The gentle art of conservation

A historic Hong Kong police compound and prison have been restored and developed into a new centre for heritage and arts, in the largest heritage project the area has seen. Gary Sparrow from Purcell explains to Jack Wooler how the firm took a light touch approach

The Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts is the largest heritage project ever undertaken in Hong Kong, and looks to remain so for the foreseeable future. Containing a former police station, magistrates court and prison, the site has witnessed British colonisation, Japanese occupation and bomb damage in WWII, and emerged from it all to be preserved as a centre for culture in the historic territory. The 10-year, $HK3.8bn project omprises a variety of restored and revitalised historic facilities, including “interpretive heritage spaces,” as well as a new art gallery and auditorium, restaurants and retail, as well as open spaces for the public to access, contrasting with the densely urban surroundings. Paving the way for a project of this sort, in recent times the voices of Hong Kong citizens urging the conservation of historic landmarks had begun to be heard, most famously in the 2006/2007 public demonstrations protesting against the demolition of the Star Ferry Terminal. Though it was still removed, Hong Kong appeared to undergo a change in thinking, the public indicating a strongly held collective view that heritage sites need to retain heritage standards. It was during this period that the Tai Kwun Centre was in its public consultation stage, and as such, the careful treatment of heritage has been the key theme running through the project. Conservation architects Purcell were employed to achieve this end; they in turn researched the history and significance of the compound, identifying areas that should be retained, as well as the scope for change. Much of Hong Kong’s colonial architecture has been demolished over the years, with buildings, often of historic merit, replaced with the high-rises that characterise the area. The city now holds the largest number of skyscrapers in the world – making the Tai Kwun Centre a unique oasis, sitting on highly sought-after land in the city’s prime central business district. The Centre has been both restored and revitalised, providing a permeable site of significant heritage. Now open to the public, the area has been turned into a thriving 3.37 acre cultural hub, with 16 restored heritage buildings nestled between the many towers of Hong Kong Island. As well as hosting frequent shows and exhibitions, it includes areas educating visitors on heritage alongside its numerous retail and restaurant offerings.

A rich heritage

The site comprises three main historical elements, their functions split across several buildings: the former Victoria Prison, the Central Police Station, and the Central Magistracy – the combination originally intended as a holistic approach to processing criminals. Previously titled the Central Police Compound, the fortress-like site was constructed and redeveloped gradually from the 1840s onwards, and also contains various living quarters, an armoury, and a barracks. The magistrates courts served as a venue for war crimes trials post-WWII, and the prison was later re-opened for use by the Immigration Department, but by the late 20th century most inmates had been transferred to a nearby prison. In 1993, the Hong Kong Government realised the potential of the site as a heritage asset, declaring it as an official monument, and commenced moves to transform the area to its current use. Tenders were put out to various developers to get expressions of interest for a “revitalisation” project, and after some deliberation, the proposal from The Hong Kong Jockey Club – a not-for-profit organisation that controls all gambling in Hong Kong – was accepted. A 2007 public consultation was followed by Purcell’s appointment in 2008. The conservation specialist architects were brought in to produce the masterplan that would inform the client’s development proposals. “The conservation management plan is a detailed piece of research on the buildings and the site, which includes a framework for the future management of the site,” explains Purcell associate Gary Sparrow. Being originally conceived as a fortress, the compound is walled in on all perimeters. Purcell’s aim was to enable visitors to enter the Centre from most sides, separating the varied array of structures using inter-linking routes and bridges between many of the buildings. This increased porosity would encourage visitors to linger, discover other parts of the site, and extend their visits. “At the start of the project there was some concern from the public that this would just be a commercial shopping mall,” explains Sparrow. “The idea from the Jockey Club however was that there would be an approximate one-third split between heritage and art, commercial, and back-of-house spaces.” Sparrow continues: “Our task was to try and embed the site back into the city. As such, the mixed-use facilities are spread across the site. There’s not really one area with a specific use, which hopefully encourages people to explore all of the buildings across the site.” Two other architects featured on this complex project – Herzog & de Meuron, designing two new buildings and making other interventions across the site, and Rocco Design Architects, taking the on-site executive role. Construction and repair work began in 2012, and the project was completed in April 2018, with the site re-opening in May.

A porous compound

Just three buildings were identified for demolition: a 1920s garage, a laundry yard area, and a 1980s office. The remaining 16 historic buildings, covering the prison, magistracy and police HQ, have all been repaired and repurposed, with extensive works undertaken on both the interiors and exteriors. The Police Headquarters block is on the north of the site. It was constructed in 1919, later than many of the other buildings, with red brick walls and white render, granite features and imposing columns. Forming the public face of the complex, its north facade displays a neo-classical revival design. The building now contains a ‘Heritage Storytelling Space,’ and a police service centre, plus a restaurant and shopping areas. Visitors can enter the site from the north using a footbridge gate connected to Hong Kong’s municipal escalators, which run between the Headquarters block and the Armoury. Once inside, they enter the open space of the Parade Ground, flanked by the former Police Armoury to the west, Married Inspectors’ Quarters to the east, and barracks to the south, in addition to the Headquarters block. This almost untouched area provides an ‘urban oasis’ in the city for public recreation and cultural events. On the east side of the site is the Central Magistracy, which underwent two reconstructions after its establishment in the 1840s. The current building was constructed in 1914, in Greek-revival style with passageways taking prisoners from the police station – the two courts here serving the entire colony for a considerable period. The imposing colonial architecture was intended as a symbol of the importance and power of the court, however the building now serves more communal functions, such as another ‘Heritage Storytelling Space,’ as well as cultural and lifestyle programmes. Visitors have the option to travel along the eastern side, past the Central Magistracy, and into the open Court Yard, or south through the Barrack Block and into the Prison Yard on the site’s upper platform, which is surrounded by the various halls (from A to F) of the prison facilities, along with the two new Herzog & de Meuron buildings, which house an international-standing contemporary art gallery, and an auditorium (pictured, left). The Prison Yard is the third and final open space, facing the historical street Chancery Lane, that runs along the south wall. Once imposing and forbidding, the new space has been dedicated to cultural programming. Visitors are also able to enter this half of the site from gates on both the east and western side. Halls A to F of the new Centre are the former buildings making up Victoria Prison – Hong Kong’s earliest and longest running prison, completed in 1841 and retaining a Victorian facade. It was later redeveloped into a radial form, a popular prison model with a central inspector’s area with multiple wings off it, emulating Pentonville Prison in London. Some of the halls have been restored to their original form, for visitors to learn about the prison and the lives of its inmates – which at one point included Vietnam’s former leader Ho Chi Minh – others have been repurposed for office space, restaurants, and back-of-house facilities. Among these halls is a prison block that has been left as an “interpretation space,” with cells unaltered from their last period of occupation. “That provides a really good sense of what the prisoners were feeling like,” says Gary, “especially during the summer months – we haven’t installed any air conditioning, so you really get a sense of what the prisoners were facing.” This is a key example of Purcell’s adopted approach of “minimal intervention” when it came to restoration.

Careful restoration

The buildings on the site, and its “interpretation spaces” in particular, had be treated with great care in order to be restored to their former states, with some areas requiring work to meet modern building codes. Key to restoration works were detailed analyses and conservation cleaning, with the colour scheme of the walls and joinery, for example, being reverted back to their authentic look through paint analysis, and tiles being painstakingly restored. Purcell discovered evidence of previous generations of paint beneath the current decoration, and in the police compound, which was painted a very bright blue, in the 1980s, the decision was made to restore internally back to the dark brown of the original design. Almost all of the buildings were brought back to their original colour schemes in the project. Conservation cleaning was undertaken using a super heated water system, “basically a kind of steam cleaning,” explains Sparrow, to remove the layers of paint all the way to the original brick inner facades. Two of the dormitory buildings were originally faced with brickwork internally. Over the years, where the decision had been taken to over paint those surfaces, modern paint has been used, which was compromising the building’s health. “It was a kind of plastic paint which trapped moisture in,” says Sparrow. “This was making the brickwork deteriorate, so we took the decision to do conservation cleaning.” Using this approach, the team were able to remove the paint without damaging the brick substrates. In addition, the team sampled various joinery items to identify the timber species, which helped them identify suitable repair materials. “Where we had to do window repairs, we could use the same timber species or a like-for-like material.” Statutory compliance presented the architects with a further challenge; in Hong Kong, building regulations assume that a project is new build. “For example,” explains the architect, “if you’ve got existing staircases which are too steep to apply to the current codes, you can’t always rebuild the staircase because there may not be enough space in the existing enclosure, which may mean major re-planning.” He adds: “In effect, you’re going to destroy the very thing you’re trying to save.” To resolve this issue, Purcell undertook assessments of staircases and their arrangements, including comprehensive risk assessments and taking the resulting mitigation measures. “We did a lot of negotiations, and luckily our executive architects were excellent in having the discussions with the building departments to overcome some of these issues.” Contrasting additions The site has not just been restored and revitalised, new functions have been added across the former prison compound. As well as providing provisions for the necessary retail, restaurant and back-of-house functionalities to keep the facility both practically and financially sustainable – catering largely for local ‘boutique’ businesses – the two new Herzog & de Meuron volumes offer large-scale modern cultural spaces alongside the heritage aspects of the compound. The Tai Kwun Contemporary is a 16,000 ft2 art space hosting frequent exhibitions, mainly from local artists, and the ‘Cube’ houses a 200-seat auditorium plus an amphitheatre. The distinct and somewhat dramatic new volumes ‘float’ above the surrounding buildings, cantilevered above the compound’s enclosing granite walls. While integrated tightly into the compound, the two new buildings both deliberately contrast with their historic neighbours. However, although explicitly modern, both featuring 100 per cent recycled aluminium external ‘padding,’ the architects took inspiration from the surrounding heritage, while concurrently addressing practical issues of structural support, sun shading and rain protection. The buildings’ geometry was taken from some of the existing masonry work around the site, with their textured facades breaking down scale and reducing reflectivity and glare. The cladding itself also took reference from the original granite walls, the bonding pattern being incorporated in the new buildings’ design. “We’ve always said that we advocate that new interventions should always be of their time, and the two new buildings achieved this very well,” notes Gary.

Informed judgements

The careful treatment of the site’s long history is professed in each facet of this project. Unique in Hong Kong in terms of its size and treatment, the compound already serves thousands of visitors a day, offering them access to a public cultural venue in a previously impenetrable complex. The fully restored site is an impressive testament to the architects’ design ambition, with attention to detail in historical accuracy the top priority. Many of the specialist assessment and repair techniques used during the project were being introduced for the first time in Hong Kong, and Sparrow notes that diligence was evident throughout: “We’ve tried not to make a leap of faith in decisions, when we can actually use technical data to make the best informed judgements.” He comments on how the public have reacted to Tai Kwun so far: “The proof is in the numbers. In the six months since the site opened at the end of May 2018, more than 1.5 million people have visited. Sparrow concludes: “It was the Jockey Club’s intentions not only to physically integrate the site into the city, but also emotionally. They want people to return again and again, to come back for dinners, shows, exhibitions, heritage, and, from what I can see, that’s happened.”