ultramarinus – beyond the sea

SIX ARCHITECTS, SIX ICONS OF CENTRAL (中環), Hong Kong

For Hong Kong, skyscrapers in Central have always played bigger roles than just making money. The combined efforts of developers and architects redefine the city’s skyline for each era. [Photo: View of Central taken in Tsim Sha Tsui, 2020]
Buildings in Central have been going through cycles of urban redevelopment since the 19th century. [Photo: China Building 華人行 (top), Entertainment Building 娛樂行 (right), Central Tower 中匯大廈 (middle), Edinburgh Tower and Gloucester Tower of The Landmark 置地廣塲 (left), 2020]

Ever since the British set foot on the Island and found the City of Victoria, Central (中環) has always been the centre stage of commercial development in Hong Kong. Since 1841, the business district has never ceased evolving and expanding. In cycles of urban reincarnation, company headquarters keep on reinventing themselves every few decades. Every time a commercial building is torn down and redeveloped, company owners and commissioned architects would find an opportunity to consolidate their corporate identity and design visions, creating architecture with a certain style and building technologies that defines the zeitgeist of an era.

Apart from a few preserved colonial buildings, the current skyline of Central is pretty much defined by Modernist and curtain wall structures erected since the Central Redevelopment Scheme of 1970’s. The completion of Jardine House in 1972 as the tallest structure in Asia manifested the arrival of city’s golden period. Then came 1980’s when different design styles flourished in Central, from the geometric beauty of Exchange Square, stunning high-tech HSBC Main Building, to the complex interlocking twin towers of Lippo Centre. 1990’s and 2000’s saw the Hong Kong handover and the city’s maintaining its status as the financial hub of Far East, with Bank of China Tower and Two International Financial Centre (2IFC) challenging the height limits of the sky. From Jardine House to the IFC, six architects were responsible for contributing a small piece of his design vision to the architectural scene of Hong Kong. Their works have defied the test of time and remain as the urban icons of Hong Kong.

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JAMES HAJIME KINOSHITA (木下一) OF PALMER & TURNER (P&T): Jardine House 怡和大廈 (Formerly Connaught Centre 康樂大廈)

Completion Date: 1972, Height: 178.5m (52 floors)

From the Japanese internment camp at Slocan of British Columbia during WWII to the architectural office Palmer & Turner (P&T) in Hong Kong in 1960’s, Canadian Architect James Kinoshita has come a long way to find his destiny. Intended to come for a short visit of his girlfriend (now his wife) in 1960, Kinoshita ended up staying in Hong Kong ever since. During his 28 years at P&T, Kinoshita brought a wave of Modernist architecture to the city when colonial buildings still dominated the skyline of Central. Apart from Modernist buildings such as Hilton Hotel, AIA Building, The Landmark, Electric Headquarter and Sui Wo Court, Kinoshita’s most well known work is probably Jardine House, the 52-storey office tower with the iconic round windows. When opened 50 years ago, Jardine House was the tallest building in Hong Kong and Asia. The project opened up the contemporary era that completely transformed Central. Half a century later, Jardine House remains as an integral part of the city’s skyline.

Architect Kinoshita credits his wife Lana as the source of inspiration for the circular windows of Jardine House. [2020]
Jardine House was the pioneer project that initiated the network of Central Elevated Walkways. [2020]

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REMO RIVA (李華武) OF PALMER & TURNER (P&T): Exchange Square 交易廣塲

Completion Date: 1988, Height: 188m (Tower 1 – 52 floors – Tower 2 – 51 floors)

In the East Galleries of M+ Modern Art Museum, the axonometric drawing of the Exchange Square twin towers by Remo Riva is prominently on display. Remo’s drawing of the embracing geometries is part of Things, Spaces, Interactions, an exhibition that presents design objects with profound influence in Asia over the last 70 years. Similar to James Kinoshita, Swiss architect Remo Riva came to Hong Kong during the city’s blooming years and joined Palmer & Turner (P&T) in 1972. Responsible for 15 building projects in Central, such as Standard Chartered Bank Building, Entertainment Tower, the Landmark, and the Exchange Square, almost every visitor in Central would come across Remo’s works. Fully utilizing the advantages of the Central Elevated Walkways, Exchange Square opens its entrance and forecourt at the raised pedestrian network, leaving the ground floor for a transportation interchange. Apart from international banks, law firms, and foreign consulate offices, the most well known tenant in Exchange Square was the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.

West of Jardine House stands the towers of Exchange Square. [Photo: Lung Wo Road, 2020]
Adjacent to the Exchange Square and Jardine House, the empty site and temporary footbridge of the Central Reclamation Phase 3 will soon be developed into a commercial complex. [Photo: Man Yiu Street, 2020]
From Connaught Road Central, entrance plaza of the Exchange Square is connected to the Central Elevated Walkways. [Photo: Connaught Road Central, 2022]

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NORMAN FOSTER: HSBC Main Building 香港上海滙豐銀行總行大廈

Completion Date: 1985, Height: 178.8m (44 floors)

A client briefing of creating “the best bank headquarters in the world” summed it all up. Norman Foster won the commission of the HSBC project in 1979, which was his first project outside the UK, and also his first over three stories tall. Billed as the world’s most expensive architecture at its time and a showcase of expressive steel structure and innovative building technologies, it is no surprise that the HSBC Main Building is one of the world’s most recognizable examples of high-tech architecture, along with Centre Pompidou in Paris and Lloyd’s Building in London. The current bank building is the fourth generation headquarters of Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) in the city. Famous for its steel suspended structure, column free interior, high level of access to natural lighting, giant mirrors that reflect sunlight into the building, a 40m atrium, lightweight movable floor panels, and prefabricated components from all over the world (such as the five steel modules prefabricated by Scott Lithgow Shipbuilders in Scotland, glass, aluminium cladding and flooring from United States, and service modules from Japan), the HSBC will remain as a historical milestone for Foster and one of Hong Kong’s most iconic buildings for many years to come.

With a building cost of roughly US$668 million, HSBC Main Building was the world’s most expensive building at its time. [2021]
After 37 years, HSBC Main Building remains as a great example to exemplify innovative solutions of building technologies. [2020]
Eight steel masts and five double-storey trusses hold up a steel suspension structure to carry the load of the building, allowing a column free spaces in the middle. [2020]
The ground floor of HSBC Main Building serves as a covered plaza where pedestrians can freely walk from Des Voeux Road Central to Queen’s Road Central. [2020]
With the mega steel suspension structure, the heart of HSBC Main Building is free of columns. [2020]
Commissioned in 1935 from Shanghai based British sculptor WW Wagstaff, the two bronze lions at Des Voeux Road Central have been the guardians of the bank tower since the third generation of the HSBC Building. Near the end of WWII, the lions were shipped to Japan to be melted down. Before the lions’ planned demise, the war ended. The statues were saved by an American sailor at the dock of Osaka and eventually returned to Hong Kong. [2020]
In the past, a large Christmas tree used to be erected at Statue Square outside HSBC Main Building.

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PAUL RUDOLPH: Lippo Centre 力寶中心 (Formerly Bond Centre 奔達中心)

Completion Date: 1988, Height: Tower 1 – 172m (44 floors), Tower 2 – 186m (48 floors)

Hongkongers are fortunate to have at least one prominent work of late Modernist master Paul Rudolph. There were originally three architectural proposals by Rudolph for Hong Kong, but only Lippo Centre was realized. Studied under Walter Gropius with classmates I.M. Pei and Philip Johnson, Paul Rudolph was widely considered to be a master of Modernist and Brutalist architecture. After leaving Yale where he chaired the Department of Architecture for six years (with students such as Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Robert Stern, Muzharul Islam, etc.) and erected some of his famous Brutalist buildings, Rudolph shifted his focus to international projects in Asia in his latter career. Lippo Centre was one of his final realized projects. Rudolph wrote: “The aesthetic intent is to…give the building ‘presence’ when seen at a great distance, from the middle distance, and from close distance, and from close hand. At the same time, it is intended that the building inhabit the sky, and become dematerialized by reflecting the ever changing light.” Unlike Rudolph’s concrete buildings from his earlier years, Lippo Centre is highly reflective, perhaps to suit the taste of commercial clients in Asia. To some people, the interlocking massing of the hexagonal twin towers resemble koalas climbing a tree. The playful tower design has created 58 different office plans and many corner windows, and expressed the aesthetics of complexity and layering that still impress spectators of today.

Lippo Centre presents the complex planning and rich spatial qualities of Rudolph’s projects. [Photo: Queensway, Admiralty, 2020]
The scene of Lippo Centre’s giant pillars and stacked massing have become an iconic feature in Admiralty. [2022]
Some see the facade of Lippo Centre resembling koalas climbing up a tree. [Photo: Garden Road, 2020]

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I.M. PEI (貝聿銘): Bank of China Tower 中銀大廈

Completion Date: 1990, Height: 367.4m including roof feature (72 floors)

From JFK Presidenial Library, Le Grande Louvre to Miho and Suzhou Museum, Chinese American I.M. Pei was one of the most well known Modernist architect of his era. As Aaron Betsky writes in 2019, “with I.M. Pei’s death, the last of the modern monument makers has passed.” Pei was certainly a man who made monuments. In 1982, Pei received an offer from the Chinese government to design the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, the city where Pei spent the first decade of his childhood. Designated as the signature project to showcase China’s modernity, economic strength, and open engagement with the world, the project was more than just making a pretty bank tower, especially during the time when the British colony was preparing for its Chinese handover in 1997. When completed in 1990, It was the tallest building in Hong Kong and Asia, and the first supertall skyscraper (300m+) outside United States. Structurally, the tower was also the first composite space frame highrise with triangular frames transferring the load to the four corner columns. The powerful geometry and structural framing bring out a timeless design language that expresses the aesthetics of purity and elegance. Nothing fancy. Not a single line is unneeded. It stands as an urban monument overlooking the bustling activities of Central and Admiralty over the past three decades.

Viewing from Central, the cross framing of Bank of China Tower still looks smart and elegant after three decades of time. [Photo: Des Voeux Road Central, 2020]
No matter from which direction, Bank of China Tower will stand out from the background instantly. [Photo: The Cenotaph, 2020]
The bracing structure of Bank of China has become an icon that all Hongkongers can recognize. [Photo: Hong Kong Park, 2020]
From the street, the stone motifs near the base reveal a sense of tradition and solemnity in the design. [2022]
The design has successfully incorporated traditional motifs into the building. [2022]
Traditional Chinese gardens were used by Pei to create a green buffer from the adjacent traffic. [2022]
From Victoria Harbour, the structural frame of Bank of China Tower has stood out in Hong Kong’s skyline since 30 years ago. [2020]

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CESAR PELLI: Two International Finance Centre (2IFC) 國際金融中心二期

Completion Date: 2003, Height: 415m including roof feature (88 floors)

As property prices and rents in Hong Kong skyrocketed in 1990’s and 2000’s, office architecture has tilted even more towards maximizing the lettable square footage than making a design statement. Notable for designing the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place) in New York, One Canada Square Tower at Canary Wharf in London, Salesforce Tower in San Francisco, Wells Fargo Tower in Minneapolis, UniCredit Tower in Milan, Torre Banco Macro in Buenos Aires, and the list just goes on and on, Argentine-American architect César Pelli seemed to be the perfect fit for designing another iconic skyscraper in Hong Kong after the millennium. Before the completion of International Commerce Centre (ICC) in 2011, Pelli’s Tower Two of the International Finance Centre (2IFC) was the city’s tallest building and remains as the most notable element in today’s skyline. Apart from attracting institutions such as Hong Kong Monetary Authority or companies like Ernst & Young, Financial Times and Henderson Land Development, 2IFC is also a popular movie shooting spot, where both Lara Croft in Tomb Raider – The Cradle of Life (2003) and Batman in The Dark Knight (2008) chose to jump off from the very top. Apart from its height, the skyscraper is specialized for housing financial institutions, with 22 trading floors, advanced IT equipment, raised floor facilities and column-free spaces.

2IFC under final stages of construction back in 2003. [Photo: Cheung Kong Centre, 2003]
Three former tallest buildings in Hong Kong from left to right: Mandarin Oriental Hotel – 26 storeys, 1963-66; Jardine House – 52 storeys, 1972-80; 2IFC – 88 storeys, 2003-10
2IFC can house up to 15,000 people at work, and is equipped with double-deck elevators. [2020]
2IFC is home to some of the city’s most prestige financial institutions and businesses. [Photo: Connaught Road Central, 2020]
Due to its height, 2IFC is prominently visible from many places in Hong Kong, including the Mid Levels on the slope of Victoria Peak. [Photo: Hornsey Road, Mid Levels, 2020]
The roof feature and uplights of 2IFC serves like a beacon for the city’s skyline. [Photo: Connaught Road West, Sheung Wan, 2020]

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Across the street from I. M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower, construction of a new 36 storey office tower had begun. World renowned design firm Zaha Hadid Architects aims to create a glassy urban oasis at this prominent location. Would this be the next generation of architectural icons in Central? [Photo: Queensway of Admiralty, 2022]

One response

  1. Iris

    Another fantastic entry – when are you going to put this all into a beautiful coffee table book!! Thanks for sharing, Calvin and Angela – we miss you!!

    April 3, 2022 at 10:56 am

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