There are plenty of forgettable lecture halls in schools around the world – dreary, windowless boxes designed as if to keep knowledge trapped in an airtight box. The main lecture room at the Savannah College of Art of Design (SCAD)’s Hong Kong campus is not one of them. For one, it features a defendant’s dock, the kind where prisoners are held as they wait for a judge or jury to decide their fate.
That’s because this was once a courtroom inside the North Kowloon Magistracy, an imposing hall of justice built on the northern edge of Sham Shui Po in 1960. It closed in 2004 and sat empty for six years until it was leased to SCAD, a private American institution based in Savannah, Georgia. It was a remarkable twist of fate for a relatively young building in Hong Kong; much more significant structures have been demolished without a second thought. But the magistracy’s transformation into a SCAD outpost marked a turning point in Hong Kong’s history of heritage conservation.
“We try and challenge our students to look around and appreciate their environment,” says Khoi Vo, vice president of SCAD Hong Kong. Before coming to Hong Kong from Savannah last year, Vo taught in SCAD’s interior design department, and he has grown to appreciate the details of the old magistracy, both original and those that were introduced by SCAD. “There’s a grandeur about it, a certain presence,” he says. “You get a sense of formality [from the original architecture]. We’ve made it more whimsical, more expressive.”
The North Kowloon Magistracy owes its existence to Hong Kong’s postwar population boom, when hundreds of thousands of mainland migrants poured over the border with China. Families struggled to get by in hillside shantytowns, earning palty wages in grim factories. Petty crime was rampant, and to cope with the surge in legal cases, the government commissioned a new courthouse on the outskirts of Kowloon, where Tai Po Road begins its ascent towards the monkey-filled slopes of Lion Rock.
Palmer and Turner were hired to design the seven-storey structure and they delivered an intriguing blend of tradition and modernism. The front façade is dominated by tall, narrow windows, creating an effect reminiscent of Roman columns. A grand staircase leads to oversized wood doors looking out over Tai Po Road. Pushing open those heavy doors reveals a light-filled atrium and another staircase, this one flanked by ornamental iron balustrades.
When a group of architectural consultants were hired to evaluate the magistracy’s heritage value in 2009, they declared the building to be “a good example of contemporary and functional civic building of post-war period” and noted the “vertical columns, architectural fins and horizontal bands” of the building’s façade “[suggest] a sense of law and order.”
For the people summoned to court, it must have conveyed a sense of gravitas and authority in a city that, at the time the magistracy was built, seemed like it was always on the verge of slipping into chaos. The magistracy represented the lowest rung of Hong Kong’s justice system, dealing with minor offences that led to no more than two years of prison. For a time, though, it represented something even more significant. As Hong Kong struggled to keep up with the number of migrants flooding in from China, the British colonial government attempted to staunch the flow by introducing something called the Touch Base Policy in 1974.
According to the policy, if a migrant crossed the border and was caught in the New Territories, they would be deported back to China. But if they managed to make it to the urban areas of Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, they could register for a Hong Kong identity card. Tai Po Road was the most direct route between the city and the rural New Territories, so for many migrants, the North Kowloon Magistracy was their first chance to open a heavy wooden door into new lives as Hong Kong residents.
The policy didn’t help reduce the number of migrants, and it was scrapped in 1980, after which point all illegal immigrants were deported if caught. But the North Kowloon Magistracy continued to stand as a beacon of law and order. By the time it was decommissioned in 2004 — a new courthouse in Kowloon City took over its responsibilities — its history and symbolism helped convince the government it should be preserved rather than sold off and redeveloped. But the question was what to do with it.
At that point, Hong Kong had few successful examples of historic buildings that had been adapted to a new use. On the rare occasion when a historic building was preserved, it was usually converted into a museum, often with poor results – as is the case of Kam Tong Hall on Castle Road, a former mansion that now serves as the Sun Yat-sen Museum, whose number of visitors dwindles with every passing year. But in the mid-2000s, after public criticism over the demolition of the Central Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier, the government launched the Revitalising Historic Buildings Through Partnership Scheme, which invited non-profit organisations to lease historic properties owned by the government.
The North Kowloon Magistracy was one of seven buildings targeted by the first phase of the scheme, alongside the former Tai O Police Station (now a hotel), one of Hong Kong’s first public housing blocks (now the Mei Ho House youth hostel and museum) and Lui Seng Chun (a shophouse that now serves as Chinese medicine clinic). SCAD won its bid to take over the magistracy against another proposal to turn it into a centre for Cantonese opera. Although the choice of an American organisation was controversial — the leader of the rival bid, Cantonese opera star Liza Wang Ming-chun, claimed the process was rigged after her plan was rejected — the government noted that SCAD’s long experience of heritage conservation won it the edge.
“We have a long history of adaptive reuse – over 100 buildings worldwide,” says Khoi Vo. Most of SCAD’s buildings in Savannah, as well as on its campuses in Atlanta and Lacoste, France, are historic structures that have been converted to new uses. Vo says there are number of advantages to this approach. Reusing an old building is less environmentally destructive than constructing one from scratch. And there an “inherent value” in historic materials and spaces that are loaded with history and a sense of place.
When SCAD took over the magistracy, most of the building’s original architectural details were intact, but some had been neglected over the years. Polishing the dull grey staircase revealed beautifully patterned, earth-toned marble that had disappeared under years of grime. Other elements, like teak wall panels and iron railings, simply required a bit of touching up.
The biggest challenge was reimagining the former courthouse as an art school – but this was less of a hurdle than one might imagine. A canteen for judges and lawyers became a student café and art gallery. Jail cells were repurposed as offices. Courtrooms were easily converted into fashion studios, darkrooms and digital animation labs. The central atrium was a natural hangout space for students. Vo says one of the magistracy’s most interesting assets was the multiple ways one can move through the building; there are six different staircases in all. “Judges, defendants, staff and visitors all their own own unique way of circulating through the building,” says Vo. “The courtrooms were the only places where everyone came together.”
One of those courtrooms has been preserved exactly as it was. “It has this inherent energy,” says Vo, which makes it ideal as a lecture hall. The iron bars on the defendant’s box are shiny from being held tightly during trials; the walls underneath are still scuffed from being nervously kicked by generations of defendants. The only major change is the introduction of a large horse sculpture made from fabric scraps acquired from nearby textile markets.
It has been nearly a decade since SCAD took over the North Kowloon Magistracy – and a decade since the Revitalising Historic Buildings through Partnership Scheme was launched. By most accounts, the effort has been a success, although the government has not managed to attract suitable bids for some of its more marginal properties, such as the former Lau Fau Shan Police Station, and in some cases the NGOs tasked with managing the historic sites have struggled to maintain their operations. In 2016, then-Secretary for Development Paul Chan said there were instances “where some organisations have expressed that they wanted to return the site to the government.”
But Khoi Vo says SCAD is looking forward to spending more time on Tai Po Road. “It’s about being in a building and trying to celebrate its past,” he says, “while also trying to project it forward.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that SCAD had renewed its lease on the former North Kowloon Magistracy. In fact, this has not been confirmed. We regret the error.
Update: SCAD announced in March 2020 that it will cease operating in Hong Kong in May. The former North Kowloon Magistracy will revert back to the government. No plans have been announced as to the building’s future.