The revitalised Tai Kwun: a new landmark for heritage and contemporary arts.

Striking A Balance Between Heritage Conservation and Revitalisation

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Standing in the heart of Central, Tai Kwun – Centre for Heritage and Arts celebrates its first anniversary tomorrow (25 May). In just one year, this historic site has firmly established itself as a new landmark, combining both heritage and contemporary arts.

Tai Kwun, the historic building cluster of the Central Police Station compound, traces its history back to 1841. Since 2008, its revitalisation has been led by The Hong Kong Jockey Club in partnership with the HKSAR government. In conserving the declared monuments, the project team engaged by the Club endeavoured to strike a delicate balance between preserving their history while revitalising the site to create a new and vibrant identity for Tai Kwun.

As the largest heritage conservation and revitalisation project in Hong Kong, Tai Kwun encountered many challenges. In drawing up a conservation plan, the project team not only observed the standards set by the Hong Kong Antiquities and Monuments Office, but also adhered to international conservation standards. Throughout the revitalisation process, three important principles were observed: public safety, authenticity with respect to Tai Kwun’s original appearance, and the integration of old and new architecture.

Safety first

Safety is of utmost importance in restoration work at Tai Kwun. (Photo credit: Gammon Construction Ltd)

Public safety is of utmost importance in any revitalisation project. Tai Kwun’s long history meant that some of the building structure had weathered over time. In addition, the original construction plans and documentation records could not be traced, further complicating the restoration process. As the site would be open to the public as an arts and leisure space, buildings that had been closed off for years would have to comply with modern-day building regulations and safety standards. It was a momentous task.

The project team met a particular safety challenge during the restoration of D Hall, which was constructed between 1858 and 1862 and is one of the oldest buildings at Tai Kwun. The building’s foundations had been damaged by construction work at nearby sites, and so it had to be held together by large metal braces. To preserve the original building structure, the Club engaged a team of specialists who had helped reinforce the foundation of Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa. The team recommended injecting micro-fine cement into the foundations to provide a secure base. This process was highly complicated and required precise and meticulous skills. Nonetheless, it succeeded in preserving over 90 percent of the original structure of D Hall.

Reinforcing the foundations of D Hall, one of the oldest buildings on the site, took precise and meticulous skills. The Hong Kong Jockey Club engaged specialists who had worked on Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa. (Photo credit: Purcell)

Preserving the authenticity of the heritage

Built between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, Tai Kwun is one of the few surviving clusters of buildings in Hong Kong representing the late Victorian architectural style. Its three declared monuments – Central Police Station, Victoria Prison and Central Magistracy – comprising a total of 16 heritage buildings, are a rare example of a colonial era ‘one-stop’ law and order institution.  

As with any heritage preservation work, presenting the authenticity of the building is essential as it enables visitors to appreciate its history. ‘Authenticity’ refers to the use of original designs, materials, craftsmanship and components to show the ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ face of the monument. How one determines to restore the historic elements depends on a plethora of factors – structural safety, science, history and aesthetics. For instance, the Married Sergeants’ Quarters (Block 6) was built in the 1900s. It was constructed out of red bricks which at some point in time were covered over with a layer of paint. Should the bare red brick walls be considered the ‘original’ appearance, or should the painted brick walls be considered more ‘authentic’? The team of conservation professionals carried out extensive research and undertook careful paint removal procedures to uncover the underlying bricks. After consideration, the team decided to restore the building to its red brick façade to reflect the architectural style in those days. The team engaged the original brick supplier in the UK and had bricks custom-made for Tai Kwun, some of which were even hand made. This also shows the restoration team’s utmost respect for preserving the authenticity and integrity of the historic architecture.

The project team went to great lengths to preserve the authentic appearance of the monuments, so that future visitors can appreciate the history for themselves. (Photo credit: Gammon Construction Ltd)

Integrating old and new architecture

Giving new life and a new purpose to a heritage site was another challenge. For Tai Kwun, two new buildings were added to the original site to accommodate an art gallery and a performance space. When designing and selecting materials for the façades of the new buildings, the team made use of environmentally-friendly aluminum bricks recycled from alloy wheels. The juxtaposed old and new bricks of the buildings form a unique blend of the old and new, allowing the historic and new buildings to stand in harmony within the site.

The conservation and revitalisation of Tai Kwun has been a long and challenging journey. Many options were explored to identify the most suitable restoration methods. In the process the team gained valuable experience and knowledge in heritage conservation. The revitalised Tai Kwun will hence serve as an example for many more heritage preservation and revitalisation projects to come.

As the Club’s most significant ‘arts, culture and heritage’ charities project, the restoration and revitalisation of Tai Kwun has both preserved a vital piece of Hong Kong heritage and created a new platform for local and international artists to contribute to Hong Kong’s arts and cultural development. A new landmark for Hong Kong, enriching city life, it is open to all and to be enjoyed by all.

Facades of the new buildings were made from discarded alloy wheels, blending a contemporary aesthetic with original brickwork. (Photo credit: Edmon Leong)