When the Visual Arts Centre opened on Kennedy Road 30 years ago, public reaction was mixed. “What is most striking is not its grand 19th century architecture, nor its expensive high-tech equipment, but the silence which prevails through its empty hallways,” noted the South China Morning Post in March 1992, several months after the facility had opened. Facilities weren’t being used to their full potential. Attendance was limited. “Perhaps it’s due to the lack of publicity,” mused the centre’s assistant curator.
Looking back, the centre—now rebranded as vA!, to go along with Oi!, the community art space on Oil Street—appears ahead of its time. In an era when Hong Kong had few cultural venues and little support for artists, the Visual Arts Centre provided exhibition spaces, a lecture hall, and studios for printmaking, ceramics and other forms of art. And it was on the vanguard of something else, too: heritage conservation. When the British military handed the Victoria Barracks over to the Hong Kong government in 1979, after more than a century as the headquarters of the colony’s armed forces, plans were to divvy up and sell off the land to private developers. Instead, a large portion of it became one of Hong Kong’s first examples of adaptive reuse.
The Victoria Barracks were part of the military cantonment that was established between Central and Wan Chai in 1842, when Hong Kong became a British colony. One of the earliest buildings was Flagstaff House, which was built in 1846 to house the commander of the Hong Kong forces. It was later joined by an explosives magazine, residential blocks for soldiers and their families, and recreational facilities including a squash court.
Life in the barracks was comfortable – a leafy world unto itself in the very middle of the city. “The British Forces certainly ensured that military personnel and their dependents were well looked after,” says Robert Eggelton, a retired military police sergeant who was stationed in Victoria Barracks from 1971 to 1974. On his days off, he joined his wife and two young children at the barracks pool. “I will always remember the delicious caau2 faan6 (炒飯, fried rice) served up by the poolside,” he says. “To this day I have never tasted anything better.”
The built environment of the barracks changed over the years as buildings were knocked down and redeveloped. By the time Eggelton arrived, it was a hodgepodge of newer postwar facilities and older buildings built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Among them was Cassels Block, which now houses the Visual Arts Centre. It was originally a residence for married officers that was built sometime around the turn of the 20th century; it’s not clear exactly when, as many records were lost in World War II.
In comparison to the stately granite of Murray House, built in the 1840s, the four-storey Cassels Block was made of brick, with a classically-inspired Edwardian design that resembled countless other buildings of its era. Large balustraded verandahs lined the façade, giving residents sheltered outdoor spaces to escape the summer heat. Perhaps the building’s most interesting feature is its terraced form, with four interconnected blocks that step down the steep hillside below Kennedy Road.
Not long after Eggelton’s tour in Hong Kong, the future of the Victoria Barracks was thrown into question. By the mid-1970s, the military was planning to transfer operations to other facilities around the city, including the newly built Prince of Wales Building at Tamar (now the local Peoples’ Liberation Army headquarters), and it decided to transfer control of the Victoria Barracks to the Hong Kong government. For the government, the value of this prime real estate was hard to ignore. Bypassing the usual town planning channels, it set up a special Victoria Barracks Planning Committee to determine the best use of the land. In 1977, the committee issued its recommendations: preserve Flagstaff House but carve up the rest of the barracks for a mixture of public and private development, which could earn the government HK$1.1 billion—about HK$5 billion today—in revenue.
The plan was controversial. “There is no justification whatsoever for any commercial development to be located in the Victoria Barracks area,” wrote one upset Hong Kong resident to the South China Morning Post in 1977. Hong Kong’s heritage conservationists agreed. At the time, the conservation movement was just finding its feet, and it didn’t have much success to its name. The same year the plan for the barracks was announced, a campaign was underway to save Kowloon Station from demolition – a campaign that was dismissed out of hand by the government. But their fight to save the Victoria Barracks hit more of a chord with officials.
Social activist Ding Lik-kiu, co-founder of the Conservancy Association, argued that the barracks should be turned into a public park. “It would be very short-sighted and unrealistic of the government to accept the proposals put forward by the Victoria Barracks Planning Committee,” he said in 1977. And they didn’t – at least not in full. While much of the Victoria Barracks were indeed sold off to build Pacific Place, with another portion reserved for the Supreme Court, 8.16 hectares were reserved for a new park that would be built and managed by the Urban Council, Hong Kong’s now-defunct city council and municipal services administration.
Plans for the new green space were unveiled in 1982. Several historic buildings would be preserved, including Flagstaff House, Cassels Block and Rawlinson House, the residence of the deputy commander, which became the Cotton Tree Drive Marriage Registry. But many others were slated for demolition, including the Birdwood Block, the identical twin of Cassels Block, and the old squash courts, which was replaced by the larger facility that exists today.
Local architecture firm Wong Tung & Partners was enlisted to design the park. (The entire project archive now belongs to M+, which will make it available to the public when the museum and its research centre opens at the end of the year.) It was an ambitious plan. If the current trend in landscape architecture calls for open, flexible spaces where you can have a picnic on the grass, this was the opposite: in between the preserved buildings, the architects sculpted an elaborate garden with ponds, waterfalls, fountains, plazas, an aviary and a greenhouse.
In fact, walking or sitting on the grass would be expressly prohibited, as Urban Council official Peter Rull explained to the South China Morning Post in 1991. Expecting up to 80,000 visitors a day, the park’s planners worried that natural spaces would be overrun, and so barriers were installed to keep people away from the greenery. “We wouldn’t encourage picnicking as such,” said Rull. “With this number of people to consider, anyone sitting down to picnic might get trampled.”
It’s a park meant to be gazed upon – a visual experience more than a visceral one. In that sense, its design is heavily influenced by the traditional Chinese gardens of Suzhou, which were painstakingly crafted to create idealised natural landscapes. That can be seen in the cliff on the eastern side of the park, where a waterfall crashes into a rocky pond filled with terrapin. The entire rock face is artificial, made from glass fibre reinforced concrete, but it was designed to resemble the natural rock strata beneath the slopes of Victoria Peak. “Everything is accountable from a geological point of view,” said Rull.
The approach that Wong Tung & Partners took to Cassels Block was entirely different. Its conversion into the Visual Arts Centre required a new addition to provide universal access. Rather than trying to recreate history, the architects designed a postmodern arcade that leads to a glass atrium connecting all four portions of the old terraced building. In 1993, the South China Morning Post found the mixture of old and new to be “oddly coupled,” but such approaches have since become standard, with architects making an effort to keep historic buildings and new additions both visually and structurally distinct.
Over the past three decades, the arts centre has become a stalwart of Hong Kong’s creative scene: not exactly a must-see for visitors, but with an emphasis on education and the availability of studios for artists to hire, it is a valuable institution nonetheless. The same might be said for Hong Kong Park. If heritage conservation had been its primary goal, it would probably look quite different – perhaps more like the Asia Society Hong Kong Center, which occupies the site of the old Victoria Barracks explosives magazine. But as it stands, it is a beautiful park and an imperfect example of heritage conservation from a time when Hong Kong was just beginning to appreciate its past.