An Old Building Given New Life — For Now

In Hong Kong, the fate of an old building is virtually predetermined. Worn by years of intense use and little maintenance, it is snatched up by a property developer who waits for the right moment to knock it down and replace it with shoebox apartments, or maybe a cookie-cutter hotel.

Carl Gouw wants to break that pattern. When the young property developer purchased an old building in Wan Chai, he planned to eventually demolish it for a new block of serviced apartments. But that might not happen for two or three years. In the meantime, he thought, why not do something out of the ordinary?

So the Wan Chai Visual Archive was born. Upstairs, twelve renovated apartments rented to long-stay visitors and expatriates. Downstairs, a bar that serves as a neighbourhood gathering space. And in between, a non-profit, community-oriented space for art and design that is subsidized by rent from the commercial and residential units.

“The idea is to bring an element of creativity into the serviced apartment business,” says Gouw. “Instead of just being passive as a property investor and doing nothing with the building until redevelopment, we thought we could create a platform to engage the local culture.”

To run the Archive’s creative side, Gouw turned to the Polytechnic University’s School of Design, where he found Alvin Yip, one of the masterminds behind many of Hong Kong’s most popular design events, including the annual Detour festival. Yip describes the building as an experiment: to create a low-cost space that draws its energy from the community that surrounds it.

“This is the idea underpinning the space — that every time we have an exhibition there should be a very intense collaboration between artists, designers and community,” he says. “We’ve made it very localized and visually-oriented because we’re running on a really tight budget without any funding from the government or the art market.”

The Archive opened in May with works from two community art workshops and a project by students at Moscow’s Strelka Institute for Media, Architecture and Design. In one of the community projects, deaf and mute people held flashlights and told stories in sign language, which were then recorded in long-exposure photographs. In the other, photographer Martin Cheung held a public pinhole camera workshop, in which participants created images inspired by the elaborate studio photography that was once popular in Hong Kong.

The Strelka students were invited to make smartphone applications inspired by the urban environment of Wan Chai. “It’s the most typical Hong Kong neighbourhood,” says Yip, noting its a fine cultural mix, a long history and a topography of steep hillsides and land reclaimed, over the period of a century, from Victoria Harbour. “Some of the students invited a dance app where you can dance from here to the waterfront, and because of all the crossings and footbridges there’s a lot of up and down motions,” he says. “There’s also a kite-flying app that uses GPS to identify the best open rooftops nearby. All of this is about having architecture students understand the space and mood of the city before they actually work with bricks and wood and steel.”

The same can be said for the Archive itself. For nearly two months before it officially opened, neighbourhood residents were invited to mingle in the bar downstairs, which features an old-school Chinese name (Tai Lung Fung, or “Big Dragon Phoenix”) and decor that evokes 1960s-era Hong Kong. Because the bar didn’t yet have a liquor licence, anyone who stopped by was treated to a drink on the house.

“People can’t say no to a free beer,” says co-owner Pat Chan. “We’ve gotten to know everyone around here. The point of the bar is not a make a lot of money. What we want to do is to make a space where everyone from around in the neighbourhood can gather.”

Though the Archive sits in one of the best-preserved corners of Wan Chai — it is located across the street from the Blue House, an old tenement that has become one of Hong Kong’s best-known historic buildings — the neighbourhood is constantly changing. Entire blocks are being torn down and redeveloped as the once working-class district goes upscale.

The Archive, too, will be in constant flux. Not only will its program be a varied as the community it serves, the entire project will cease to exist when its home is eventually redeveloped. But Yip doesn’t necessarily see that as a problem.

“Hong Kong changes so much, so quickly, and that’s the source of its energy,” says Yip. “It’s natural to want to keep something beautiful, but if it can exist in a different form, like what we’re doing here, why not let it evolve?”

Martin Cheung’s studio photography project

This story first appeared in the June/July issue of Surface Asia, available now in bookstores and design shops throughout southeast Asia. All images provided by the Wan Chai Visual Archive.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Wednesday June 29 2011at 09:06 am , filed under Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Society and Culture and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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