Inside-out Public Spaces:
Re-use and Urban Typology as Urban Process
Weijen Wang 王維仁
From PMQ to Central Market, within less than a decade a series of adaptive re-use projects turned some of Hong Kong’s significant old building complexes into vibrant public open spaces. The transformations, from the
re-opening of Oil Street Art Space in 2013 and PMQ in 2014, to Tai Kwun and The Mills in 2018, and Central Market in 2021, mark not only Hong Kong’s new era for historical preservation, but also open up new possibilities for architecture and urban space in Hong Kong.
Heritage buildings such as Flagstaff House or the Whitfield Barrack in the last century were mostly turned into museums or heritage discovery centres managed by the government. Unlike the programmatic arrangement for historical buildings of the last generation, the newly developed re-use heritage buildings offer mixtures of cultural, art, community, and retail facilities. In terms of urban typology, many of the courtyards of these architecture compounds, originally designed for internal use, have been opened up as plaza-like urban spaces of a kind previously missing in Hong Kong’s urban development. Architecturally, the authenticity of material construction exhibited in these buildings reinstates tectonic and tactile qualities overlooked in Hong Kong’s architecture in recent decades. Most importantly, negotiations among citizen groups, professionals and the government over the making of public spaces has become a social process shaping Hong Kong’s civic and cultural identity.
Plaza and street
Plazas and streets are considered two distinct urban typologies for traditional urban spaces. Plazas and squares developed from a focal point with a defined area surrounded by urban buildings often accommodate free spaces for individuals or groups. Here they can sit, stand, pass-by, meander or gather. Streets, boulevards, arcades and promenades can be home to continuous, linear urban events or attractions, including commerce, while accommodating free spaces for walking, strolling and wondering. Despite its lack of plazas and tree-lined boulevards due to its functionally dominated planning history, Hong Kong is known for its active but alternative space forms generated from its high-density urbanism, such as its sky-bridges, escalators and terraces.
At the same time, the few remaining examples of traditional urban spaces in Hong Kong, such as Statue Square or the Tsim Sha Tsui water-front promenade, are often packed with design features, such as pavilions, water fountains, planters and paved paths, that create theme-park-like divisions or iconic objects. These imposed designs in plaza spaces tend to act as barriers rather than facilitating free space that is open for urban possibilities. Urban streets such as Queen’s Road or Nathan Road are often too congested to accommodate wandering pedestrians or boulevards lined with trees like Barcelona’s Rambla.
Against this background, let us consider the urban courtyards and arcades found in five recently created urban complexes, Tai Kwun, PMQ, Oil Street Art Space, Central Market and The Mills, and examine how these provide new typological models for urban spaces and urban architecture while accommodating free space for urban wandering.
Urban Courtyard and Urban Arcade
Tai Kwun is an inside-out urban space developed from within. Its two internal courtyards, the lower plaza of Parade Ground and upper plaza of Prison Yard, are now being transformed from previously enclosed compounds into urban spaces surrounded by new programmes of commerce and culture, open to and connecting with the surrounding city fabric. Through the strategic and critical connection of Tai Kwun Lane, the new design links the two plazas with two new architectural anchors: the JC Contemporary Museum and the JC Cube. With its elaborate and extensive façade and lifted mass, stepped underpass and extreme spatial tension, the JC Cube creates a dramatic urban theatre that is one of Hong Kong’s best urban architecture projects of recent years.
PMQ is a newly created urban courtyard formed from what was previously a void space between two parallel linear blocks. The addition of the Qube bridging the two blocks was a smart design move. By converting the compound into a three-dimensional urban complex and establishing a successful semi-covered plaza space with cross ventilation and urban greenery, it opened up new functional spaces while defining the semi-outdoor plaza space below. With architecture that allows for trees, sunlight and the open sky above and in-front, both Tai Kwun and PMQ have injected a sense of free space and nature inside their respective compounds.
Central Market demonstrates how urban typology can be reconfigure to suggest new possibilities for an arcade. Connected to Central’s escalator promenade, the atrium-based linear market now takes the form of an urban arcade with a lively atrium and bridge deck open to natural lighting and ventilation. Unlike typical shopping malls that internalise their circulation, Central Market has retained its previous pedestrian movement and open public space patterns. Distinct from its European counterparts in Paris and Milan, Hong Kong’s 21st century urban arcade is elevated from the ground in a multi-leveled city.
The Mills is another successful conversion, in this case of privately owned factory space into a new urban complex mixing retail and cultural space that sets a pioneering model for the adaptive reuse for industrial buildings. The opening up of Pak Tin Par Lane with its connection to the street was a critical, strategic move. It brings an urban lane into the internally organized atrium with retail and exhibition space across the two blocks. Linking the pedestrian movement to a roofdeck garden, the design has a subtle urban quality.
Oi! has a very different model for shaping an urban courtyard surrounded by tall buildings. Developed from a linear sequence of heritage architectures facing an internal yard, this project gradually features a significant field of greenery flanked by a cluster of art buildings. Located in Fortress Hill, at the corner of Oil Street and Electric Road, with a newly completed exhibition building at one end of its lawn and a Municipal Building Complex at the other, Oi! has the potential to become a prominent urban space and cultural hub for Hong Kong.
From Biennale to Tai Kwun
Tai Kwun had a long planning and design process. The first design proposal by Herzog & De Meuron was originally much more aggressive than the final version. It included an iconic tower using bamboo as a metaphor that would occupy the compound’s upper plaza. That proposal led to heated public debate, with strong opposition from various civic groups who wanted to see the conservation of its open space and urban memory. The project was then put on hold for more than a year, giving HKIA’s biennale committee an opportunity to ‘borrow the site’ from the Hong Kong Jockey Club and the government to hold the 2007 Architecture Biennale. Working carefully with the Lands Department, AMO, the government’s ArchSD and the Jockey Club, the major sponsor of the biennale, the curatorial team invited nearly a hundred exhibitors from Hong Kong and around the world, including Herzog & De Meuron, Stephen Holl, Atelier Bow-Wow, Wang Shu and many others, to participate. Titled ‘Refabricating City’, the Biennale proposed that people think about how urban architecture could address the relationship between architecture and urban fabric.
From December 2007 to March 2008, with numerous visitors and activities occupying almost every space of the Central Police Station Compound’s plazas and rooms, patios and hallways, corridors and verandahs, the Hong Kong Biennale of Architecture\ Urbanism opened the long enclosed urban enclave to the public for the first time. The exhibitions not only become a forum for design professions and communities to share their views, more importantly, they also turned the venue into a public space for Hong Kong citizens. Nowadays, when looking down at the courtyard from the verandah, those who took part in the 2007 Biennale can be reminded of what they saw all those years ago, much of which was perhaps less refined and commercial compared to the present but was also culturally more robust.
The 2007 Biennale also successfully served as an important transition for ‘Becoming Tai Kwun’, testing public reception of various ideas for the scheme for the Hong Kong Jockey Club and government while exploring the spatial potential of the compound as an architectural experiment.
As the biennale’s curator, I recall the evening before its opening when conservation activists and the media gathered in the plaza to protest and question the use of historical buildings as the venue for such an architecture event. In dealing with that crisis, we came to have a deeper appreciation of the frustration of concerned citizens who had just witnessed the destruction of the Star Ferry and Queen’s Pier. At the last minute, we requested our exhibitors to amend their exhibit designs to leave intact all building fabrics and internal furnishings, not because we shared the nostalgic attitude of treating historical architecture as untouchable antiquities, but because we believed that the biennale was itself a part of the urban process of shaping our public spaces. That was an urban process of consensus-building and negotiation for a shared urban value.
At that biennale, in the deliberation of design options for Central Market or the on-going design development for Oi!, through the urban processes of exploration and participation to shape better public spaces, has our city been able to generate more consensus to counter or renegotiate the government’s procedural rationality? Certainly, we know we should be ready to state clearly that what Hong Kong needs are not more iconic landmarks but public spaces with both urban visions and urban memories, spaces that welcome everyone to take part as stake holders in a world-class city and civic society
Authenticity and city memory
To end, I would like to note how these five adaptive reuse projects have reinstated material, tectonic and tactile architectural qualities ignored in Hong Kong for the last few decades. The conservation of heritage architecture can be seen in the careful laying of bricks and stones, the timber rafters, the fabric of mosaic tiles, the smooth terrazzo and textured concrete surfaces and the authenticity of the materials used and construction techniques. Along with their sites, levels, steps, contours and trees, the re-use of heritage buildings not only accommodates the city’s collective memories, but also brings back the tectonic and tactile quality of architecture that sustains a sense of place in our city.
Weijen Wang, Andrew KF Lee Professor in Architecture Design,
Department of Architecture, University of Hong Kong
Tai Kwun axonometric view
PMQ axonometric view
Tai Kwun site plan
PMQ site plan, Central Market site plan
Oi! site plan, The Mills site plan
Parade Ground / lower plaza, former CPSC, “Re-fabricating City”,
HK-SZ Bi-City Biennale of Architecture\Urbanism, 2007.
Prison Yard / upper plaza, former CPSC, “Re-fabricating City”,
HK-SZ Bi-City Biennale of Architecture\Urbanism, 2007.
Connecting ramp between parade ground and prison yard as temporary exhibition space,
“Re-fabricating City”, HK-SZ Bi-City Biennale of Architecture\Urbanism, 2007.