A Place that Sparks Joy:

Restoring Duddell Street Steps and Gas Lamps

喜悅之地 : 都爹利街石階及煤氣路燈修復

Fanny Ang 洪彬芬


I have a pair of jeans that, despite it is so aged and so torn that it should be dismissed, I just keep fixing it, patching it up and wearing it. I just cannot give it up. I guess that is what people call something that sparks joy.

“When something sparks joy, you should feel a little thrill. It can come from the fact that you really love and enjoy an object, like a favorite sweater.”

Maybe the sweater reminds you your childhood memory; maybe it carries loves from someone; or maybe it is simiply your favourite without a reason.

Have you ever find places in our city that spark joy? Just like the sweaters reminding your childhood memory, carrying hidden loves, recalling you incidents that happened and memeorials, or you simply enjoy the texture, the smell, the sound, the warmth and the ambience they bring and you love and feel attached to?

Heritages are often places that spark joy.

Conservation principles tells rationally and scientifically how you assess the cultural signficance of a heritage and how you should conserve it. We assess to see if it carries historic, asthetic, contextual, social, cultural and technological values; we investigate which parts of it are character-defining elements that need to be retained; we identify which conservation approach (preservation, restoration, reconstruction or adaptation) fits it the best; we find out a way to introduce intervention that is minimal to avoid impact on its significance but is necessary to help it survive and sustain in the changed environment.

But set aside these phliosphical and rational principles about conservation and set aside the role of professionals (conservationists/ architects), as members of our beloved city, can we have a simpler and straight forward judgement? No matter to resecue an at-risk heritage from demolition, to adapive-reuse an abonedoned heritage, or to repair and restore an damaged heritage, we just simply never give up something that sparks joy. Just like what I do to my pair of jeans, we

• Keep it in place; • Keep it in use meaningfully and adapt it in response to the changing context so as to enrich its cultural significance;

Keep all its significant parts in place and in good shape unless they are beyond repair;

• Keep it attached to its people;

• Keep its Spirit of Place.

It is the bonding between the heritages and the people that feel them joy sparking that keep the heritages’ Spirit of Place sustain, and it is the bonding between a city and its people that keep the city’s Spirit of Place sustain.

Duddell Street
The Duddell Street Granite Steps and Gas Lamps have been serving Hong Kongers since 1883, quietly and sincerely. To assess its cultural signifiance in conservation terms, it is historically signficant as it houses the last four historic gas lamps in Hong Kong and showcases the public lighting facility in the early colonial period; it is architecturally important as it is a street structure built entirely in granite with Classcial Revival style bulstrade design that still exist nowadays; it is contextually important as it is located in the earliest developed district of the colonial Hong Kong and thus is an essential member of the heritage cluster in Central that reflects streetscapes of old Hong Kong. It is also socially significant to Hong Kongers and even tourists as it is a public space that houses numerous people who pass-by, who pause and take a short break from the fast-paced office lives, who purposely come to take photos and who have built collective memory through visits or movies, photography and music videos.

Based on the above rational Statement of Significant for Duddell Street, you may not notice if it is a joy-sparking place for you. But you surely know when you feel heart broken to see it being destroyed. While we thought a declared monument and a public asset was well protected against any risks of being demolished for redevelopment, of which most of the heritages in Hong Kong are facing, its monument status could not protect it against typhoons. A fallen tree nearby seriously damaged Duddell Street when Super Typhoon Mangkhut hit Hong Kong on 16 September 2018. Three of the four gas lamps fell to the ground. A large part of the granite balustrades and precasted concrete balusters were broken into pieces.

The Restoration
As the conservation architect commssioned by the Highways Department to restore the damaged Duddell Street, honestly we were thrilled to get a mission to rescue our beloved monument, but we soon needed to turn this excitement into our rational mode for practical conservation. Since every broken piece of the stair is precious, it was decided with the Antiquities and Monuments Office to reuse the stair using old fabrics as far as possible to restore the stair back to its appearance just before the typhoon hit1. Intervention should only be introduced if needed. We began our restoration works with question rising and “crime scene investigation”.

• How to stitch the broken pieces back into one piece?

From our initial investigation on site and from the loose broken pieces salvaged by Highways Department and Antiquities and Monuments, there were over 30 broken and loose pieces of granite balustrade parts needed to be stitched back to the main body in Duddell Street. With the help of 3D scanning, the puzzle game could be solved in computer and we were able to secure quite quickly that there was no missing granite pieces. However, the precast concrete balusters were damaged more severely. 42 out of 101 balusters were found missing on site. Our team members tried several attempts in the temporary storage to reassemble the balusters among over a hundred broken salvaged pieces, but only 32 balusters could be reassembled fully or partially. The fact that some parts of the balusters still attached to the granite top rail (off-site) and bottom rail (on site) had made the puzzle game even more difficult. The puzzle game for balusters could only be halfly solved off-site during our investigation stage.

On the other hand, through these puzzle games, we got some clues on the original fixing details of different parts of the stair and balustrade and hence their structural system. Interviews with people who had involved in previous repair works of the stair, including craftsmen and a former officer from the Architectural Services Department, helped us and our structural engineers to complete the investigation. Structural members are all granite blocks – they build up the walls on two sides to support the granite slabs (steps) and the pillars, which in turn support the granite top rails of the balustrades that run from pillar to pillar in one piece. The balusters are non-structural. It was originally a pure masonry structure fixed by mortar without any reinforcement, not even in the pre-cast concrete balusters and their connection to the granites. However, steel ties to the granite rails and even steel reinforced balusters had been introduced over time for repair of the balustrades. This inspired the restoration team the design of the structural stitches of the broken granite rails and precast concrete balusters – to stitch the broken granite rail pieces by stainless steel bars, which need to be supported by 13 newly produced REINFORCED precast concrete balusters that are to be fixed into the granite rails, in order to ensure the structural integrity and hence safety of the balustrade structure. Other balusters remain non-structural and so the salvaged broken pieces can be simply restored by stitching using steel rods hidden inside.

• How to produce replica balusters?

The fabrication of the 13 new reinforced precast concrete balusters, which are required structurally, had to strictly follow the structural specification including the grade of stainless steel reinforcement inside and the concrete; whereas the non-structural replicas had more flexibilty for conservation thought. From the observation of the broken pieces, balusters were original plain concrete, but had been evolved with attempts of adding reinforcement – earlier bamboo rods and later mild steel rods. At the beginning, there was thought to fabricate the non-structural replicas based on the original plain concrete model, but it was soon replaced by the idea to introduce steel reinforcement due to two reasons: 1) From technical point of view, the plain concrete balusters are weak in taking tension and bending, and therefore they could be more easily broken. The attempts to adding reinforcement over time collided this argument. 2) From conservation point of view, the existing Duddell Street houses balusters of different era and thus showcases the evolution of fabrication technique and reflects the accumulation of construction knowledges. The introduction of stainless steel reinforcement continues this evolution and accumulation. They were distinguished by a mark “2019” to keep authenticity though.

The restoration works commenced on site in August 2019. During the entire work progress, half width of Duddell Street was maintained in use to keep business in the busy Central as usual. With the effort of the specialist contractor, the unfinished puzzle game was successfully completed in such restricted area. And out of our expectation 34 balusters restored from the broken pieces were finally placed back to Duddell Street, together with all broken granite pieces and the 3 fallen lampposts.

Fanny Ang is an architect, conservationist and authorized person and
has over 10 years experience with a specialty in architectural conservation.

Duddell Street reopened in 2020.

Historical photos showed that there were times that Duddell Street carried balusters different from nowadays. It appeared with a combination of urn-shaped and rectangular shaped balusters. Oral history from a former staff from the Architectural Services Department who was involved in a repair of the stair in the 1980s also informed that one ceramic baluster, which were believed to be original form of the balusters, was once found on site but was replaced by precast concrete one. We didn’t adopt these two versions of balusters for restoration, as the former did not reflect the original appearance while the latter was not justified by enough evidence.

Restored stone baluster detail.

Construction Drawing for Duddell Street Restoration, plan, source: ANG Studio Ltd

Restored Duddell Street open for public use, 2021. 

Touching up restored handrail

Putting back stone handrail in place

Putting back restored baluster in place and touching up