Global Observer

In Hong Kong, adaptive reuse produces a free clinic

Posting in Design

HONG KONG -- A historic building has been revamped to provide an elderly community free Chinese medical care.

The house in the 1940s, decorated for a wedding celebrationHONG KONG -- A historic home has been restored and transformed into a free Chinese medicine clinic that opened last month.

In Hong Kong, where land is scarce and property prices are among the world’s highest, very few historic buildings remain; old buildings are simply torn down to make way for shiny new ones. But the past decade has seen an increasing awareness toward conservation and changing policies that have given rise to adaptive-reuse projects.

Lui Seng Chun was the home of a wealthy businessman, Lui Leng, who had it built in the 1930s. Typical of “shophouses” in Hong Kong at the time, the ground floor was used as a store — in this case of Chinese medicine — and the upper floors were residences. “At the time, Lui Leung had three wives, so there were several families living here,” said Joanna Chan, who led a guided tour of the 6,500-sq-ft building.

The house sat vacant since the 1970s, and in 2000, the family decided to give the building — labeled a top-grade historic structure — to the government to do as it pleased. After years of research and deliberation, the government decided to turn it into a free Chinese medicine clinic run by Hong Kong Baptist University.

Balconies originally wrapped around much of the house on its three upper floors. The new design encloses these outdoor areas, turning them into waiting areas for patients. To modern eyes, this building stands out for its squat form situated at the corner of two busy streets.

Hoyin Lee, a conservation expert who was involved in deciding what to do with the building, said having relevant use is vastly more important than preserving a historic building’s form. The team considered that the house is in a relatively poor area with an aging population, and no tourism, and targeted its use accordingly. “The fact that it is going to be a community health clinic and providing a service that is needed by the community is the most important thing.” Lee said.

The challenge, as always, was to preserve much of the dilapidated structure while making it usable for modern purposes. While all the wooden doors with glass panels are originals and the floor tiles were restored, a modern set of staircases was added to comply with current regulations of escape routes.

It also followed the principle that a building’s new use should echo its old use. In this case, it made sense to turn an old Chinese medicine shop into a clinic of Chinese medicine, which many older people in Hong Kong prefer over Western medicine. Much of the building is devoted to exhibitions that tells of its history and preservation, as well as the history of Chinese medicine.

Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure