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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In March 1992, Space Design, a Japanese monthly journal of art and architecture published a special feature on “Hong Kong: Alternative Metropolis” as its Issue 330. One of its articles was “Ue-no-michi”: Floating Way – Central New Town, which introduces to Japanese readers the Central Elevated Walkways, an extensive footbridge network that connects a significant numbers of office towers and shopping centres in the central business district of Hong Kong. The authors mapped out the system, and examined its significance on master planning and urban development of the city. In fact, this pedestrian circulation system has long been a well known reference case for urban planning studies around the world. Without touching the ground, one can pass from one office tower to another, or transfer from a ferry pier to a bus terminal, or access to restaurants, shops, services, hotels, apartments, post office, banks, or ascend to the Mid Levels from the harbourfront. Not only does the network enhances pedestrian connectivity in Downtown Hong Kong, it also offers a safe, weather protected, well lit, clean, convenient, and sometimes air conditioned public space network several metres above the dust, noises and air pollution of the streets. Separating pedestrian and vehicular circulations is also beneficial to vehicular traffic on the streets, where pedestrian traffic lights can be placed much further apart.
The Central Elevated Walkway began in 1970’s, when developer and Central’s biggest landlord Hongkong Land (置地) constructed a footbridge between Connaught Place (now Jardine House), Swire House (now Chater House) and the General Post Office. From then on, the government, developers and banking corporations continue to expand the network to include more buildings and bridge connections. Similar strategy has been adopted elsewhere in the city, notably in business districts Admiralty and Wan Chai, entertainment district Mong Kok, industrial district Tsuen Wan, etc. In 2012, architects and scholars Adam Frampton, Jonathan Solomon and Clara Wong published Cities Without Ground: A Hong Kong Guidebook. The three architectural scholars provide a detailed analysis of the elevated walkways in Hong Kong with beautiful isometric maps. Apart from pedestrian circulation, the book also celebrate the social aspects of the raised spatial system as an essential and integral layer of the city.
Navigating the labyrinth of elevated walkways in Central is not as difficult as one may think, as users can always rely on the clear signage and street scenes below to orient themselves. Elevated several metres above ground, the walkways offer a unique vantage point to enjoy the urban scenery of the financial district. Every Sunday, the covered elevated walkways and adjoining podiums would be turned into a gathering point for foreign domestic helpers in Hong Kong. Sitting in small groups on folded cardboard, the domestic helpers (mainly from Philippines and Indonesia) would gather and eat, chat, pray, dance, sing karaoke, tell jokes, watch smartphone videos, play card games, make long distant video calls, etc. The walkways where normally dominated by quick pace pedestrians would suddenly become a vibrant social hub as if a public park.
Between April 2021 and March 2022, land sales have generated an HK$91.6 billion (US$11.7 billion) income for the Hong Kong government, out of which HK$50.8 billion (US$6.5 billion) came from a 47,967 sq.m lot at Central Harbourfront, the prestige waterfront in the city’s financial district. Like many business areas in the city, this land is created from a massive land reclamation project. Every time a massive reclamation project along Victoria Harbour is completed, the government would increase its land supplies and potential sources of income. The city’s iconic skyline would undergo another phase of transformation, and the harbour would once again get narrower. This new piece of land comes from Phase 3 (2003 – 2018) of the Central and Wan Chai Reclamation project, the last major plan (first initiated in 1985) that altered the waterfront between Central and Wan Chai. Land sale has always been a major revenue source for Hong Kong ever since early colonial times. Due to the limited land supply and continuous growth of the population and economy, reclaiming land from the sea was a cost effective way for urban expansion given the city’s rocky and mountainous terrains. Since 1840’s, about 7000 hectares (70 sq.km) of land has been reclaimed. Compared to 59.1 sq.km of Manhattan Island, 70 sq.km is a decent piece of land housing 27% of Hong Kong’s population and 70% of its businesses. While the search of flat land has always been a challenge, voices against land reclamation among the public has gained momentum in recent decades. Given the negative impact to the environment and Victoria Harbour, many now consider land reclamation as an unsustainable solution that would likely do more harm than good.
Victoria Harbour is a vital component for the economic success of Hong Kong since the founding of city. It is a safe, all-weather and deep harbour, a perfect place to establish an international port as history has proven. Yet, 180 years of land reclamation has narrowed the water to such a great extent (distance between Wan Chai and Tsim Sha Tsui has been halved) that the natural potentials of Victoria Harbour has been diminished. On the other hand, many began to recognize the significance of waterfront planning and its impact on shaping the city’s identity. Up until 1980’s, the harbour was developed mostly for the purposes of infrastructure, with wharfs, piers, godowns, warehouses, and dockyards occupied most of the harbourfront, leaving only pockets in Central and Tsim Sha Tsui for public and commercial uses. Under such context, the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance was passed in 1997 to recognize that Victoria Harbour is more than just a safe port. The law acknowledges that “the harbour is to be protected and preserved as a special public asset and a natural heritage of Hong Kong people, and for that purpose there shall be a presumption against reclamation in the harbour.” First covering only the waters around Central, then expanding to the entire harbour in 1999, the law basically put a stop to land reclamation in Victoria Harbour. If the law is here to stay, then the HK$50.8 billion land at Central Harbourfront would be one of the last available plots of waterfront land in Central. Meanwhile, plans for creating a more accessible harbourfront for all to enjoy have begun to realize, with the completion of various waterfront promenades on the Island’s north coast in recent years. Also from the Phase 3 of Central and Wan Chai Reclamation, the lot east of the HK$50.8 billion lot remains unoccupied in the past decade. Designated as Central Harbourfront Event Space, this land has been a vital public space at the heart of the city, hosting events from music festivals and sporting events, to large scale art installations. After this lot is developed, would the 180 year transformation of Central Harbourfront can finally call it a day, or would the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance be reverted one day due to economic and political pressure? The future is anyone’s guess.