Adaptive Re-use in an Island Context

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places in the world. The land population density as at mid-2014 stood at 6,690 persons per sqkm, with Kwun Tong, at 57,250 persons per sqkm, presenting the most densely populated district in the territory. The limited territory, mountainous terrain, limits on land development, and island nature of Hong Kong has not allowed for sentimentality of the heritage buildings which once dominated Central and Admiralty, as the city has expanded upwards out of necessity. Due to the high population density, 7.07 million people mainly live in residential high-rises. There are over 6500 high-rise buildings in Hong Kong, far surpassing that of New York City. 

In recent years, local citizens have become more attached to, and aware of, their heritage – both built and cultural. This growing attachment has led to an increase in the number of protests and demonstrations aimed at retaining the built cultural heritage of Hong Kong. 


The demolition of Queen’s ferry terminal, to facilitate additional land reclamation at the central piers, sparked outrage from local communities - with protesters chaining themselves to the railings of the pier building in protest of its demolition. This protest was ultimately unsuccessful, and the pier was torn down in xxxx. 


The proposed redevelopment of Wing Lee street, a Tong Lau Street lined with 12 Chinese-style tenement buildings dating from the 1950’s, led to more protests from local groups concerned with the preservation of their cultural heritage. The street had been part of a redevelopment scheme, however, after “Time, the Thief” - a Chinese film which won the Crystal Bear Award at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival - was shot on the street, the public outcry and protests grew in intensity. As a result, the street was excised from the plan and the buildings were dedicated for preservation.


A territory-wide survey, organized by the Hong Kong Architecture Centre in 2015, aimed to evaluate the general public’s appreciation of the built environment by asking them to choose “My 10 Most ‘Liked’ Hong Kong Architecture of the Century”. The results spoke volumes about the appreciation that the general public has for historic buildings in the region, with every building listed in the top 50 having been built prior to 1925, and many of the top rated buildings having been torn down years before, including; the Kowloon Walled City - demolished in 1993 (ranked at #25), The Hong Kong Club – demolished in 1981 (ranked at #25) and the Former Kowloon-Canton Railway Terminus – demolished in 1978, leaving only the clock tower (ranked #33). 


There are few more wasteful processes than the demolition of an existing building and building of an entirely new structure in its place - and while not every building over a certain age has outstanding historical or architectural features, they often make up for this in both character, quality of construction, and proportions of interior spaces. The removal of existing buildings can remove legacy and connection with the area, particularly when a number of buildings with small footprints and connecting lanes are demolished in favour of a large singular building mass, resulting in the loss of permeability of the urban context. 


In many cases, a historically faithful and frequently­ limiting conservational approach is often not what is required in order to enhance the viability and longevity of the structures concerned. It is particularly vital in the context of Hong Kong to examine how the density of a heritage building may be increased without compromising the aesthetics and history of the original. Kenneth Frampton’s approach of ‘Critical Regionalism’ is particularly relevant in this context. He discusses “how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilization and take part in universal civilization” – encouraging enhancement and protection of existing built heritage – yet encompassing renovation & renewal in order to accommodate new & relevant uses. 


‘Restauro Critico’ is a concept articulated by Cesare Brandi in his 1963 essay ‘Teoria del Restauro’. Essentially it aims to allow the historic fabric to maintain its identity and its history during adaptation, but with a tension between new and old narratives. Carlo Scarpa, in discussing his work on the renovation of the Castelvecchio in Venice, said: “if there are original parts, they have to be preserved, and any other interventions have to be designed and thought of in a new way”.


The new offices for the Port Authority, Antwerp, by Zaha Hadid Architects, is an innovative example. The extension is elevated above the roof of a heritage listed former fire station, ensuring that none of the original facades are concealed. The four-storey glazed structure spans over the original dormer roof and reaches the ground at a single point via a massive tapered concrete leg containing a fire escape and an observation point. Inside the brick firehouse, the architects stripped the surfaces back to a bare shell, which was restored internally and externally -  the new glass roof transformed the former courtyard into a reception area. A walkway between old and new buildings acts as a public viewing deck.

Zaha Hadid – Antwerp Port Authority                           Herzog de Meuron – Elbphilharmonie, Hamburg




Similarly, Herzog & DeMeuron renovated a 1960s warehouse to create the Elbphilharmonie concert hall, located beside Hamburg's Elbe river. The design centres around a new, glacier-like, glazed upper section with a peaked roof, added above the original brick walls, which contains three concert halls, including a main 2,150-seat auditorium. Curved windows protrude from the new glass walls, while a 4,000-square-metre plaza, elevated 30 metres above the ground, offers views across the city and harbour. In both of these projects, the glass addition hovering over a historical brick warehouse creates a juxtaposition and dividing line not only between different materials, but between two historic narratives and styles of architecture. Both buildings nonetheless integrate the new programme into the historic building context – representing a compromise between conservation & regeneration approaches.





David Chipperfield, architect of the universally acclaimed reconstruction of the Neues Museum in Berlin has said: “You freeze history with the ruin and add new elements with great care and attention to detail”. In the South Bund district of Shanghai, Neri and Hu Design and Research Office converted a former Japanese army headquarters into a boutique hotel, maintaining the building's stripped concrete and brick walls while adding a new Cor-ten steel extension on the roof, providing two storeys of additional rooms. This roof structure clearly differentiates between old and new, follows the form of the existing building and reflects the industrial past of the riverside – providing a contextual link to the historic culture of the area. 




                  NHDRO – South Bund, Shanghai



A new, controversial shopping mall and residential development at Lee Tung Street, or wedding card street as it was known locally, represents a recent example of poor planning involving both built heritage and intangible cultural heritage. A 3-year campaign, run by local residents, shop owners, architects, town planners, social workers and cultural critics could not save the street from destruction as part of a government Urban Renewal Authority redevelopment project. One reason the Government cited for demolition of the area was that the cost of renovating and adapting the existing buildings would have been too high.


Lee Tung Street – “Wedding Card Street” – prior to demolition

Now the area has been redeveloped into a themed Avenue with shops and restaurants, built in a, pseudo-classical style, and resembling a European boulevard, lined with trees and park benches - with bronze sculptures of playing children, frogs and lotus plants spread throughout. 


The development consists of three high-rise residential towers above four-storey podiums reserved for shops. The streets are lined with pastiche three-storey buildings modelled on three historic tenements at 186-190 Queen's road East, which were spared demolition. Sino Land associate director Roger Poon said "We wanted to re-create the intimate atmosphere of old Wan Chai,". The UNESCO Vienna Memorandum on world heritage and contemporary architecture rejects “all forms of pseudo-historical design, as they constitute a denial of the historical and contemporary alike”.




Lee Tung Avenue 



The Lee Tung Avenue website also states that “Lee Tung Avenue prides itself on its close connection with local communities and revitalizing traditional Wan Chai, while becoming a focal point of Wan Chai South.” However, it is extremely doubtful that any of the Wan Chai local residents or shopkeepers, who were evicted from their homes by the URA's use of compulsory purchase orders, will be able to afford to return.


Buildings and places change and evolve over time – they must if they are to survive as viable entities - and heritage protection policy must allow for that change – particularly in balancing historic values with socio-economic values.


With the de-industrialisation of Hong Kong – particularly in areas such as Kowloon Bay, Aberdeen and Ap Lei Chau, there is a great deal of opportunity presented by the many buildings which were previously used as industrial and manufacturing processes. As these industries have moved elsewhere, notably towards mainland China, the remaining infrastructure holds a great deal of potential for adaptation – to commercial, residential, or indeed many other uses - in particular due to their flexible internal layouts and robust construction. The protection of the architectural heritage should not be seen as an end in itself; it should be integrated into the broader planning context and the sustainable development of cities, towns and villages. The alternative is to allow historic buildings to fall into disuse and disrepair, along with the ensuing deterioration of their urban environments, until eventual demolition and replacement.  



lorene faure