Tai Kwun Revitalised: What’s Next?

大館活化 : 何去何從 ?

Brian Anderson 

香港建築保育的討論很自然地集中在技術問題和監 管挑戰上,大館亦遇到了很多技術上的問題 , 包括如 何取得適合的材料用作保育,以及所需的工藝技能等 等。本文旨在列出建築保育會遇上的一些問題,以幫 助未來的營運商實現他們對活化保育的抱負,亦能夠 推廣文物保育的重要性,從而保存城市的記憶。

As a comparatively new area of enquiry, discussion of building conservation in Hong Kong quite naturally focuses on the technical and regulatory challenges that we face: where can we source appropriate materials and the craft skills needed to use them? Where and how can education and training contribute? How do we address areas of non-compliance with the statutory framework? All these challenges were encountered at Tai Kwun.

Experience shows that diligence and attention to detail; a long timescale – some eight years from planning application to handover in the case of Tai Kwun; and adherence to a known process, will deliver a successful project. However, as an architect I would contend that handover of a project should be seen by the profession as not the end but merely the beginning

This is especially true of revitalisation projects that by default comprise a change of use. Unlike the former or original use, a new use on a site that was built for something else is unproven and untested. How does a developer establish sufficient confidence in the future of a heritage asset to be able to commit substantial funds to revitalise it and how does the operator sustain and develop the original vision? This article sets out some of the issues that need to be addressed by the architect to assist both developer and operator to fulfil their ambitions and thereby secure the future of an asset whilst simultaneously retaining or enhancing its cultural significance.

A useful starting point is asking why? Why do we repair and adapt old buildings? Historically, this was 1 25 a simple economic question: repairing or adapting a building was cheaper than demolition and building anew. The modern era has transformed construction methodology and the statutory framework in which we operate to the extent that, invariably, new building came to be seen as a panacea: the development of materials’ science and the achievement of high levels of performance in use, large, open-plan spaces, large areas of transparency and the ability to construct multi-storey buildings created a marked shift away from traditional forms. Such buildings were seen as old-fashioned, out of date and not fit for purpose. Hong Kong embodies these attitudes in its statutory framework and desire for improvement and prosperity

So why retain buildings of earlier generations, which by default cannot serve the purposes of a modern and dynamic city? This question is of particular interest in a place like Hong Kong because of its history: most of the buildings we are considering were built during colonial times and as such they are inevitably associated with Britain and the West. At Tai Kwun – formerly the Central Police Station Compound – the focus is sharp: buildings that housed the police, the judiciary and convicted felons can readily be seen as symbols of colonial oppression. Yet conversations with indigenous Hongkongers during the last 10 years have revealed a surprising response: that either these buildings are not seen that way or even if they are, they are part of Hong Kong’s history and people’s identity and therefore they matter. In this context, retaining such buildings has become a given rather than an option, making the question what shall we do with them?

The first step is crucial to a successful outcome. The very first conversation between developer and architect should be about what a building can offer, for it is the building that should inform the new use, not the business plan. This can be tricky if one’s would-be client has already bought a property and has grandiose and illthought-out ideas for it. But it is essential that the right balance is struck between what an historical building can accommodate and what is demanded of it. Sometimes this takes time to work out, since the solution may not be immediately obvious. Flexibility in terms of timescale and programme are necessary in order to obtain the optimum outcome. If the proposals are contentious, then stakeholder consultation is also vital.

In parallel with this we need to consider those challenges that will impact on future sustainability. They will vary from one site to another, but at Tai Kwun they included:

1) Embedding the site back into the city
2) Change
3) Performance in use.

Tai Kwun was conceived and built as a
fortress – designed both to keep people out and to keep people in. At the time of its establishment in the 1840s, it was out of the city and spatially detached from the urban context. As the city developed, it engulfed the site and thus created the context that we see today. [Fig.3] Today, Tai Kwun is surrounded by buildings of the modern era, mostly multi-storey, occupied by people going about their daily business, and so it has become, spatially and sociologically, an island. This had to change, but the physical elements that made it so – the massive revetment walls that surrounded it – were key elements of its character and could not be substantially altered let alone removed.

Embedding the site back into the city was seen as vital. Tai Kwun needed to become part of everyday life — a regular venue for lunch or dinner or for experiencing art in a variety of formats. Having people visit regularly is vital to its long-term sustainability. So far, it seems to have been successful in this respect: as of the end of 2020, some 8 million people had visited the site. Realising this objective has had its costs: those who objected to the new bridge connection pointed out, correctly, that this access point would partially obscure the view of the former Police Headquarters building. This shows how the decisions one makes about heritage assets may not be straightforward. To secure a sustainable future one has to be prepared to develop a robust argument and to advocate for it. Today the bridge entrance is by far the most popular point of arrival.

It follows from this that change is a major challenge. In a place where so much heritage has been lost, what is left is inevitably more precious. But a strictly preservationist response cannot guarantee the optimum outcome. If Tai Kwun had been merely conserved as found, people would have appreciated the technical content of the conservation work, but would they have

re-visited the site? One suspects not. To survive in the long term, heritage assets, like all other built assets, need to have a purpose and be adaptable. These are the underlying principles that led to the decisions about adapting the existing buildings and constructing new ones. Without a measure of change and adaptation, interest in the site would likely have faded over time and with it the funding needed to maintain it.

The concept of change is nothing new. A quick review of Tai Kwun’s history shows how it has changed radically during the 180 years since it was first established. [Fig.5] Therein lies a key point: those changes are in part what makes the site so interesting today. We should not be afraid of change when considering heritage assets, but we do need to be respectful of it and to ensure to the best of our ability that we preserve what is worth retaining, reveal what might otherwise be hidden, and, above all, make such sites accessible to the public for their appreciation and enjoyment.

Finally, we need to consider performance in use. As said earlier, historical buildings are often seen as having a poor performance compared with modern buildings, and of course everyone expects all built environments to be safe for people to use. The government has a duty to ensure people can go about their lives in a safe environment. Those of us who conserve and restore old buildings for a living can be guilty of thinking that conservation should be the preeminent consideration, with safety a secondary issue. The reality is that safety always comes first. If a structure is not safe to enter then it cannot be interpreted and understood by the public. So it is not a case of ‘either or’ but of ‘both and’. All conservation schemes must be both safe in use and exemplary in their philosophical interpretation and technical execution. As the UNESCO Asia Pacific jury panel of 2019 put it: 

The technical quality of the restoration work is standard-setting on an international level, ensuring the authenticity and integrity of the historic fabric. Innovative architectural and engineering solutions are underpinned by meticulous investigation and rigorous conservation principles.

The successful adaptation of heritage assets is never easy or predictable. Outcomes cannot be taken for granted, not least because some aspects of a site are hidden from view and may be difficult to know at an early stage. A rigorous approach to risk management is vital. In this, the architect should act as the catalyst for decision-making across all aspects of a project. Developers need to be able to make decisions in a timely manner and without exposing themselves to undue levels of risk. Given the inherent uncertainties associated with heritage assets, this becomes of singular importance.

But these are technical considerations. The public is increasingly interested in heritage assets, especially when an intention to adapt them to new uses is announced. Here lies another role for the architect: every heritage asset needs a champion, yet rarely is the architect the one in front of the TV camera. This can and should change. Architects by the nature of their training and practice are well placed to fulfil this role. It demands an ability to advocate an agenda that may be challenging to stakeholders, but which architects, with their understanding of the issues involved, can carry out.

Brian Anderson. BA Dip Arch RIBA President, HKICON ;
Director of Cultural Heritage, PURCELL
Brian Anderson 是大館保育項目的保育建築師,
公司的文化遺產總監。

View of JC Cube with cast aluminium facade (© Iwan Baan)

Top: North-south section showing JC Cube (courtesy PURCELL); bottom: Elevation
 along Arbuthnot Road showing Former Central Magistracy (courtesy PURCELL) 

Overview with Parade Ground and Barrack Block in foreground (© Iwan Baan)

Site diagram of connections with surrounding urban fabric (courtesy Herzog & de Meuron)   

Site transformation of Tai Kwun over 180 years history

Site transformation of Tai Kwun over 180 years history

Site transformation of Tai Kwun over 180 years history

Site transformation of Tai Kwun over 180 years history

View of Parade Ground and Headquarter Block
from Barrack Block (courtesy PURCELL)

View of Prison Courtyard with JC Cube behind
 large tree (courtesy PURCELL)