FIELD REPORT: Heritage & Conservation, (Re)engaged

What makes a city creative? It would seem obvious that ‘creative’ people might beget a creative city. But can a city in search of sustainable creativity rely solely on human capital alone? How significant a role can the physical elements of the environment—buildings, sites, and spaces—play in fostering, if not engendering, creativity? Does the adopted system or approach by which creativity is fostered and engendered matter—and, if so, to whom?

During an April 2016 worktrip in Hong Kong, I had the opportunity to visit a relatively new conservation project turned ‘creative hub’ called PMQ. Alighting at the Sheung Wan MTR station, I made my way to Aberdeen Street off Wellington Street. Aberdeen Street is an arduous uphill climb which, fortunately, was made more captivating by the visual juxtaposition of shops ranging from old traditional trades and family businesses to boutique retail and contemporary cafes (Figure 1). [1] After the breathless trek, I abruptly found myself on the grounds of PMQ at the corner of Aberdeen Street and Hollywood Road (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Juxtaposition of ‘old’ and ‘new’ businesses/shopfronts on Aberdeen Street.

Figure 2. PMQ Site. Source: Adapted from Google Map.

In 1889, the site served as a school campus for Queen’s College (previously named Victoria College and, before that, Central School). The school buildings were destroyed during the Second World War, and the site later rebuilt in 1951 as the Police Married Quarters (a dormitory for married officers working in the nearby Central Police Station). In 2000, all residents had moved out from the Police Married Quarters, leaving the site vacant and its future undetermined for ten years. The designation of the Police Married Quarters as a Grade 3 Historic Building in Hong Kong in 2010 was a significant milestone that helped to initiate revitalization efforts for the buildings and site. In 2014, after two years of conceptualization and design followed by another two years of renovation, the heritage and conservation site commenced operations as a “hub for design and creative industries” and named after the acronym ‘PMQ’ (Hong Kong Tourism Board, 2016; PMQ Management Co. Ltd., 2016).

PMQ contains approximately 18,000 square metres of gross floor area that is distributed among: two slab blocks (Staunton and Hollywood); a standalone 2-storey building (currently accommodating a F&B establishment); and a multipurpose indoor event space (QUBE) which not only links the two main blocks but, in so doing, also creates a sheltered courtyard on the ground floor for other programming opportunities (Figure 3).

Figure 3. PMQ cross-section plan illustrating the various types of spaces for events and programming. Source: PMQ Management Co. Ltd.

Standard size studio units are available for rent with a maximum 50% discount in the first 2 years of lease for new local designers, specializing in product design and design services, who are just entering the scene (Figure 4). Several units are designated as public exhibition galleries, in this way promoting local creatives and organizations (Figure 5). A resource centre, co-working space, and designers-in-residence are extra facilities intended to help incubate and disseminate creative output.

Figure 4. Standard studio unit used as a retail shop.

Figure 5. Standard studio unit used as a public exhibition gallery.

In addition to these functional spaces, there are also ‘flexible’ spaces on-site that serve as blank canvasses for creativity. Art has helped to enliven walls and staircases, transforming them from utilitarian elements to whimsical objects (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Graphic art applied to walls and stairs.

Meanwhile, internal corridors prove that they can facilitate more than just human circulation by providing intimate niches for dining, retail spill-over, and pop-up activities (Figures 7 and 8).

Figure 7. Extension of dining into the corridor.

Figure 8. The corridor serves as an activity space and/or display area for the nearby retail shop.

Lastly, the varying platform levels and transparency afforded through glass detailing and unobstructed views create opportunities for casual observations, playful interactions, and reflective gazes—which have the potential to stir creativity (Figures 9 and 10).

Figure 9. View of the studio units from the opposite block.

Figure 10. Multilayered views facilitated by seamless exposure between building levels.

In today’s world of globalization and mass consumption, shopping centres tend to look more and more alike (aka ‘cookie-cutter’ malls), particularly in the tenant mix which often comprises well-recognized international brands. [2] For budding homegrown enterprises, finding alternative commercial spaces that are not only affordable but also of comparable quality can be a challenge. PMQ is therefore a unique set-up. With its social enterprise objective, PMQ is a collaboration between the non-profit sector (operations and funding through donations), government (financing of initial structural works), and tenants (provision of rental income). State-owned properties of conservation value certainly present creative possibilities for collaborations, resulting in distinctive projects that could help promote and grow a specific industry sector while also (re)engaging the community to its historical past and architectural heritage.

Image Credits: All images are the property of Su-Jan Yeo unless otherwise stated.

Notes

[1] For those inclined, there is also the (less strenuous) option of arriving to PMQ via the Central-Mid-Levels Escalator.

[2] Singapore’s major shopping corridor, Orchard Road, features megamalls which have been lamented by their critics for being lacklustre in terms of retail diversity, shopping experience, and identity/positioning. For more, see ‘Bringing back Orchard Road buzz’, The Straits Times, 11 May 2016. Click here to read: the-straits-times-11-may-2016.pdf

References

Hong Kong Tourism Board (2016) ‘PMQ’. Accessed from: <http://www.discoverhongkong.com/seasia/see-do/culture-heritage/historical-sites/colonial/pmq.jsp&gt; [5 May 2016].

PMQ Management Co. Ltd. (2016) ‘History of PMQ’. Accessed from: <http://www.pmq.org.hk/heritage/history-of-pmq/&gt; [5 May 2016].