“Invisible” building technology for cultural hub

The Central Police Station compound in Hong Kong has been revitalized as a culture and leisure center under a partnership between the local government and The Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC). In its quest to merge heritage with 21st-century comfort and efficiency, HKJC turned to long-standing partner Siemens.

If you stroll down Hollywood Road in Central, famed for its skyscrapers, you will be in for a surprise. The Central Police Station compound – colloquially named “Tai Kwun,” the big station – is an ensemble of ornate buildings from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century that has recently received a new lease of life as a heritage and arts center for the public. 

 

It is a case of benign irony or perhaps simply a happy ending that Tai Kwun’s defining feature today is its openness, even though it used to house a prison. And it works brilliantly. Opened in May 2018, the Central Police Station compound with its 16 historic buildings, and 2 new structures designed by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron instantly became popular among locals and visitors alike. In the square formerly used for parades, a huge mango tree generously casts its shadows over the north west corner – great in Hong Kong’s sweltering summers.

Transformed for public use

“This compound used to be a one-stop shop for law and order,” says Graham Tier, Head of Property Facilities Management (Special Projects) at The Hong Kong Jockey Club (HKJC).Apart from organizing horse races, HKJC is also one of the largest charitable donors in the world, and, it entered into an agreement with the city government to revitalize the compound and transform Tai Kwun for public use.

 

“Look! Here was the Central Police Station with the holding cells,” he points out. “Behind it is the Central Magistracy, where the sentencing took place, and further on, the prison.” Now, the compound’s former purpose is remembered through careful restoration of the buildings and by various heritage storytelling spaces and thematic exhibitions.

 

One of the two new buildings is JC Contemporary, housing one of the best contemporary art galleries in Hong Kong; the other is JC Cube, an auditorium. A semi-outdoor venue for film screenings or performances seats the audience on the steps of what used to be the laundry. While you can certainly splash out in its exciting restaurants and retails, spending money is not required in order to enjoy Tai Kwun. Just bring your lunch box and take a break underneath the expansive branches of a mango tree.

Balancing conservation and renewal

Completing the project took ten years, and HKJC clearly put a great deal of passion into it. “We peeled off 34 layers of paint from the walls of the police station to find out what the original paint was,” says Graham Tier. “And we had all these beautiful window frames, wooden doors and gates restored – by experts of course!” In addition, HKJC went to considerable lengths to replace some of the 19th-century bricks in the old structure. “The old bricks’ imperial measurements were not in use anymore,” says Tier. “Eventually, we found a company in the UK who could do it.” 

Finding the right balance between safety, comfort, and heritage protection required ongoing communication between all parties involved.
Eric Chong, President and CEO, Siemens Hong Kong

The same precision and care were applied to the building technology of the compound. “A big challenge consisted in making the buildings safe for public use without compromising the historic substance,” says Eric Chong, President and CEO at Siemens in Hong Kong. “Finding the right balance between safety, comfort, and heritage protection required ongoing communication between all parties involved. You cannot simply drill a bunch of holes into historic walls. It takes joint, careful consideration to install thermostats, sprinklers, smoke and gas detectors, fire alarms and air-conditioning.”

Minimally invasive building technology

“Often, the roofs and backs of buildings in Hong Kong are studded with water towers and chillers for air-conditioning – not the most appealing sight,” admits Chong. For Tai Kwun, a different solution was called for. “All the big machines, including power supply and the main components for air-conditioning, are buried in a plant room underneath the former Parade Ground and are therefore invisible.”

“This is a very unusual project,” adds his colleague Ricky Liu, Vice-President and Head of Building Technologies at Siemens in Hong Kong. Chong, Liu and their team were responsible for providing an integrated building management system for the entire complex compound in Tai Kwun. “What matters here is our minimally invasive approach,” explains Liu. “Every room has its own, customized solution that respects the colonial or modern architecture, respectively.”

 

All signals from the different disciplines arrive in one central control room, which is housed in one of the old cell blocks. Instead of wardens or inmates, Tai Kwun staff now monitor the compound with the help of dozens of screens and other equipment. Centralizing the building management has many advantages in a complex project such as Tai Kwun, emphasizes Eric Chong: “It is the superior approach, especially with regards to reliability and efficiency – one system from one supplier.”

Digitalization for high availability and better efficiency

For Hong Kong, Tai Kwun is a very high-profile project. This is why it made sense to build it with trusted partners. HKJC has worked with Siemens as a supplier of building technology for over two decades, for instance for its two race courses in Hong Kong. As in Tai Kwun, these are public places for large crowds where security and reliability are key. “HKJC is a very special client for us,” says Chong. “And it has very demanding clients, which, as a consequence, raises HKJC’s standards and expectations.”

The point is to increase availability and reduce downtime to approximately zero.
Ricky Liu, Vice-President and Head of Building Technologies, Siemens Hong Kong

Such demanding specifications call for a high degree of digitalization in building management. “The point is to increase availability and reduce downtime to approximately zero,” explains Liu. This can be achieved with predictive maintenance – collecting data from the systems to service them before they need repairing. Data collection can also be used to optimize energy consumption. “This is especially significant in Hong Kong, where buildings make up about 90 percent of the city’s total energy consumption. So if you decrease consumption from buildings by, say, 10 percent, it makes a big difference in the overall equation.”

Long-term benefit for the city

A large space such as Tai Kwun makes a real difference to life in Central, and Chong and Liu are clearly proud to have contributed to it. “The city will benefit from Tai Kwun for many years to come,” says Chong.

The entire square is enclosed by old walls. These, in turn, are surrounded by a tight circle of skyscrapers, ubiquitous in Hong Kong’s cityscape – to which Tai Kwun is the delightful exception, a spacious oasis in the middle of the metropolis.

19-03-22

Author: Justus Krüger, journalist based in Hong Kong

Picture credits: Hans Sautter

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