May 2002

80 Robinson Road

Old meets new

Mid-Levels on Hong Kong Island is an area full of history. In the days when the sea lapped at Queen's Road Central, a century ago, it was the home of the burgeoning Chinese middle class. They built their communities there: houses with a mix of colonial and Chinese architectural styles; schools and hospitals. To support their local flock, missionaries also set up bases in the area, creating a space where East and West blended in perfect harmony. 
        Much of the old structures have since disappeared, but one project provided an opportunity to blend, this time, the old and the new.

Hong Kong's oldest public healthcare institution, the Nethersole Hospital, had stood at the junction of Caine Road and Bonham Road since 1893. It had undergone a series of mergers and expansion through the years but, by the 1980s, it had become clear that it was both too small and too outdated to provide the kind of healthcare modern residents needed. As a result, the hospital was allocated a new, much larger site in Tai Po and the 5,656 sq m site in Mid-Levels was freed up for redevelopment.
        The site was purchased by Nan Fung Development Ltd and turned into an upmarket residential complex that commands a harbour view to the north and offers convenient access via two of the area's
key transport arteries.
        78-80 Robinson Road/10 Bonham Road, as the residential development is now known, comprises two towers, one 140 m high and the other 146 m, with a total of 264 apartments. There is also a podium which accommodates a car park and gymnasium.
        Many sites in the area were completely cleared to make way for new residential developments during the property boom of the 1990s, but this project was different. The original London Mission Building, a two-storey high colonial structure built in the late 19th century, remains. Also, the new residential complex stands next to the Hop Yat Church, another historical structure.
        "The old Nethersole Hospital obscured the view of the church; we wanted to address that," said T C Yuen, director (design) of the architect Ma Leung & Associates.
        To give the view back to the church, the towers were set back from the Bonham Road frontage. Now the church stands in a foreground with the residential towers as a complementary backdrop.
        The setback created space for a driveway which leads to a grand lobby on the one hand and a ramp leading up to the car park on the other. A ramp is usually tucked away in an obscure corner of a building or heavily masked. In this case, the architect did neither: he turned it into a dramatic drum which dominates the north frontage instead.
        The podium sits on a series of setbacks cut into a steep slope on which an excavation limit has been imposed in case the ground is destabilised by work to create a level platform. Since the setbacks mean less space per level of the podium, a higher podium was designed to house the 260 parking spaces and gym. A geological problem was thus turned into a visual advantage: the residential units are pushed higher, thus giving them an even better view.
        To increase the visibility of the development, the clear glass-clad gymnasium was placed at the top of the drum, from where the soft glow it emits at night will increase the visibility of the complex. The light will also echo the glow from the inverted cone at the bottom of the drum, a device the architect came up with to mask building services installations in the ground floor lobby and to provide a focal point for residents. With fins projecting from the top edge, the whole resembles a gigantic lantern resting at the base of the towers.
        The London Mission Building, which is located at the Robinson Road frontage, was almost demolished to make way for a wider road and more open space, but the architect persuaded the Town Planning Board to intervene. Then the developer was persuaded to preserve the building as a point of interest.
        But how could one incorporate a two-storey building with arched verandahs and Doric columns typical of the classical colonial architecture of late 19th century Hong Kong into a towering modern residential development? To the architect, the answer was simple.
        "Since the scale of the two buildings is so different we don't have to worry about a conflict of architectural styles. The London Mission Building can stand by itself," Mr Yuen said.
        Due to modern building regulations, the interior proved more of a challenge. The architect preserved what was considered worth preserving in the simple colonial building, namely the central staircase, the windows and the fireplace. Other elements of the structure were changed during its conversion into a clubhouse.
        "Fire escape provisions as stipulated in the regulations would have destroyed the central staircase. We had to negotiate for that and many other exemptions," Mr Yuen recalled.
        Now the London Mission Building stands as a point of entry into the development, comfortably holding its own against the high-rise backdrop.
        The two residential towers were not only carefully sited with due regard for the two historical buildings, they were also carefully oriented to capture as much harbour view as possible. According to the architect, a decision was taken to follow the city grid's
alignment so that the towers would face Victoria Harbour. At the same time, they were set at an angle to avoid tall buildings to the northwest.
        Each tower has four units per floor ranging in size from 80 sq m to 98 sq m. Externally they are vertically organised into a series of projecting or receding shafts to generate a play of light and shadow that is enhanced by the contrast between the green-tinted windows and white walls. The mass of the tower blocks is thus further broken up while the resulting recesses provide the perfect place for concealing ducting. On the more visible surfaces, perforated metal panels relieve the monotony while masking split-type air-conditioning units. Other devices were used to add interest and establish a dialogue between the two towers, including the use of fins in the middle of the buildings and metal projections from the roof. The scale is mitigated by the use of slightly different window details, with the duplexes at the top being fully glazed and metal panels adding interludes to the vertical rhythm of the exterior.
        Determined to ground the complex so that it would relate on a human scale, the architect made a point of creating a visual connection between the towers and the ground by bringing one shaft, complete with glazing, down to the pavement. Where the podium is brought down to the level of the pedestrians by a steep footpath running between the church and the development, the architect used dark coloured tiles to highlight a tower housing the back stairway and added detail where the development would be viewed up close rather than at a distance.
        Other details include the use of square studs on the wall along the driveway to mask the soil nails used for slope stabilisation while dramatising the entrance; a circular fountain echoing the geometry of the drum; and palms trees along a landscaped strip in front of the driveway creating a soft boundary.
        Completed in June 2001 after five years of development, the complex now towers above the old district, tall and new yet in touch with the neighbourhood.

Nan Fung Development Ltd

Ma Leung & Associates

Chun Yip Construction Co Ltd

Ho & Lam Consulting Engineers Ltd
structural engineer

Thomas Anderson & Partners
m&e engineer

Hassell Ltd
interior deisgner -- London Mission Building

-- Building Journal