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Second life

Development doesn’t get any more sustainable than finding a new use for redundant buildings. Adam Branson profiles the reinventions of five historic architectural treasures.

Adam Branson, Journalist
27 September 2018

Development doesn’t get any more sustainable than finding a new use for redundant buildings. Adam Branson profiles the reinventions of five historic architectural treasures.

Prison reform comes to Hong Kong

At the end of May this year, more than 150 guests, including senior government officials, gathered for the inauguration of the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Arts in Hong Kong’s Central district. The opening of a new cultural institution is, of course, always cause for celebration, and it was an occasion of great pomp and ceremony. But what is more significant about Tai Kwun is that its creation involved the redevelopment of three buildings that played an important role in Hong Kong’s history: the former Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison.

Consultant Gleeds worked on the repurposing of the police station, and its chairman, Richard Steer FRICS, was keenly aware of the site’s past life. “In all buildings of this type, especially in an area that has the rich history of Hong Kong, it is important to appreciate cultural and geographic sensitivities.” He is naturally very proud of his firm’s contribution to the re-purposing of what is hoped will become an essential community resource, describing the building as a “fantastic structure”.

Tai Kwun is important in and of itself, but it is also representative of a growing trend for city authorities and developers alike to favour re-using redundant buildings over knocking them down and starting again. They are motivated by a range of factors, including a desire to protect heritage assets and environmental concerns.

“In Hong Kong and also in mainland China, this is still a totally new approach to architecture – an unusual thing to do because normally old buildings and entire neighbourhoods are removed and replaced by new ones. In daily life we still carelessly throw away things we use every day, instead of recycling and reintegrating them in a somewhat appropriate or even creative way.” - Jacques Herzog, co-founder of Herzog & de Meuron

New meets old in Melbourne

Collins House, a former shipping company headquarters in Melbourne, Australia, provides another interesting example of creative re-use. Once an architectural gem, the three-storey building had, over time, lost many of its most distinctive arts and crafts-inspired features – its large feature window replaced by previous owners and the original entrance covered over.

Now, however, the building is being reinvented as a high-end apartment complex by developer Golden Age Group. With a 57-storey tower rising out of the rear of the existing structure, the design’s juxtaposition of old and new is certainly striking, but Kristen Whittle, director at architect Bates Smart, says that the two apparently distinct buildings will be integrated seamlessly internally.

“The strategy for the project was that if we had to knock out floors at the back, we would integrate them at the same height and also make sure we captured all of the mouldings, column heads and features, and reintegrate them into the new building,” he explains. “We created a photographic analysis of all of the decorative features and integrated them in such a way that when you enter the new building, you wouldn’t notice the transition.”

However, Whittle adds that care has also been taken to reference elements of Collins House externally in the new tower. “We’ve taken some of the motifs of the flooring in the old building and run that up the facade,” he says.

“So the new building has elements of the old. It’s a sharp contrast in terms of massing but the character flows from the old building to the new.”

Cape Town silo’s artful conversion

A similarly dramatic example can be found on Cape Town’s waterfront, where the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa recently celebrated its first birthday. Designed by Heatherwick Studio, the museum is housed within a vast former grain silo, whose rows of vertical tubes required radical intervention for them to be put to any other use.

The idea of turning a giant disused concrete grain silo into a new kind of public space was weird and compelling from the beginning. The technical challenge was to find a way to carve out spaces and galleries from the 10-storey-high tubular honeycomb without completely destroying the authenticity of the original building. The result was a design and construction process that was as much about inventing new forms of surveying, structural support and sculpting, as it was about normal construction techniques. - Thomas Heatherwick, Heatherwick Studio founder

Riverside reinvention by the Thames

In London, a less dramatic but nevertheless effective approach was taken by architect and interior designer Jestico + Whiles when it was commissioned to repurpose a floor of County Hall, which was left empty after the then-prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, abolished the Greater London Council in 1986. To this day, large parts of it remain unused.

Given the expansive views it provides out over the River Thames, however, events space provider Etc Venues felt that it could make an excellent conference facility. “One of the things it offers you is a frontage with some of the best views of the Houses of Parliament in London,” says James Dilley, director at Jestico + Whiles. “This is a venue and events company and the days of the vanilla box don’t really apply any more. You’ve got companies coming from the US or Europe and they want to know they’re in London.”

As a result, Jestico + Whiles opted to make the most of views by orienting all the events spaces on the side of the building that faces the river. “We’ve got the corridor on one side and then the event spaces towards the outside of the building,” says Dilley. “We’ve been able to strip away a lot of superfluous partitions and walls that were there from when it was all about paper pushing. Strip that away and you’ve got some truly impressive spaces.”

Behind the scenes at London Embassy

On a larger scale, the former US embassy in Grosvenor Square is also in the process of being put to a new use following the departure of consular staff to a new home in Battersea earlier this year. Developer Qatari Diar is in the midst of converting the building into a hotel and luxury apartments, something that project manager Iain Roberts MRICS, chairman of project manager Buro Four, says is not without its headaches.

“It’s quite a unique building – it was built for a particular purpose and for a particular time. The challenge for the architect [David Chipperfield Architects], is really how to make best use of what’s there. The front facade is retained because it’s listed, which really sets the levels for the building. Obviously, if you were building something new now the floor heights would be different.

“One of the real challenges around the creative re-use of buildings is getting floor levels and layouts to work for a different set of uses,” Roberts adds. “But I think we’ve been able to make a virtue of the quality of the facade.”

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