Don’t Kill the Queen’s Pier

Queen's Pier

Queen’s Pier in 2006. Photo by David Wong

It was bad enough when they tore it down — now there’s the question of where to rebuild it. After the storm that swept through Hong Kong when the government tore down the Central Star Ferry pier in 2007, making way for a land reclamation project that is extending the waterfront by 300 metres, it was careful to avoid the same mistake when it removed the Queen’s Pier in 2008.

Instead of being knocked down, each piece of pier was carefully preserved and put into storage. Though it wasn’t particularly remarkable on its own, the pier was important as a symbol of British colonialism, being the place where British royals and Hong Kong governors landed when they arrived in Hong Kong. Together with City Hall and the Star Ferry pier, it formed part of a trinity of white Modernist structures that represented the straightforward ambition of postwar colonialism.

Now that the land reclamation project is well underway, the question is whether the Queen’s Pier should be rebuilt on the new waterfront, or in its previous location, on the shores of an artificial lagoon. The government is pressing for the former, which would allow the pier to continue functioning as a pier, but heritage activists insist on the latter. Yesterday, a group of them proposed that Edinburgh Place (the collective name for City Hall and its environs) be declared an historic monument, which would legally require the government to put the pier back where it originally stood.

To me, this represents yet another question related to a deep divide in the philosophy behind historic preservation. On one side are those who believe that historic buildings ought to be restored to their original appearance and function, while on the other are those who believe that this museum-piece approach does a disservice to the natural evolution to which cities and structures are subjected, which is also part of their heritage.

One example of this is Paul Revere’s house in Boston’s North End. Built by a wealthy merchant in 1680, it was owned by the famous American revolutionary from 1770 to 1800. The house was substantially renovated in the middle of the eighteenth century, right before Revere bought it, and its roofline was raised, in keeping with the Georgian architectural style of the time, and an extra room was added to the back. After Revere sold the house, it became a tenement building with shops on the ground level. By the end of the nineteenth century, it looked substantially different from when it was first built.

In 1902, when it was threatened by demolition, Revere’s great-grandson bought the place and decided to restore it to what he believed was its original appearance. The roofline and façade were altered and the addition demolished. In 1908, the house was opened to the public as the first non-profit heritage museum in the United States. “Some buildings get modernized, others get antiqued,” writes Robert Campbell in his 1992 book, Cityscapes of Boston. “[The Revere House] is called the oldest surviving building in Boston. Such a claim addresses the very concept of identity, because little — perhaps nothing at all — remains of the physical substance of the original house.”

Paul Revere House

Paul Revere’s house in 1898…

Paul Revere House

… and in 2006

By restoring the house to what they thought was its original appearance, Revere’s great-grandson and his fellow preservationists ended up destroying two centuries of history, creating an illusion of preservation rather than the actual thing. Cities and buildings change in much the same way that people do — preservation shouldn’t be a synonym for embalming. The living aspect of heritage needs to be recognized and embraced, so that things can evolve even as their history is respected.

This is why I think the Queen’s Pier should be rebuilt on the new waterfront. Putting it back together next to City Hall will do a bit to evoke intentions behind Edinburgh Place’s original design, but the destruction of the Star Ferry pier ensures that the grace and harmony of that design has forever been lost. Keeping the Queen’s Pier as a museum piece on an artificial lagoon will basically kill it by stripping it of all meaning and purpose. It will become a park kiosk rather than the pier it ought to be.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Tuesday November 10 2009at 09:11 pm , filed under Architecture, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, History, United States and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “Don’t Kill the Queen’s Pier”