Revitalisation of Central Market
Tony Lam 林中偉
Today’s Central Market building – the fourth to be built on the site – went into operation in 1939. It was listed as a Grade 3 historic building in 1990 and stopped operation in 2003. The Urban Renewal Authority (URA) was tasked to revitalise the building for public use in the 2009-10 Policy Address. The revitalised Central Market is now open to the public with the building preserved and adapted for commercial, cultural and community uses.
The reinforced concrete building has four storeys, including its roof, and two main entrances, one from Des Voeux Road Central on the ground floor and one from Queen’s Road Central on the first floor, due to the difference in level between the two roads. It has ground floor side entrances at Queen Victoria Street and Jubilee Street. At the centre of the building is an open atrium. Originally designed by the Public Works Department, Central Market is one of the few public buildings in Hong Kong that mixes of Art Deco, Streamline Moderne and Bauhaus architectural styles.
Central Market was designed to have different goods sold on each of its floors. The ground floor offered fresh fish and poultry, the first floor had beef, mutton and pork, and the second floor had fruit and vegetables. Stalls were arranged in rows along the aisle on each floor, all tailor-made for their designated function. The third or roof floor had offices and quarters for Sanitary Department staff. The wide Grand Staircases on both ends made for efficient circulation. The building’s lifts were an advanced technology for its time. The building’s elements were in line with the functional and technological character of Streamlined Modern style.
The building’s various facilities and rooms were designed to handle specific functions essential for the market’s operation. These included its loading and unloading bay, refuse system, slaughter room and wash areas, each tailor-made for the market’s layout. Its refuse collection system was considered an outstanding feature of the building, able to handle the collection of refuse from each floor through a chute that ran down to the ground floor. The free planning layout and atrium design with natural light and ventilation improved hygiene standards. Its open plan layout was supported by a concrete column and beam grid structure running from ground level to the third floor. The design of the interior layout with its separation of public access from market operations provided spacious aisles with stalls on both sides were easy to clean.
In 1994, the building’s front bay facing Des Voeux Road Central was demolished to make way for the construction of the Central Escalator Link and the western part of the second floor was converted into a shopping arcade. Despite this, Central Market remained a milestone in the development of markets in Hong Kong and a rare example of a pre-war market with its major façade and layout still intact.
Conserving Central Market
The story of revitalising Central Market can be dated to 2005, two years after it ceased operation. The site was put on the government’s “List of Sites for Sale by Application for April 2005 to March 2006”. The Hong Kong Institute of Architects (HKIA) expressed its concern about demolishing the market to make way for high-density commercial development. A survey of its member to gather their opinions on the future of the market was conducted, with 80% of respondents supporting conserving the market to one degree or another. Of this total, 97% supported conserving the 2 whole market building for adaptive re-use, and of these 62% supported having a new development on top of a rehabilitated market while 38% opposed any form new development on top of the market. As a result, HKIA recommended the ideas for the future of the site include urban design criteria such as heritage conservation, building form, public open space, setting context and local activities. The government was urged to conduct a detailed study on the cultural significance of the market and adopt an integrative plan for the building that combined heritage conservation and urban renewal.
As a result of a string of other conservation campaigns, such those for conserving the Star Ferry Pier, Queen’s Pier and King Yin Lei, social pressure for heritage conservation increased substantially in Hong Kong during the 2000s. The government also started taking a more proactive view of heritage conservation. In the 2009-10 Policy Address, the Central Market site was removed from the List of Sites for Sale. The then Chief Executive, Donald Tsang announced: “We will remove the Central Market from the Application List and hand it over to the Urban Renewal Authority for conservation and revitalisation. They will improve the air quality in the district and provide an additional leisure place rarely found in this busy area. The revitalised Central Market will become an ‘urban oasis’ for white collar workers in the daytime and a new hang-out area for locals and tourists in the evenings and on the weekends.”
Writing in 2011, Carrie Lam said: “The Central Oasis project was not driven by heritage conservation; …but by realisation that people in this district need a breathing space.” Clearly, that the revitalisation of Central Market had now become a project that was not purely about conserving the building itself, but also about creating a low-density place for the public in the middle of Hong Kong’s dense urban environment.
Conservation in urban design
Central Market’s uniqueness as a revitalisation project lies in the manner it combines conserving a historic building with improving urban design. It is located at the east-west intersection of Hong Kong island’s old Chinese district and newer international business centre and north-south intersection between a commercial district and an older residential one. It is one of the key heritage buildings of the “Conserving Central” initiative. Together with Tai Kwun and PMQ, it also delineates a triangular cultural district. Because of this position, the revitalisation project was always about more than preserving a single building, but also about regeneration of a neighborhood, making it a hub for public interaction and enjoyment.
Central Market was partly transformed in the 1990s with the opening of a passage inside the building as part of the Central-Mid-Levels escalator and walkway system. That made it an intersection for pedestrian traffic from different directions, adding another layer of significance to the building.
Public engagement One of the distinctive features of Central Market’s revitalisation project was public participation. Extensive public engagements played a crucial role in revealing people’s expectations for the building. Once the government announced the market would undergo adaptive reuse, the Central Oasis Community Advisory Committee was formed. The committee comprised District Council members, community leaders, building professionals, conservation experts, government officials, historians and private sector leaders, all of whom provided guidance and advice regarding the public consultation process. A website for the project was created in 2010. An independent survey firm was commissioned to conduct a territory-wide opinion survey on the community’s preferences for the building’s possible future uses. The findings showed that the public wished to have a lot of greenery, while commercial elements should be minimised. Sufficient space for cultural and art activities, affordable dining, leisure and recreational facilities were preferred. The results had provided directions for a pair of public design charrettes hosted by the advisory committee, the local District Council and HKIA in mid-2010. The charettes identified four attributes that the market should have:
Green: The public wanted the building to have a green landscape.
Harmony: The building should have new design elements incorporated alongside preserved features.
Attractive: The revitalised building should be attractive to Hong Kong citizens and tourists.
Connectivity: The building should continue to have easy public access with convenient connections to nearby pedestrian networks.
Four architectural firms were invited to submit designs based on the findings above. Roving exhibitions were arranged with drawings and physical models for the public to select which design they liked the most. Eventually, the design submitted by AGC Design Ltd., ‘UFO (Urban Floating Oasis) & the New Marketplace’, featuring a roof garden with an additional floor floating on top for community use was selected.
AGC’s scheme was further developed with a lightweight glass box floating on top of a solid mass after the engagement of the well-known architect Arata Isozaki and AGC as the project team in 2011. Due to a judicial review of the Outline Zoning Plan for other projects in the same district, planning approval was only finally approved in 2013, with approval for the General Building Plan coming the following year.
The project was then further delayed as the Lands Department requested the URA pay a market rate premium for the change in use of the market. However, as suggested in the public engagement exercise, with no luxury shops allowed in the new market, paying such a high premium to the government would have left the project financially unviable. Since the revitalisation of Central Market was one of the projects proposed by the government for the “Conserving Central” scheme, it was hard to see how it should have considered a normal commercial project for premium assessment. Eventually it was agreed that a symbolic premium sum be charged, allowing the project to continue.
The delays in starting the project were accompanied by a substantial increase in construction costs. As a result, the URA abandoned the UFO scheme and instead confirmed a new conservation scheme that preserved just the existing building. Planning and GBP approval for this new scheme were received in 2016, the site was handed over to URA and revitalisation work started in 2017.
The revitalisation work had five principal features:
• Conserving the two façades facing Queen Victoria Street and Jubilee Street from the top of their ground floor high level windows to the existing roof parapet.
• Conserving the existing structural column grid.
• Conserving the spatial configuration of the Central Atrium.
• Conserving the Grand Staircases at the two ends of the Central Atrium.
• Conserving intact one of each type of market stall.
The public toilet at the corner of Queen’s Road Central and Jubilee Street was demolished to make way for a new entrance plaza with a green soft landscape and street furniture. A new public toilet was provided in the building. The walls facing Jubilee Street and Queen Victoria Street on the ground floor were opened up with folding glass doors to increase public accessibility. The atrium was landscaped for public enjoyment. An open-plan design was been adopted to serve for future cultural and leisure activities, exhibitions and public events. The high walls facing the atrium were opened up so that more natural light could be introduced into the interior space. Physical and visual connections between the interior and atrium garden on the ground and upper floors was improved. The link bridges on the first and second floors in the atrium were widened to improve circulation flow. Apart from those market stalls preserved for display purposes, the rest were removed to create an open plan for more flexible retail use.
The façade facing Des Voeux Road Central was rebuilt in 1994 for the construction of the CentralMid-Levels escalator and walkway system. As it was not compatible with the original design of expressing horizontality, a new curtain wall façade was constructed that recaptured the building’s horizontality while allowing a visual connection to the new circulation system behind. Having two phases of construction works allowed the 24-hour passage to be kept open during the construction period. The Occupation Permit for phase 1 works was issued in 2020 and the whole project is expected to be completed by the end of 2021. The market is now an urban oasis with indoor plants and public seating where people can dine, shop and work with a curated heritage experience. It has been successfully revitalised and offers both cultural diversity and a modern space for leisure.
Tony Lam is the founding director of AGC Design Ltd. and a conservation architect.
¹ Hong Kong SAR Government. The 2009-10 Policy Address. 2009, https://www.policyaddress.gov.hk/09-10/.
² Lam Carrie. International Forum on Conservation and Adaptive Reuse of Reinforced Concrete Building. 22 January 2011.
Grand Staircase (Credit Ayman Tsui)
Original design of 4th generation (Credit AR 1939, Public Works Department)
Rendering of the final scheme, view from Queen’s Road (Credit AGC Design Ltd.)
Rendering of the refined scheme, view from Des Voeux Road (Credit AGC Design Ltd.)
Ground floor plan showing exit to Queen’s Road
View of central atrium / external courtyard
External facade close-ups after