The Castaway Carpark

27 February 2022
The condemned Star Ferry Car Park, on the right, faces Hong Kong's City Hall.

A heritage strategy for Hong Kong’s Star Ferry Car Park, a topical project with roots dating back over a decade, is the subject of debate following Henderson Land scoring full marks for its Site 3 tender submission..

Conversations around heritage strategies and the lack of consideration for adaptive reuse — including why buildings under 50 years old are not eligible for heritage listings, and why ‘fake’ heritage has been encouraged in the case of rebuilding the Star Ferry Clock Tower outside of its original context — have many trying to understand what lies ahead for this iconic site.

Seemingly cast aside and already condemned, The Star Ferry Carpark provokes an interesting debate: what is missing from conversations to date? Could a car park ever receive a historic building grading, leading to its rescue? Does the Star Ferry Carpark have sufficient heritage values for its retention to be considered? To fuel our curiosity, we set aside some time to examine whether the carpark has any heritage value.

The condemned Star Ferry Car Park, on the right, faces Hong Kong's City Hall.

Historical Value

The construction of the Star Ferry Car Park was part of the Star Ferry Pier development in the late 1950s. Its construction intended to make good the lack of car parking space in Central, following an increase in car ownership after World War II. Designed by Alan Fitch, and completed in December 1957, records suggest that Star Ferry Carpark was one of the first multi-storey public car parks in Hong Kong.

Located at Edinburgh Place, as it would later be known, the area became home to some notable buildings and structures including the City Hall complex, the General Post Office, Star Ferry Car Park, Old Star Ferry Pier, and old Queen’s Pier. Key to this was the design for public use and the establishment of a large expanse of accessible civic space around these buildings facing the harbour.

The parking structure was also frequently used as a spectator gallery, with perhaps the best known and recorded example being Royal patriots gathering to watch Prince Phillip, H.R.H Duke of Edinburgh arriving in Hong Kong in 1959. It is likely that this event led to the naming of Edinburgh Place.

Architectural Value

With its use of horizontal lines and contemporary, brightly coloured panels, the car park drew parallels to Unité d’Habitation in Marseille, as well as Le Corbusier’s Five Points of Architecture. Unfortunately, key design elements such as the coloured panels no longer exist, but it’s possible that the some decorative elements could survive with extensive maintenance and redecoration works.

Despite being a good example of Modernist architecture, Star Ferry Car Park’s architectural value is limited by its single use as a car park. Its significance has also been further diminished by the demolition of the Star Ferry Pier in 2006, which isolated the car park and further eroded the site’s original development plan.

Communal and Social Value

This area of Central is synonymous with British architects Alan Fitch and Ron Phillips. Following the completion of the Star Ferry development and Statute Square, the pair would later work together on the design of City Hall. At the time, Phillips commented that the government’s intention was “from the very first day” to establish the area of land “as a Centre for the community.”: in other words, a civic space. This remains valid to this day.

The Star Ferry Car Park continues to have a social connection with the Star Ferry and Queens Piers, both firmly rooted in the ‘Collective Memory’ of Hongkongers. The car park is also located in Edinburgh Place, the importance of which cannot be ignored: Edinburgh Place has been “a Centre for the community” since late 1950s. As well as accommodating various civic facilities within itself as a gathering place, it has been witness to some of the most significant social events in the history of Hong Kong.

The view of Hong Kong's Kowloon skyline from the rooftop

Contextual (Group) Value

Today, the surviving City Hall, Star Ferry Car Park and GPO comprise a rare cluster of modern public buildings, each of which were designed by local practitioners.

The spatial context is an integral component in the appraisal of the significance of the buildings. The current GPO and Star Ferry Car Park are both rare surviving examples of post-war Modernist architecture in the Central district.

Together with the adjacent Hong Kong City Hall, the Central Government Offices Compound and Murray Building, the cluster collectively forms a group of exemplar functionalist Government buildings that survive from the 1950s and beyond. However, the demolition of the Queen’s Pier and Star Ferry Pier has reduced the value of this group of buildings due to the loss of place and setting.

The Future

The Star Ferry Car Park has stood for 64 years and counting. Could it be that the car park has been cast aside too soon and seemingly without any due process?

Architecture will always divide opinion, but it is more vital than ever to recognise important and interesting modern buildings and structures, and to understand their architectural and cultural significance within our society. The very thought of considering whether a car park in Hong Kong has any historical value that might warrant its retention represents an extremely rare and progressive line of thought. History tells us that there are not many precedents. A rare example is the addition of Total Car Park, which features several stories of above-ground parking within Total House, to the heritage register in Melbourne, Australia, due to its cultural significance. As expected, these landmark decisions were only ever going to be one thing: controversial!

It is likely that the Star Ferry Car Park faces imminent demolition; however, a simple appraisal has provided evidence that the structure has certain heritage values. Although outlining this evidence in a formal historic building appraisal will not save the Star Ferry Car Park, it could help establish Hong Kong as being at the forefront of best practice conservation in the region, and discourage future knee-jerk decisions concerning the status of post-war era architectural heritage. If appropriate conservation mechanisms are followed, it may well offer something to mitigate the potential heritage loss arising from the structure’s likely demolition.

Site 3 is billed as a world-class waterfront development and it will mark a new chapter in the evolution of Central’s waterfront, just as the construction of the ferry piers, car park and City Hall did sixty years or so ago. The retention of the carpark may not fit with the project’s vision, but it is a fact, that if it goes, the last remaining physical association with the Star Ferry development will go too, with the public left only able to interpret the history of the Star Ferry on this site through the developer’s interpretation plan.