Hong Kong architects praised for revitalising historic shophouses – from the SCMP archive

Asia World

This article was first published on July 4, 2014

By Peta Tomlinson

The tragedy of Hong Kong’s “lost” architecture is that so many old buildings were demolished before anyone thought to save them. In a curious stroke of good fortune, one of the few remaining examples of classic pre-war architecture, in one of the city’s most expensive locations, survived because it was occupied by some of society’s most disadvantaged people.

Old shophouses on Mallory Street in Wan Chai on October 19, 1999. Photo: Edmond So

The 10 turn-of-the-20th-century Chinese shophouses in Wan Chai escaped redevelopment because, for many years, the cluster was a shelter for the homeless.

When the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) acquired the back-to-back Mallory Street/Burrows Street properties, a public consultation began that ensured their preservation as a community arts hub.

Known collectively as the Green House (although it’s been returned to its original white) the name is a nod to the Grade 2 heritage listing, meaning it is under a preservation umbrella, like the Blue House on Stone Nullah Lane.

Hong Kong-based global architecture firm Aedas was tasked with revitalising the buildings and the project, completed in July last year [2013], is earning high praise. Last month it won Medal of the Year Hong Kong – the highest honour – at the Hong Kong Institute of Architects annual awards, as well as a Special Architectural Award for heritage and adaptive reuse.

Former URA executive director Andrew Lam Siu-lo inside the structure on March 18, 2005. Photo: David Wong

Project design director Edward Leung Yee-wah considers it remarkable how intact the original building was. “Prominent features – such as the iron balconies, tiled pitched roof, timber French doors and internal timber staircase – were retained, and were able to be preserved.”

This was also one of the first examples of the integration of colonial construction into Chinese dwellings – as authenticated when paint, plaster and concrete were stripped away to reveal bricks and ironwork bearing the stamps of the British factories that had made them.

The URA unveiled a HK$118 million revitalisation project for the Green House in Wan Chai back in March 18, 2005. Photo: David Wong

But this was to be a building for community use – they would need to safely accommodate far more people than shophouses were originally intended for – and this meant adhering to building codes that didn’t even exist 100 years ago.

“For example, the roof trusses are timber, but that wouldn’t be acceptable today as it is a fire risk,” says Stephen Cheng Yuk-leung, overall project director.

The designers mainly retained the interior of the old shophouses, July 18, 2013. Photo: David Wong

Modern waterproofing and drainage were also required. Aedas had to integrate the new standards without disrupting the historical significance of the original materials.

The designers managed to stabilise the brickwork and infill steel structural beams behind the timber roof trusses. The original encaustic floor tiles were also restored.

Removing the partitions of internal subdivisions that were installed over decades proved something of a treasure hunt. “The historical elements were only revealed after the site clear-up,” says Karen Kiang Ngai-sze, project architect.

The revitalised buildings, now in white, on June 18, 2013. Photo: David Wong

“We faced a dilemma – how to respect the historical fabric of the buildings, but upgrade them to today’s expectations,” Leung says. “Luckily, the client [URA] was supportive, and with a strong team of engineers behind us, we were able to architecturally innovate in ways that would achieve both.”

Reflecting the creative heritage of Wan Chai, the building has been leased to Hong Kong Arts Centre.

For Hong Kong, the project is a rare example of architecture enhancing heritage – rather than becoming just another shopping mall. “We hope to send a message that we can actually do it [revitalise old buildings], if we’ve got the right team,” Leung says.