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2007 Jury Commendation for Innovation

Whitfield Barracks

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Project Title: Whitfield Barracks

Location: Kowloon Park, Tsimshatsui, Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR, China

Size: 4,000 square metres

Cost: US$ 6.250,000

Responsible Party: Architectural Services Department, Hong Kong SAR

Heritage Architect: Architectural Services Department, Hong Kong SAR

Contractor: Yau Lee Construction Company Limited

Date of Completion: April 2005


Context

The pair of buildings in Kowloon Park known as Whitfield Barracks began life in the 1910s as barracks number S61 and S62 within a larger complex of eighty-five barracks buildings that once occupied the entire site of the Park. Housing British troops until 1967, they were transferred to the Government of Hong Kong for redevelopment as recreational facilities. Demolition of the barracks buildings began in 1970 with the decision to convert the space into Kowloon Park. Only three of the original barracks buildings, numbers S4, S61 and S62, were retained. 

Barracks numbers S61 and S62 served as the temporary premises of the Hong Kong History Museum between 1983 and 1998, after which the Museum moved to its present location in Tsim Sha Tsui East. Listed as Grade III Historical Buildings in 1997, the two-storey barracks are built of brick in the colonial style with arcaded façades, timber floors and pitched roofs covered with traditional Chinese clay tiles with rounded ridges and tar finish. 

Project History

After the transfer of the Hong Kong History Museum, the building remained vacant and overgrown for almost a decade. Of the many proposals put forward in 2003 for the future use of the building, that of the Antiquities and Monuments Office prevailed. It was decided that the complex would house the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre, a museum, library, lecture hall and exhibition space documenting the evolution of the settlement through various media and activities. Given the historical nature of the buildings themselves, the barracks were seen as an especially appropriate setting for the Centre.

Many structures and alterations had been accrued during the 1980s that were deemed inappropriate and insensitive to the heritage status and original aesthetic spirit of the barracks. The Museum had added a utilitarian series of buildings to the western end of the complex, with an overbearing concrete structure dominating the open space between the two original buildings. An annex housing the ticket office and entrance hall linked the eastern ends of the barracks buildings. The new buildings effectively created a closed internal courtyard, cutting the interior of the complex off entirely from the verdant spaces of Kowloon Park of which it was originally intended to be a part. Furthermore, the character of the two heritage barracks buildings had been violated in a drastic manner with the bricking-up of their arch openings to create internal galleries. 

In order to transform the complex into the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre, the Architectural Services Department of Hong Kong implemented a major intervention to improve the public function and capacity of the complex as a whole, while enhancing the appearance and spirit of the two original barracks blocks at the same time. 

Project Scope and Framework

The project aimed for the adaptive reuse and suitable conservation of the barracks in the context of Hong Kong heritage and as part of Kowloon Park. Whereas the museum buildings of the 1980s had effectively converted the barracks buildings into a closed courtyard structure, the Architectural Services Department envisaged a reunification of the heritage structures with their surroundings in a manner reflecting the former interaction of the buildings with the larger Whitfield precinct. The project required opening up the complex with a new entry sequence and landscaping, the demolition or alteration of the unsympathetic additions and the creation of a new light-filled double-height central hall. 

Project Details

The complex was reconfigured to better integrate the Centre with the surrounding park. The entrance block at the east end of the courtyard was removed, creating a plaza opening onto the park demarcated only by a low iron fence. An outside seating area was placed just inside, allowing visitors to fully appreciate the flow of space between plaza and park. Two venerable old trees, an albizia and a ficus dating to the time of construction of the barracks, were preserved in the former courtyard.

With the demolition of the entrance block, the entry sequence was entirely reorganized. The main entrance was relocated to the south, to the former entrance of S61, the south barracks block. Visitors now enter through the barracks building and move through a lobby to emerge in a new glass foyer.

Designed as a two-storey transparent block, the new enclosure replaced the former solid museum structure at the western end of the complex. The minimalist steel and glass structure provides a light counterpoint to the solid masonry barrack buildings. Apart from creating a grand sense of entrance, the atrium space creates a strong spatial and visual linkage between the two buildings. The new glazed wall overlooks the green courtyard, connecting the interior of the foyer with the outdoor space beyond and allows light to pour into the formerly enclosed interior. The installation of a high-speed escalator and a glass elevator within the space lets visitors appreciate the new loftiness of the interior while ascending up to the upper floor through the void space.

In reinstating the authentic heritage character of the barracks themselves, the first priority was the restoration of their façades. The loggias had been walled up with unsightly grey brick, punctuated with square windows to allow light into the gallery created within. The conservation effort selectively removed these obstructions, in some cases, opening up the loggias entirely.  In other areas, the bricked enclosures were replaced with glass, thereby restoring the external appearance of the façade while preserving the needed interior space. The brick arches themselves had been insensitively reinforced with steel lintels during the 1980s. These were removed and the brickwork carefully shored up, as was the masonry throughout the rest of the heritage structures.

In the interior, modernization of mechanical, electrical, climate control and hygienic systems were carried out in a discreet manner. A false ceiling of very shallow depth was installed to conceal sprinkler pipes and conduits without substantially altering the appearance or proportion of the heritage structures. The issue of air-conditioning in particular was of vital importance in maintaining the interior climate of the museum environment: in order to protect the artefact displays, the inside temperature must be maintained at 23 degrees Celsius, with a constant humidity of 55 to 65 percent. Such a rigid standard was difficult to maintain in the barracks blocks due to the porosity of the clay tiled roof. A solution for preventing condensation was achieved by installing a layer of fibreglass insulation underneath the roof, along with a Variable Refrigerant Volume (VRV) system to circulate and lower the temperature of the air. The building was brought into line with fire safety regulations while preserving the original timber floors by sandwiching the wooden floorboards and joist structures between a fire-resistant board below and a composite panel of fibre-reinforced cement bonded to steel sheets above.  The unobtrusive installation of a modern sprinkler system completed the process.

Important Issues

The emphasis of the project was on the creation of a public museum and exhibition space that was appropriate to the context, with due respect accorded to the heritage status of the two barracks buildings and their original character. While a complete restoration of the complex to its original incarnation was not possible given the practical needs of the Heritage Discovery Centre, it was vital that the modern spaces created in the remodelling effort complement and fit with the overall heritage environment. The glass façade in particular was an effective way to make the required modern additions less obtrusive while emphasizing the beauty of the heritage structures and the natural setting.

By the same token, while full restoration of the heritage buildings could not take place – portions of the loggias, for instance, had to remain enclosed because of the need for interior space – it was paramount that a balance was achieved between functionality and the reinstatement of the original appearance of the buildings. The use of glass in the arcades was an acceptable compromise between the two concerns, resurrecting the look of the original open loggias while providing for air-conditioned space within. Likewise, while the bulk of the modern museum buildings at the western end of the complex had to remain for practical purposes, the installation of the new glazed enclosure on the central block restored the sense of the open space between the barracks buildings and reunited them with their original setting in the larger barracks grounds.

Project Impact

The creation of the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre has been a valuable contribution to the promotion of heritage awareness in the former colony. Open to the public without charge, the building houses a permanent office of the Antiquities and Monuments Office and a reference library to provide support on heritage issues. A lecture theatre and three exhibition halls are devoted to showcasing the territory’s latest heritage discoveries. The Centre’s innovative approach to heritage education is also reflected in the simulated archaeological excavation site in the ground floor of S62 that is popular with students. With its facilities for research, education and interactive exploration, the Centre is a progressive, accessible window into the heritage, culture and history of Hong Kong.

The choice of Whitfield Barracks as the setting for the Centre is particularly appropriate. The inventive approach for the conservation and reinterpretation of the heritage property has created a complex that reflects a Hong Kong sensibility in its harmonious blend of the traditional with the cutting-edge. 

Quote from the Project Team

“The transformation is an example of how innovative design can satisfy local sentiments about collective memory and heritage protection. The community is now able to benefit from this delightful building by experiencing the space and participating in the process of discovering local identity and values.”