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2009 Honourable Mention

Academy of Visual Arts - Former Royal Air Force Officers' Mess

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Project Title: Academy of Visual Arts - Former Royal Air Force Officers’ Mess

Location: 51 Kwun Tong Rd, Kowloon, Hong Kong SAR, China

Size:5,200 square metres (Building); 12,000 square metres (Total site)

Cost: Approximately US$ 3,600,000

Responsible Party: Ching Fai

Heritage Architect: Urbanage International limited and The Team Consultant

Contractor: Yan Lee Construction Company Limited

Date of Completion: 2007


Project Synopsis

The Former Royal Air Force Officers’ Mess, located on a hill overlooking Kai Tak Air Field, is one of a few surviving works of the Royal Engineers and is an exceptional example of British colonial architecture.

A presence in Hong Kong since 1924, the Royal Air Force built the officers’ mess over the course of two years: 1933 and 1934. The mess hall is a two-storey, linear building, consisting of deep verandahs, high ceilings and louvered windows; architecture suitable to the tropical climate. Subsidiary buildings on the site include the Annex Block and Air Raid Shelter, both of which followed the same overall design.

The buildings were in use as part of the Royal Air Force’s operations until 1978, when the property was transferred to the Royal Hong Kong Police to serve as its Detective Training School, a purpose it retained until 2001. The mess and its supporting buildings were little altered from the time of initial construction. 

A first step in the process of rehabilitation was an inspection and subsequent feasibility study. The conclusion of the study, commissioned by the Hong Kong Baptist University in 2001, was that the former military compound could be adapted into a unique facility for the Academy of Visual Arts. The open spaces and column-free interiors provided a perfect solution to the university’s needs for studio spaces and galleries. The site was also convenient and close to the city’s centre. The rare tranquillity of the setting within the hectic urban context of Kowloon Peninsula, coupled with the open architectural character of the complex, gave the site an unusual advantage.

The project’s design team found a suitable use for each of the buildings and secondary structures; even the squash court was converted to a large exhibition space. The spaces in each building were adapted into twelve daylight-filled studios for drawing, painting, ceramics, sculpture, installation art, printmaking, glass art and jewellery design.

Activities and programmes introduced by Hong Kong Baptist University injected new life into this historic military structure, demonstrating that, with careful planning and guidance, adaptive use can be a viable and effective solution for contemporary institutional needs.

Conservation Approach

The designers planned and carried out the project in a manner that balanced adaptive use with respect for a significant chapter of the military presence in the former British colony. The guiding conservation principle for the site was “less is more”. The main fabric of the buildings remained intact and spaces were retained as much as possible in their original built status.

The conversion required very little internal structural change. The building’s modular grid, composed of repeating double columns enclosed by lateral deep verandahs on both sides, allowed for the ready adaption of existing spaces for new uses. The verandahs provided circulation around the building and supplied sufficient natural daylight and ventilation, all ideal for the requirements of the art academy. The existing timber joinery on the doors, windows and jalousies were retained as part of the original building components, and missing elements were replicated.

The project also required the repointing of granite retaining walls. This was carried out using a traditional, lime-based mortar mix substituting for the cement mortar that had been used in previously patched sections.

Only a few modern interventions were required to enable the building to conform to modern safety and code requirements and to meet the needs of an educational institution. These included modern electrical and mechanical systems and universal access via a hydraulic lift. The project’s designers strove to integrate these new additions in ways that minimized their impact. They were also designed to be reversible so that they could be removed if necessary, allowing the original state of the building to be recovered. The glazed lift tower and fire escape staircase were inserted in an unobtrusive location. Window air-conditioning units were used instead of a central system to avoid the installation of visually intrusive ducts and piping. 

The project took a full six years from the time of the initial feasibility study and planning stage to completion. Begun in 2001, the restored building was opened in 2007.

Completion of conservation plans required several months. The construction work spanned two phases, carried out between early 2005 and mid 2007. The first phase included work on the painting studios and the conservation of the façade. The ceramics and glass art studios, which required more specialized equipment, followed in the second phase. The two-step sequence of work meant that the main part of the building could be ready for occupation in a short period of time.

Conservation and the Community

The overall conservation strategy was not simply to retain a place of historical and architectural value but to provide a significant new asset for the local community. While the project aimed to provide a facility for the students of Hong Kong Baptist University, various programmes and activities that make the facility available to others mean that the general public also benefits from the project. This broader aim was an important consideration in the overall plan. The result has been the adaptation of a community landmark for both students and the people of Hong Kong.

Quote from the Project Team

“The tranquillity of the compound, on top of a small hill and hidden behind mature trees, offered a unique setting for an art institute. There was a happy marriage, with a perfect match of heritage conservation and visual arts development, under academic funding.