Travel Trend #2a: Central Police station

What does ‘authentic’ mean? The Tai Kwun project in Hong Kong is a hotly debated topic for architects and conservationists even before it reopens

Discovery is predicting that three trends will dominate travel in 2018: the renaissance of northern Europe; the rise of Asian heritage projects; and an increasingly sophisticated health and wellness tourism industry.

Here we explore how Asia’s oldest buildings are paying back.

It was like stepping back in time. When the Detour design festival threw open the gates to Victoria Prison and the Central Police Station compound in 2010, visitors had a chance to explore one of Hong Kong’s most significant historical landmarks, a complex of 16 Victorian buildings that once housed prisoners, police officers and magistrates.

Although the festival had transformed the compound’s public areas with colourful lights and quirky installations, most of the interiors had been left untouched since they were abandoned in 2001. Cobwebs hung between the bars of Dickensian prison cells; a disco ball floated above an officers’ lounge. Visitors could even walk through a prison kitchen stocked with knives and other cooking utensils.

Then those doors were sealed shut.

Central Police Station
Credit: Herzog & de Meuron

That was the last time the public saw the old compound in its untouched state. In mid-2018, they will (or should) be able to visit once again – only this time, it will have been transformed into Tai Kwun (‘The Big House’), a centre for heritage and art. Funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, it will include leafy public spaces, a heritage interpretation centre, shops, restaurants and exhibition spaces for contemporary art.

Expectations are high. Adeline Ooi, director Asia of Art Basel, describes Tai Kwun as ‘the final piece of the puzzle’– a museum-style exhibition space that will anchor Central’s thriving gallery scene, while also complementing the M+ museum of visual culture that is now rising in West Kowloon.

It also marks a departure from Hong Kong’s long history of knocking down its most significant historical buildings. ‘We’re moving into uncharted territory,’ says Fredo Cheung, an architectural conservationist who lectures at the University of Hong Kong. ‘We’ve never before had a heritage conservation project in Hong Kong of this scale and magnitude.’

Central Police Station

That might even be an understatement. Until now, most of Hong Kong’s conservation efforts have been limited to a single building here and there. But Tai Kwun is actually three clusters of buildings, some of them nearly 200 years old. When it opened in August 1841, Victoria Prison was the first permanent structure built by the British on Hong Kong Island. Through the years, notable prisoners included Ho Chi Minh, who was arrested for secretly running the Vietnamese Communist Party in Hong Kong; and renowned Chinese poet Dai Wangshu, who was imprisoned for opposing the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during the Second World War.

Over the years, the prison was joined by the police headquarters, built in stages from 1864, and the Central Magistracy, which opened in 1914. The complexity of the site has made preserving it a challenge. That was made especially clear last year, when one of the oldest structures in the compound suddenly collapsed. An investigation concluded that the building suffered from previously undetected structural weaknesses, and the entire project was delayed as the other historic buildings were examined.

The Jockey Club and the government are now deciding how best to deal with the collapsed structure. Some of the options include rebuilding it with salvaged historical materials, rebuilding it as a new structure or leaving it in ruins as a reminder of what happened.

Beyond the collapse, the most contentious change has been the proposed Old Bailey Galleries, a pair of new exhibition halls with 16,150 square feet of space. Designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, the firm responsible for the Tate Modern in London as well as the upcoming M+, the galleries are housed in two textured black boxes suspended over a portion of the old prison.

Central Police Station
Credit: Mike Pickles

The goal was to provide new, museum-quality exhibition spaces without altering any of the historical structures. ‘Some like them, some don’t,’ says Katty Law, convenor of the Central and Western District Concern Group, a neighbourhood development watchdog. ‘Many people feel they are totally out of place. I personally think they’re too heavy. They dominate the entire site.’

Cheung says that these new interventions give Tai Kwun more flexibility. ‘When we talk about heritage conservation now, we talk about adaptive reuse – giving a building new life. There’s only so much you can do with the existing buildings,’ he says. He also defends the bold contemporary architecture of the new galleries. ‘The point is not to mimic the old but to distinguish the old from the new,’ he says. ‘It’s about authenticity.’

Aside from the galleries, which will be run in partnership with independent local arts organisations like Para Site and the Asia Art Archive, not many details have been revealed about the rest of the compound: the Jockey Club has been tight-lipped about the project. Law wonders how historical artefacts discovered during an archaeological dig will be displayed, including a Qing dynasty opium container, a 19th century coin and the foundations of demolished buildings.

She also worries that, as with many restored heritage structures in Hong Kong, post-renovation Tai Kwun will feel too polished and new. Cheung says that’s a legitimate concern. Whether they’re going to see art, learn about history or eat dinner, visitors should have the same feeling of discovery they did when the gates to the old compound were thrown open in 2010. ‘It’s not just about conserving the historical fabric,’ he says.  ‘It’s about how to interpret the history.’

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