's is the first, and so-far only, completed project under a government revitalisation scheme aimed at conserving the city's heritage while breathing new life into empty, defunct buildings. It is, by most measures, an enormous success, last month winning an honourable mention from the Unesco Asia-Pacific Awards for Culture Heritage Conservation.

Unesco commended the 'creative design', by which the building was adapted for educational use while its original character was retained.

'The project demonstrates the possibilities of adaptive reuse for public buildings ... and is a model for successful public-private co-operation under the framework of the Hong Kong SAR's policy for retaining and optimising the value of heritage buildings,' a Unesco statement read.

Secretary for Development Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, overseer of the heritage-conservation initiative, is pleased by Unesco's succinct summary of the government's goals: 'This is exactly what we want to do.'

Altering old buildings so they can be put to new uses is gaining popularity in Hong Kong, although the city is a late bloomer. Such transformations have been undertaken in the United States, Western Europe and Australia for decades. That the process has been given a chance to flourish in Hong Kong is down to an easing of blinkered government policies and changes in public interest and attitudes.

Hong Kong adopted conservation legislation in 1976, four years after Unesco established the World Heritage Convention, obliging countries to take measures to preserve structures of cultural significance.

At the time, the Unesco policy was focused on preserving monuments and archaeological remains; sites that were hundreds of years old or the location of historic events, such as Beijing's Forbidden City and the Louvre Palace, in Paris.

Over time, however, Unesco shifted its conservation focus from 'high stuff' to 'ordinary buildings designed for ordinary people to deal with everyday life', says Lee Ho-yin, director of the Architectural Conservation Programme at the University of Hong Kong. 'So we are talking about heritage buildings that reflect the way we live.'

This meant adapting structures that had fallen into disuse - even if they were not considered historically important - into ones that could serve contemporary needs. Often cited as the first adap- tive-reuse project in the US, San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square was, in 1962, renovated from an architecturally interesting corporate- headquarters block into a shopping and restaurant complex that retained many of the original red-brick structures, including a stately clock tower.

'If you take the archaeological approach to conservation, the whole thing will be static - you cannot do anything to it,' Lee says. 'For adaptive reuse, or constructive conservation, you have to make certain changes in order to make the building adaptable for new, modern uses.

'The key is not so much about freezing the past but changing the thing in an appropriate way so it's relevant to our needs.'

The updating of an old building is rarely conducted without controversy. People love their cities' historical structures, the ones they grew up knowing - and modern additions stick out, sometimes literally.

I.M. Pei's glass pyramid, serving as a much-needed new entrance to the grand old Louvre Palace (the existing one could no longer handle the number of visitors), met considerable resistance when it was completed in 1989. It is now recognised as one of Paris' major landmarks - it just took a little getting used to.

The pyramid, however, doesn't come close, in provocativeness, to a recent European design that integrates the new with the old. Architect Zaha Hadid won the competition to design the headquarters of the Antwerp Port Authority, in Belgium, and there is nothing subtle about her concept. To a historic firehouse she is adding a massive structure shaped like a ship and faceted with mirrored glass. When completed, in 2015, the extension will sit atop pillars and tower over the firehouse, interacting with its structure but not disturbing it.

That is the beauty of the best adaptive redevelopment projects: they do little harm to the original, which often means creating additions that are, essentially, reversible.

As the judging panel for the Antwerp project wrote, one of the reasons Hadid's proposal was chosen was 'because the design preserves as much as possible of the dignity of the present building as a monument, adding a new object to the site'.

Rowan points out how a number of SCAD campus additions were designed to impose minimal disruption to the building, such as a hanging system that allows paintings to no more than lightly graze the walls. A hollow wall erected in a former courtroom that now houses a green screen and photographic studio can be taken down in a day if need be - dismantled sets of courtroom furniture are kept in storage, just in case.

Although it is possible to find Asian examples of adaptive reuse that were carried out before 2000 - such as the Sir Robert Ho Tung Library in Macau and Hong Kong's Stanley Police Station, which was turned into restaurant Tables 88 in the 1990s before becoming a Wellcome supermarket - until recently, the tradition in the region has been to demolish and rebuild.

Singapore and Shanghai - home of the Bund - have made the most headway in preserving heritage structures by adding modern touches. More than one of Singapore's hotels make use of buildings that once served other purposes and Xintiandi, a hip shopping and dining area, was redeveloped from a collection of 19th-century brick and stone houses of a type unique to old Shanghai, recalling bygone times for the throngs who stroll through its narrow, car-free alleys. Completed in 2002, Xintiandi was the first of a slew of high-profile adaptive-reuse projects in Shanghai.

'For China, [Xintiandi] represented a whole new way of doing things,' its designer, American architect Benjamin Wood, said in 2007, in an interview for an academic paper. 'That is why it is so famous. It is not because it preserves buildings, or because the architecture was particularly brilliant, [it was] because it changed their way of thinking about the urban fabric of their cities.'

Around that time, this new way of thinking - that architecture can be meaningful and fascinating in its own right and should not be needlessly replaced - was behind headlines being written in Hong Kong. Banners were paraded in protest when it was announced that Lee Tung Street (also known as Wedding Card Street) in Wan Chai was to be torn down. The treatment of the iconic Blue House sparked public debate. Then the Star Ferry Pier and Queen's Pier fell to the wreckers' ball.

Protests against the pier demolitions began as early as 2004, when then Democratic Party election campaign chief Law Chi-kwong swam across the harbour holding a sign that read, 'Goodbye to the Queen'. Despite petitions, marches and on-site scuffles with police, the Star Ferry Pier was demolished in 2006. The following year, Queen's Pier, which had served as the official arrival point to the city for governors and royalty, was closed to allow for land reclamation.

The passionate opposition the government faced, predominantly from younger generations, was like nothing it had seen before. Protesters had come out in force, draping the pier with banners and organising sit-ins, hunger strikes and human chains to block construction.

'The backdrop to the public debate about preserving Hong Kong's past, about the government coming to realise Hong Kong people have this attachment to historical buildings, stems from the Star Ferry and Queen's Pier,' Lam says. 'With that backdrop, the chief executive was convinced we needed to respond to this social desire more positively.'

The chief executive's 2007 policy address marked the largest legislative move forward. Donald Tsang Yam-kuen acknowledged the social interest in preserving history through architecture.

'A progressive city treasures its own culture and history along with a living experience unique to the city,' he said. 'Hong Kong people have expressed our passion for our culture and lifestyle. This is something we should cherish. In the next five years, I will press ahead with our work on heritage conservation.'

The Development Bureau was created and tasked with overseeing heritage conservation. The departments of planning, architectural service, civil engineering and others were placed under one roof. The government has since set aside HK$2 billion for conservation projects.

Under the revitalisation scheme, the bureau has so far selected 13 government-owned buildings for which non-profit organisations may propose renovation plans for their own use. It is expected that - following the SCAD project - five others (two hotels, another school, a cultural centre and a Chinese-medicine clinic) will be operational by the end of next year. (Some high-profile projects, such as the Central Police Station and King Yin Lei Mansion, are not under the revitalisation scheme.)

'The greatest challenge is to find the right use for these buildings,' says Lam. In the beginning, she says, many of the proposals were from NGOs looking for cheap accommodation, 'but they had very flimsy ideas about how to put heritage buildings to good use'. As the scheme has become better understood, the quality of the proposals has improved.

'The best way to conserve an old building is to use it. But how?' says Brian Anderson, a partner at Purcell Miller Tritton, an international architecture firm specialising in conservation management.

'It should be the building that informs the use - not the business plan. That comes quite hard, I think, in Hong Kong.'

Heritage conservation is a hard sell here because, to a large degree, it works in opposition to the city's powerful developers.

'Culture is seen as a money-sucking thing; development is seen as a money-making thing,' Lee says. 'How are you going to sacrifice the development right of the site of a heritage building that has, say, three storeys for the development of a 40-storey building that can bring revenues of billions of dollars for the owner?'

Additionally, private ownership is a respected right in Hong Kong, giving the government and conservationists little say when it comes to privately owned homes and buildings that have historical significance. Lee stresses that to overcome the perception of conservation being only a money-sucking venture, projects need to be well-planned, to offer more than just a beautiful building. They need also to be a venue that will be widely used and appreciated.

He particularly likes the proposal for Lui Seng Chun, a shophouse in Mong Kok and another of the first tranche of projects under the revitalisation scheme. It is slated to be opened as a Chinese-medicine clinic next year by Baptist University. The local community, Lee says, is the type where residents, especially older ones, prefer to see Chinese doctors, and the medical care will be provided at a subsidised rate.

'This is pumping benefits into the community in an indirect way, rather than [profits] being monopolised by a few individuals, developers and owners,' he says.

Economic pressures aside, designers face other challenges managing these early adaptive-reuse projects. There are few local precedents for architects to learn from and the city has restrictive ordinances that have yet to take into account the fact that 'new' buildings might be constructed from existing ones, meaning rules and regulations (such as those for escape routes and fire resistance) can be especially forbidding hurdles.

The North Kowloon Magistracy, built in 1960, has, running up its main staircase, iron railings with decorative motifs. They are stunning but were problematic for two reasons according to today's regulations: they are too short and the balusters are set too far apart, posing a hazard for children, who might get their heads stuck between them.

'I argued for a long time that we do not have small children coming here,' Rowan says. However, he conceded and glass barriers up to the regulation height were installed around the railings. During these types of disputes in Europe or the Americas, 'it's best to look at other projects within the community that have had success'.

'[But] because there aren't a lot of those projects in Hong Kong, it's hard to reference them,' he says.

Regulatory problems concerning older buildings have been resolved over time in places where adaptive reuse is a more established practice, according to Anderson, who is consulting on the Central Police Station project, which is due for completion in mid-2014.

'So it's a matter of an extra layer of sophistication in the ordinances that we would like to see,' he says. 'Obviously that can't happen quickly. There are a lot of issues that need to be addressed but it's something that would be good to see in the next few years and it would certainly encourage the retention of existing buildings,' he says.

Being the first of its kind, the Central Police Station project will probably set the precedent for large-scale adaptive reuse in Hong Kong. Anderson says he hopes that as a breakout project it will help address regulation questions, promote the cause of sustainable development and illustrate the ways in which old buildings are assessed.

'That is all very relevant not only to [Central Police Station] but any historical site,' he says.

Lam has long wanted to see the establishment of a heritage body modelled after the national trusts in Britain and other countries that support conservation programmes as non-government charities. Benefactors would contribute money and volunteers would provide much of the support.

'Culture should not be government dominated. It needs far more public involvement and ownership,' she says.

While government bodies will continue to play crucial roles, the establishment of a heritage trust is already in the works. The Development Bureau initiated a feasibility study in August. It is hoped that such a body, unbound by bureaucracy, would have the flexibility to accept donations and manage the renting out of heritage sites for events, and help to finance the maintenance of old private houses.

'This is something that will only prosper and become even more vibrant with a lot of people's participation,' Lam says.