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Old buildings, fresh perspectives — Hong Kong historic buildings through the lens of an architect

Charles Lai

In appreciation of architecture, there is more than a mere examination of its design features. It is equally important to look at the historical and cultural significance being represented. Charles Lai, an architectural historian specialising in modern architecture in East and Southeast Asia, recommends these 10 scenic spots. Plan your visit and discover new perspectives of historic buildings in Hong Kong.

Where tradition meets modernity

Both St. Mary’s Church in Causeway Bay, completed in 1937, and St. Francis of Assisi Church in Shek Kip Mei, opened in 1956, were built in the style of Chinese renaissance architecture. It is a style that has attracted some attention in recent years. Classified as a Grade 1 Historic Building in Hong Kong, with a red brick exterior topped with eye-catching green roof tiles and a white cross centred above its entrance, St. Mary’s Church has the grandeur of a Chinese palace and the solemnity of a Western church. To Charles, these buildings are true embodiments of the cultural characteristics of Hong Kong, uniquely blending Chinese and Western cultures. "Red bricks and green tiles are not design features of traditional Chinese architecture. This is indeed a Westernised expression of Chinese characteristics,” Charles says.

Chinese renaissance architecture can also be found in other districts of Hong Kong. In addition to St. Mary’s Church, there are Holy Trinity Cathedral in To Kwa Wan and Tao Fong Shan in Sha Tin. St. Francis of Assisi Church in Shek Kip Mei was completed in the mid-1950s. Above its three dome-shaped archway entrances, three Chinese characters ‘天主堂’ (Catholic Church) are written in traditional Chinese calligraphy. Upon entering the church, there is a spacious interior without any beams or pillars support. Your gaze is immediately directed towards the altar as the vibrant stained-glass windows in the background depict the stories of the saints. After World War II, Hong Kong was transformed into a modern city, and hence the architecture of church premises also underwent significant changes.

St. Ignatius Chapel is built like a square box, surrounded by a cloister with a red brick exterior providing ventilation and shade for heat insulation. The main structure of the church complex is surrounded by glass to ensure a smooth flow of cool breeze from outside — a practical geometric design that gives the church a truly modern look. Truth Lutheran Church, completed in 1963 and designed by architect Eric Cumine, has a shape that resembles Noah's Ark. Despite having deviated from traditional church architecture, its unconventional appearance never fails to retain an aura of solemnity.

The avant-garde Chinese architects

Charles emphasised that Chinese architects have a tremendous influence on Hong Kong's aesthetics and architectural trends, which has led to the development of a more nuanced Chinese cultural identity. Sham Shui Po Chinese Public Dispensary was completed in 1936. Designed in Art Deco style by Chau & Lee Architects, it embodies the notion of early Chinese elites keen to give back to the community. In the 1950s and 1960s, there were quite a number of Chinese architects amongst the immigrant population in Hong Kong who had committed to works that were later deemed the epitomes of this city’s modernity and were considered quite avant-garde. The Institute of Chinese Studies in The Chinese University of Hong Kong, a project led by Szeto Wai was completed in 1970. In the same year, the Chung Chi College Chung Chi Tang Student Centre was built with a bold triangular design by the young collective Wong & Ouyang. The student centre demonstrated a stark contrast to the square-shaped design of The Institute of Chinese Studies. The two designs represent distinctive styles of work from different generations of Chinese architects. 

Hong Kong Arts Centre

"After World War II, the baby boom has gradually led to a primarily young population in Hong Kong,” Charles says. “Regardless of whether they were architects or capitalists, people adopted daring approaches during those times.” Let’s take Hong Kong Arts Centre as an example. It was inaugurated in 1977. Given the extremely limited funds and space, architect Tao Ho came up with the design of a triangular column-free multi-story complex, allowing different types of artistic activities to take place at the same time within the centre. From both design and technology perspectives, this was seen as an extremely bold design of the time. Tao Ho became well-known as one of the most iconic local architects of the era. 

Conservation and revitalisation — it’s everyone’s business

Charles also recommends the Garden Centre in Sham Shui Po and the revitalised tenement house on Second Lane in Tai Hang. "Most people don’t consider factories as worthy of visiting. But the Garden Centre actually reminds people of the historical value of industrial buildings and their potential for further development,” he says. The Tai Hang tenement house was classified as a Grade 2 Historic Building by the Antiquities Advisory Board. It has been repainted over and over again. It was finally restored to its original form by a new tenant, uncovering the underlying architectural craftsmanship that it was built upon. Charles was involved in the restoration project. He describes it as a turning point in the conservation of local architecture, "Most architectural details of this Tai Hang tenement house are are retained,” Charles says. After the restoration, the building now houses a trendy art space, THE SHOPHOUSE. Old buildings do not only have historical value but also commercial and even investment potential.

Charles is an advocate of the close relationship between architecture, society, economy and culture. In appreciation of architecture, one may wish to position oneself within the social context of the time in order to benefit from a deeper understanding of Hong Kong's history.

Charles Lai’s top picks — historic buildings to visit and learn about heritage conservation:

  1. Hong Kong Sheng Kung Hui Saint Mary's Church 
    2A Tai Hang Road, Tai Hang, Hong Kong
    http://dhk.hkskh.org/stmary/index.aspx

  2. St. Francis of Assisi Church
    58 Shek Kip Mei Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon 
    https://sfac.catholic.org.hk/

  3. St. Ignatius Chapel, Wah Yan College
    56 Waterloo Road, Mong Kok, Kowloon
    https://catholic.org.hk/en/St. Ignatius Chapel

  4. Truth Lutheran Church
    50 Waterloo Road, Yau Ma Tei, Kowloon
    http://truth.elchk.org.hk/acms/?site=hktlc

  5. Sham Shui Po Chinese Public Dispensary
    137 Yee Kuk Street, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon

  6. Institute of Chinese Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
    The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Sha Tin, New Territories
    https://www.ics.cuhk.edu.hk/en/

  7. The Chinese University of Hong Kong Chung Chi Tang Student Centre
    Chung Chi College, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Sha Tin, New Territories

  8. Hong Kong Arts Centre
    2 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, Hong Kong
    https://hkac.org.hk/

  9. Garden Centre
    58 Castle Peak Road, Sham Shui Po, Kowloon

  10. THE SHOPHOUSE
    4 Second Lane, Tai Hang, Hong Kong

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