Hong Kong’s Blue House has a secret. The Wan Chai landmark, built in 1923, is known as one of the city’s last remaining examples of early shophouse architecture, but it is even more renowned for its azure hue – rare for a place where blue is associated primarily with funerals. But the colour came about by accident, when the Hong Kong government took over the building in the 1990s and freshened it up with some leftover paint from the Water Supplies Department.
The building’s other qualities are less recent. Nearly all of the Blue House’s original timber staircases and other fixtures are intact and in good shape. Many of its flats, which haven’t been touched in years, are a throwback to an earlier way of Hong Kong life when kitchens were communal and multiple families and lodgers squeezed into a handful of small apartments. Eight families, most of which have lived in the building for decades, still call the Blue House home. In a city that makes and remakes itself every few years, it’s a remarkable feat of continuity.
Things are likely to stay that way for generations to come. Under the guidance of the Hong Kong government and charity organisation St. James Settlement, the Blue House and two adjacent tenement buildings, the Yellow House and Orange House, will be restored into a “living museum” with shops, exhibition spaces and public gathering space. Most importantly, all of the Blue House’s current residents will be allowed to stay -– and they will be joined by dozens of new neighbours in 23 low-cost flats.
“It’s a pioneer project,” says CM Lee, Director of Conservation at LWK Architects, which is handling the Blue House’s restoration. “The residents are the main stakeholders. The goal is not just to maintain but to rejuvenate the community.”
Finding the right conservation approach was difficult, because Hong Kong’s building codes do not allow much opportunity for adaptive reuse. If a building’s original use is changed, says Lee, its structure must be brought up to present-day standards. That would mean changing the very essence of the Blue House, which was preserved largely because it is one of the last wood-framed residential structures left in Hong Kong.
Instead, the Blue House will be left almost entirely untouched, with the exception of two flats that will be preserved for guided tours and new toilets and kitchens that will be built in each flat. (“Some families still have the tradition of keeping a latrine instead of a proper water closet,” says Lee.) Lifts will be built in the courtyard behind the building, along with new staircases and an elevated walkway that will link the Blue House with its multicoloured neighbours.
Though minimal in their intervention, the metal walkways and wood-panelled lift shafts will strike a contemporary note in contrast to the historic structures they serve. They will also focus public activity on the courtyard between the three buildings, creating a new public gathering space that Lee says will be used for outdoor movie screenings and other events.
It’s a deceptively simple approach, one that will keep the Blue House alive by doing as little as possible to change it. Or, to be more precise, changing it just the right amount, by allowing an old building to take on new life. It’s a bit more ambitious than a few cans of blue paint in the 1990s, but the spirit is certainly the same.
This story was published in the April/May 2012 edition of Surface Asia.
Tags: Adaptive Reuse, Conservation, Hong Kong, Preservation