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.
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)
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 2017, the 4th generation Union Church (佑寧堂) at 22A Kennedy Road, a 68-year Grade III listed historical building, was brutally torn down for a highly controversial real estate redevelopment. Despite efforts from conservation groups, architects, politicians, church members, media, and local community groups, the government refused to list the church as a Grade I historical building, and the Union Church refuses to back down from the project. The upcoming 22-storey mixed use building, which includes a new worshiping space and 45 luxurious apartments split between real estate developer Henderson Land Development (恒基兆業地產) and Union Church, exemplifies another bitter defeat of architectural heritage conservation in Hong Kong. Perhaps no government in 1890 (the time when Union Church acquired the site) could predict how insanely expensive land prices would become in a hundred years’ time, especially in the affluent Mid-Levels district. The original reasoning for letting missionaries to acquire land at relatively low cost may no longer be justified. Today, this has become a convenient tool for any religious institution to secure commercial profit by selling its own properties. Union Church is not the first such case and certainly won’t be the last either.
The scene of a lonely Gothic Revival church encircled by highrise apartments or commercial towers ten times its height is not uncommon in Hong Kong. Well known for its high urban density, many neighborhoods in Hong Kong appear like monotonous forests of highrise buildings. Engulfed in glittering reflections of curtain wall glazing, old churches in the city have become precious features. Each architectural detail is full of history, collective memories, and a melancholic beauty. Well worth checking out, several churches in the Mid-Levels represent some of the oldest surviving structures in Hong Kong. Churches were some of the first permanent buildings constructed after the British arrived in 1841. The 180-year heritage of church architecture tells the story of Christianity in Hong Kong, which is as old as the city itself. Early missionaries, both Protestant and Roman Catholic, built churches and used Hong Kong as their base to spread the gospel in China and beyond. They also set up local charity networks, schools and hospitals, at a time when the colonial government had little interest in lives of the locals. Today, about 1.2 million Hongkongers or roughly 16% of the population are Christians. While churches and their affiliated institutions continue to thrive, some churches, like the Union on Kennedy Road, have reached the dilemma on how to compete and expand in the era of tremendous commercialism and sky-high property value. Each big decision a church makes may lead to the daunting risk of losing a part of Hong Kong’s architectural heritage. Every time a historical church is being torn down and moved into one of the city’s 9000+ highrise buildings, it represents one irreplaceable loss for not just today’s Hongkongers, but for the next generations to come.