Tai Kwun has been on quite a journey, from colonial-era relic to 21st-century hub for art and culture. Perspective takes a closer look at Hong Kong's largest revitalisation project
For more than a decade, the site occupied by the Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison was Hong Kong's reigning white elephant. The cluster of colonial buildings, dating from the mid-19th to the early 20th centuries, spans a large swathe of prime real estate in Central. After the police station was decommissioned in 2004, followed by the prison in 2006, the site was abandoned for years. The government wanted to turn it into a commercial art and culture hub, but avoid the highly criticised Disney-fication issues that plagued the renovation of the Marine Police Headquarters in Tsim Sha Tsui into 1881 Heritage.
After examining numerous schemes submitted by local and international architects and the developers, Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC) was named as the site's operator. It put together a dream team of London-based heritage architects Purcell (under Purcell Asia Pacific) and Hong Kong's Rocco Design Architects. Swiss firm Herzog & de Meuron was responsible for two new structures to house a gallery and performing arts venue, while local interdisciplinary design studio Marc & Chantal came up with an extensive brand platform to glue everything together. It was renamed Tai Kwun, or "big house", in honour of its vernacular nickname and opened to the public in May.Purcell was initially retained in 2008 to conduct a conservation master plan and later entrusted with carrying it out. "We were asked how quickly we could do it," recalls Mark Goldspink, partner and chief executive with Purcell, noting the project was both the firm's first job in Hong Kong and its first overseas. "We learned to react very quickly. Our client wanted a gallery and theatre, and those had to be new builds as none of the existing buildings could be adapted. Herzog & de Meuron's original scheme was a tall building, which would have made too much impact on the low-rise site. The final new buildings, situated in the former laundry yard, have larger footprints than before but are more in keeping with the site's scale."
It was renamed Tai Kwun, or "big house", in honour of its vernacular nickname
Tai Kwun is one of the city's largest, most prominent rejuvenation projects, initiated when it was more usual to replace a building than restore it. But these days the public is onboard with keeping its past, and Purcell knew it had to deliver a complex that retained the flavour of the buildings' penal origins, yet be open and welcoming with all the 21st-century comforts expected of a world-class art and culture destination. To that end, Purcell stripped back the structures, eliminating modifications made in later times, taking the buildings back to their original incarnations."Clear modern interventions had to go, such as a garage block from the 1950s," Goldspink says. As government buildings, the materials used were typically robust and were salvaged or reused where possible. "In the end, only 1 per cent of materials were replaced as most could be reused. To make up the rest, we sourced bricks from the UK and tiles from China to match what was there originally. We brought trade experts here to educate local workers on things like using lime mortar instead of cement."
Tai Kwun is organised into three zones with a total of 21 buildings: the Parade Ground and buildings near Hollywood Road, on the lower part of the site; the Courtyard and former Central Magistracy adjacent to Arbuthnot Road; and the Prison Yard and buildings – including Herzog & de Meuron's JC Contemporary gallery and JC Cube performance venue – near Chancery Lane in the upper part. Located next to the Parade Ground, the 1919 former police headquarters and 1864 former barracks both feature red-brick facades with white trim, Ionic columns lining the upper-storey verandahs and pitched roofs with Chinese tiles. More utilitarian granite and brick buildings, built in 1841, dominate the Prison Yard and used to contain jail cells. Collectively, the compound houses some of the best examples of public buildings that combine Chinese materials with Victorian design elements. The period structures are leased as restaurants, boutiques and offices and courtyard areas act as performance spaces.
Tai Kwun is organised into three zones with a total of 21 buildings
To meet contemporary standards and make the entire complex barrier free, Purcell added discreet lifts. "M&E was the biggest component and we worked with the engineers, Arup, to decide where pipes should go to minimise the visual intervention," Goldspink says. "The services were a challenge: we ended up hiding most of them underneath the courtyard." Purcell has been retained until the end of 2019 for potential follow-up maintenance work."As one of the largest projects for our firm to date, we were respectful of the site's existing heritage," Goldspink says. "Tai Kwun now gives people the chance to explore what prison life was like 100 years ago. It is a magical place, against the high-rise skyline of modern Hong Kong in the background."
"We have a strong commitment to raise public appreciation of heritage and arts in Hong Kong by engaging more people in heritage and arts appreciation," states Timothy Calnin, Tai Kwun's director. "Through our rich array of programmes, we are promoting cultural appreciation, exploration and learning, and contributing to Tai Kwun's sustainability. We hope that visitors will have discovered something unexpected through our unique juxtaposition of history and arts, and have gained new knowledge about Hong Kong's architectural and social history."