Your insider’s guide to Hong Kong

Prison Break

Hong Kong’s most ambitious conservation project gives a new lease of life to a former justice facility, transforming it into a must-visit heritage, art and architecture precinct

Words: Kee Foong
Photos: Nic Gaunt

The queues could be forming in anticipation of the latest sneaker drop, or a table at a no-reservations hot spot in Hong Kong. Instead, they’re occurring most weekends at a former prison compound in the heart of the city. Crowds can be seen milling around one of the entrances directly off the Central- Mid-Levels escalator, while those inside wait patiently to lock themselves in a jail cell, pose for a mug shot, line up to see a cutting-edge contemporary art exhibition, or simply seek respite from the midday heat under the shade of a mango tree.

All this is happening at Tai Kwun, or “big station”, Hong Kong’s new centre for heritage and art, which opened in May 2018. In a city not known for its conservation success stories, a collective sigh of relief could be heard across the territory, as the site was unveiled after a series of setbacks and delays. The largest, most ambitious heritage conservation and revitalisation project ever undertaken in Hong Kong has been hailed a success, a triumph of architecture and design that stunningly bridges old and new. It’s the first truly world class public cultural institution on Hong Kong Island, and the public have been lapping it up.

Old and new are seamlessly connected at Tai Kwun

Visitors to Tai Kwun are likely to be surprised by the size and spread of it. The former Central Police Station, Central Magistracy and Victoria Prison, which were decommissioned in 2006, take up 13,600 square metres of some of the world’s most expensive real estate. In a city defined by height, an expanse of 16 heritage and two new low-rise buildings, surrounded by skyscrapers, is a visionary anomaly.

Funded by the Hong Kong Jockey Club, “the intention to create a centre for heritage and art was in itself a new idea”, says Timothy Calnin, Director of Tai Kwun. “The whole idea of revitalisation is key to it, it’s not about creating something static, but ensuring the place has a life of its own.” This is a place for the people. “The most important thing to recognise is the rarity of that amount of public space in Hong Kong, the generosity of the parade ground, and also the beautiful open space of the prison yard,” enthuses Calnin.

Tai Kwun is surrounded by skyscrapers

Left: Artwork from the opening exhibition; Right: prime public space in Central

Wandering around the maze of buildings, visitors can appreciate the sweep of architectural styles present in the site’s 160-year history, from the 1850s and 1860s Victorian era through to Edwardian and Georgian revival in the early 20th century. There is the Central Magistracy, with its grand neo-classical façade, the colonnaded archways of the Barrack Block, and plainer, more functional cell blocks that remind us of the original purpose of the site.

Most striking of all are the two new cantilevered buildings by Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron, with its perforated, cast aluminium façades and razor-sharp lines, which stand in contrast to, yet connect seamlessly with the existing structures. The architects picked up elements from the original site, such as ironwork in the prison building in the design, including the metallic cladding. The brick-like cladding reflect the same proportions as the granite stones in the prison walls and foundations, giving heritage a contemporary language.

Appreciate Tai Kwun’s sweep of architectural styles, from 21st century contemporary (left) back to 19th century colonial (right)

One of the new buildings, JC Cube, is a multipurpose auditorium for talks, performances and screenings, with stairs beneath it doubling as seating for a second, amphitheatre-like space. The other, JC Contemporary, has a spiral concrete staircase (opening page) that is an Instagram hit. Mainly, it houses a notfor- profit contemporary art gallery, which fills the gap between commercial galleries, smaller not-for-profit organisations like Para Site, and big museums like the upcoming M+, scheduled to open in 2019 as part of the West Kowloon Cultural District.

JC Contemporary’s inaugural exhibition, Dismantling the Scaffold, was a collaboration between Tai Kwun and arts organisation Spring Workshop. It explored the site’s history as a law enforcement and detention facility through specially commissioned works and installations. For curator Christina Li, it was by far the biggest and most ambitious show she has ever curated. “This was made possible only because of Tai Kwun Contemporary’s resources, first-class space and the museum-quality conditions,” says Li, adding: “The public’s response has been overwhelming.”

The stunning JC Contemporary houses Tai Kwun’s main gallery space and a restaurant

Collaboration is at the heart of Tai Kwun’s heritage, performing arts and contemporary art programming. Significantly, Tai Kwun Contemporary, the contemporary art arm, will not have a permanent collection. “I’m happy not to have a collection, because with a collection you have to look backwards into the history,” says Tobias Berger, Tai Kwun’s Head of Arts. “We don’t have that, we can be much more forward looking, forward thinking and experimental, not only with our exhibitions, but also our commissions.”

Historic details: a former cell (top); a reminder of the site’s war-time past (above); and the exterior of Central Police Station (left)

Programming has been scheduled until the end of 2020, and every show involves working with a local or international institution. According to Berger: “Every show is tailor made for Hong Kong. We are not a pit stop for travelling exhibitions. Everything has to have some relation to, or reason to come to Hong Kong.” While most shows will help promote Hong Kong and midcareer artists, we should expect a couple of so-called “blockbusters”, ones that will draw even greater crowds.

Numbers alone however, are not how Berger measures success. As a public institution, he hopes that Tai Kwun’s impact will be more profound. “I always say success will be measured in five or ten years.” Berger says “I want to meet people in three or four years’ time who say Tai Kwun Contemporary was the first place they saw contemporary art. Our success is that they come back, if we inspire people and they go to other galleries and museums, like M+ when it opens. These are very difficult to measure, but that is our success.”


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