“I like the courtyard, it’s so spacious,” says Elizabeth Ng. She takes a break under the mango tree with a view of the 19th century magistracy. A little further, Phoebe and her friend Tiffany are trying to find the perfect photo angle in an old prison cell kitted out with reflecting mirrors. Block B already is the site’s undisputed Instagram hotspot. It sounds like we’re somewhere in a historic European town, but we’re in the heart of Hong Kong, Asia’s financial capital. We’re visiting Tai Kwun, a newly opened old police station converted art complex, a refreshing new hotspot in a city that boasts many records. Hong Kong has the highest number of tall buildings, the most impressive skyline and steepest real estate prices, but is less known in the world for maintaining its heritage.
Tai Kwun – literally meaning big station, the colloquial name for the old police station – has been ten years in the making. At the staggering cost of HK$3.8 billion, the Hong Kong Jockey Club has delivered a project that has put the already popular Hollywood Road and surrounding SoHo and NoHo – indeed South and North of this iconic road – even more firmly on the map as the city’s premier cultural and leisure destination.
Tai Kwun has delivered what the Hong Kong people have been craving for, a place that makes contemporary art accessible for the public. The city is home to a thriving commercial art scene, nearly 100 galleries and the biggest art fairs in Asia, but lacked a museum for modern art. More than that, Tai Kwun has given something else that is was so much needed in this city of contested space: a place to breathe, to wander and to be able to look up and see the sky in the city. The old police compound, also home to a prison and a court – essentially a one-stop shop for justice – has been carefully renovated to keep the spirit of the place intact. An attractive mix of low-rise classic Victorian buildings grouped around large open cobblestoned courtyards connected through stone staircases and little laneways makes for an intimate public space. A place where – even if you’re not into art – you can sit under on the shade of one of the majestic trees and see the surrounding skyscrapers in a new light, as an interesting décor that perfectly frames an almost forgotten site that reminds you of the city’s unique history.
The smart people of the Hong Kong Jockey Club knew that this site required a gentle touch, previous plans to put an “iconic 75 metre structure with observation deck” on top of the historic buildings didn’t go down very well with the Hong Kong public that has grown frustrated living in a city where profit is always before people. The Jockey Club realised that if done well, this prime site had the qualities to deliver something unique. Both for the old generation longing for a reminder of the past and a new generation looking for a sense of identity in a world where every city is starting to look the same. They hired the Swiss success studio of Herzog & de Meuron to wave their magic wand and place two boxy structures on top of the old buildings within the old prison walls. It sounds more dramatic than it is. The boxes are constructed out of 8,000 giant recycled aluminium bricks and placed so that the effect is a natural continuation of historic streetscape adding a sense of cool – and much needed large floorplates for the performing arts – without being intimidating.
The Tai Kwun project hijacks the practice of adaptive re-use of heritage buildings in Hong Kong to a whole new level. After years of a complete disregard for everything old, in the last decade Hong Kong has started to preserve and maintain some of its heritage buildings. At the same time trying to find a model that makes heritage conservation work in one of Asia’s most competitive real estate markets. Under the stewardship of Carrie Lam, who went on to become the city’s first female Chief Executive, about 20 derelict government properties were included in an earmarked revitalisation scheme and tendered out to NGO’s for redevelopment.
PMQ – a stone’s throw away from Tai Kwun – was one of the first of such heritage revitalisation projects in central Hong Kong. A special partnership between the government and local non-profit The Musketeer’s Foundation was set up to breathe new life into the run-down staff quarters of the Hong Kong Police Force. The post-war building that was ignored for 10 years opened in 2014 as Hong Kong’s new creative hub and is now home to around 100 retail outlets, studio’s and event space for designers and other creatives. With over 12 million visitors since opening, they have succeeded in curating an attractive tenant mix of both emerging and established designers and find a sustainable revenue model. PMQ lifted up the whole area, with boutique developers and creative entrepreneurs moving into the surrounding streets to redevelop properties and capture the value. With one big difference, whereas the Hong Kong model has always been demolition and new build, we now see some successful examples of retrofitting old shophouses in keeping with the unique character of the area.
PMQ – old police staff quarters turned design hub – was the first successful heritage revitalisation project in Hong Kong Central. Source: PMQ
The big question is what will happen to Central Market on Des Voeux Road at the bottom of the escalator that winds all the way down from Tai Kwun. Throughout history, from the city’s early beginnings as a trading port, the site has been a marketplace. In 2003 it closed for business. Government plans to bulldoze the site met with fierce public protest and in 2009 Hong Kong’s Urban Renewal Authority (URA) was tasked to turn the old Bauhaus market into a leisure landmark. The market vendors have long moved out, and the people of Hong Kong are anxiously waiting to see what the future holds for the last remaining heritage site in the city’s Central Business District. Will they be bold and brave enough to create a destination that will tie together PMQ, Tai Kwun and Central Market as a cultural triangle? If there is one thing to be learned from Tai Kwun is that it pays off to have a visionary approach and pay attention to detail, whether it comes to tenant mix, the branding or the choice of materials.