A Police Dormitory Reborn as a Design Hub

Hong Kong’s design scene is thriving, but like many of this city’s creative endeavours, it exists beyond the spotlight, in old factory buildings and back alley studios. That could soon change. After two years of renovations, the former Police Married Quarters on Aberdeen Street has been reborn as PMQ, a design hub that aims to raise the public profile of local design by giving designers more opportunities to build their own brands.

“It’s a project that nobody has done before,” says William To, the PMQ’s creative director, who is also project director at the Hong Kong Design Centre. “It will attract all sorts of designers from different disciplines to come and interact with each other and the public.”

Built in 1951 to house police officers and their families, the PMQ now contains 130 design studios, along with shops, restaurants, a library, exhibition space, a rooftop garden and outdoor gathering areas. When it is fully open next month, it will contain a mixture of well-known brands like Vivienne Tam alongside up-and-comers such as Hoiming, a leatherworking studio.

Studio spaces are small — about 450 square feet — but To says the goal is to foster a community, not to create an office complex. Spacious open-air corridors in front of each unit will be used for exhibitions and pop-up events; there will be a co-working space and units for overseas designers-in-residence; and tenants must keep their doors open to the public between 1pm and 8pm every day.


Rendering of PMQ’s Staunton Street side

“The key word is community,” says architect Billy Tam, a director at Thomas Chow Architects. “In the past, everyone lived together and the most important space in the building was not the dormitory units, it was the common areas, the verandahs and shared kitchens. I don’t want PMQ to just be a physical space to house a design studio. I want it to become a community. Hundreds of designers working together can do a lot of things.”

Tam, who designed the PMQ’s original concept and now works as a consultant to the government’s Architectural Services Department, which renovated the complex, will occupy one of the PMQ’s units, where he plans to host regular exhibitions showcasing his architectural works.

Though some tenants are more service-oriented, like Tam, others designers will use the PMQ as a platform to develop their own brands and retail businesses. That is the case for C’monde, a design studio run by Johan Persson, an industrial designer and design consultant who moved to Hong Kong from Stockholm eight years ago, in order to be closer to mainland factories.

“I’m going to use the space for pop-up stores,” says Persson, whose portfolio includes headphones for Swedish clothing brand WeSC and Butchers Deluxe, a 2010 project that invited Hong Kong artists and designers to create their own versions of the iconic red lamps that hang in every wet market.

He says is especially happy about the PMQ’s entrepreneurial focus, which he thinks is the best chance for young Hong Kong designers to become successful, since the hierarchical nature of most local companies stifles innovation. “The people there are taking the same chance as me – those are the people that I’d like to be surrounded by,” he says.

Persson also hopes that the PMQ will foster collaboration between designers, especially local and expat designers, who sometimes seem to operate in different universes. For that reason, he says he is thinking of reviving Butchers Deluxe once he moves to the PMQ. “Things are pretty fragmented right now, so I hope that this can allow people in the creative community to learn from each other,” he says.

Collaboration will be the focus of local lifestyle brand G.O.D.’s space in the PMQ, which will be occupied by a restaurant — the brand’s first foray into the food business. Recently, G.O.D. has begun working with outside designers to produce new products, such as a recent fashion collection developed with Chai Wan-based practice Tangram. “We’d like to take this collaborative process and really launch it at PMQ,” says G.O.D. founder Douglas Young.

For Gene Miao, founder of the architecture and interior design firm 1:1 Limited, PMQ will offer a space to showcase his two latest projects: leather bags and a collection of furniture made with salvaged and surplus construction materials. He plans to keep his current space in Kowloon Bay as a “production studio” while using his new PMQ studio to reach out to the public. “There’s so much foot traffic, which you would never get in Kowloon Bay,” he says.

Miao is also curious to see what opportunities the PMQ will open for collaboration. “It’s an opportunity for all these different design disciplines to gather,” he says. “But when it comes to collaborations, you can’t force it,” he cautions. “You kind of have to see how it goes.”

William To says the PMQ will be building its community “one step at a time.” A series of events will take place over the next several months to introduce the complex to the public, including a night market run by the organisers of Island East Markets, which will launch on April 18. “We’re already feeling a really positive energy,” says To.


PMQ in the 1960s, at right


While the PMQ’s success as a design hub depends largely on its management, its success as a public space hinges on its architecture. “We want to draw unintentional visitors, people who say, ‘Hey, what’s that?’ and come inside,” says Billy Tam.

Built on a steep hillside between Hollywood Road and Staunton Street, bookended by Aberdeen Street and Shing Wong Street, the PMQ consists of two terraced sites. One contains two residential blocks with a courtyard in between, while the second, lower terrace contains an open area and a two-storey building that once served as a clubhouse for police officers.

The first challenge was finding a way to incorporate all of the PMQ’s necessary activities in a building that couldn’t be significantly altered, according to heritage policies. “We had a very basic constraint which was the size of the units,” says Tam. “They’re very small and we can’t connect any of them together. At the same time, we needed a big event space.”

The solution was to build a glass cube in between the two residential blocks — named the Cube, appropriately enough — that will contain a multi-purpose space for events and exhibitions, while also sheltering part of the courtyard from the sun and rain. It also provided a solution to the problem of noise; concerts held at the PMQ before its renovation were plagued by noise complaints from nearby residents.

The renovation is also an opportunity to breathe new life into the surrounding neighbourhood. When the PMQ was still occupied by police officers and their families, a row of outdoor dai pai dong restaurants lined the Staunton Street side of the complex; the PMQ’s abandonment created a black hole that sucked away the vitality of the adjacent blocks.

Tam says the PMQ will redress that by opening a series of shops, restaurants and cafés along Staunton Street; there will also be entrances to the complex on Aberdeen and Shing Wong, which should make the site even more permeable than when it was a police dormitory with only one entrance.

The PMQ design also puts emphasis on the site’s greenery. Several large banyan trees are growing from the stone walls that border the complex along Hollywood Road and Shing Wong Street. “We put in some lighting and glass balustrades to highlight it and make it part of the PMQ identity,” says Tam. “There’s also a big tree in the courtyard that we made a central feature,” he adds. “We installed a glass canopy that framed it and made it more prominent. When you stand on Aberdeen Street it’s quite striking.”


PMQ from Hollywood Road


PMQ from Aberdeen Street

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Monday April 14 2014at 01:04 am , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Interior Space, Public Space and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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