Hong Kong's Architecture Based on Its History and Circumstances

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With the unavoidably horrifying news of anti-extradition bill protests going on in Hong Kong today I decided to look into the history of Hong Kong and focus particularly on the magnificent architecture of this Asia’s World City. Today Hong Kong is one of the world’s most significant financial centres (with the highest Financial Development Index score and consistently ranking as the most competitive and freest economic area in the world) and home to one of the world’s most famous skyline and some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world (with more buildings above 35m and more skyscrapers above 150m than any other city.)

The architecture of Hong Kong has changed greatly over the last thousand years and will continue to do so as buildings are constantly being replaced by newer, larger and flashier buildings. I will be looking back as early as Imperial Chinese Hong Kong to today and discussing just how much Hong Kong has changed and evolved over the last several thousand years and how these developments have been impacted by various events in History.

To understand the progression of architecture and it’s relation to the history and circumstances of the island I must briefly summarise the important events that have taken place there over time. Hong Kong was originally just a small, lowly populated island with few fisherman and their families, under the control of Imperial China. However, in the 7th century Hong Kong became a main trading destination on the Silk Road as it’s sheltered harbour, Victoria Harbour, was a safe and spacious place for ships to dock. It soon became a ‘world-class maritime hub’ and remained a significant location for trade for thousands of years. In the Early 19th century, Britain started trading opium with China in return for tea.

However, the Quing state, who ruled China, were not happy about this which lead to the First Opium War (1839-42). Britain took over Hong Kong, made it their military staging point and when they defeated China, fully gained control of Hong Kong under the Treaty of Nanking which was signed on 29th August 1842, making Hong Kong a Crown colony of Great Britain. The Second Opium War occurred in 1860 when Britain decided they needed to take ownership of Kowloon Peninsula, another island directly across from Hong Kong also owned by China, in order to better protect Hong Kong from invasion. Britain won again and ceded Kowloon as agreed under the Convention of Beijing.

In 1898, the British and Chinese governments signed the Second Convention of Peking, agreeing to a 99-year lease for the remaining 200 islands surrounding Hong Kong called “The New Territories.” However, on December 19, 1984, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang agreeing to return not only the New Territories but also Kowloon and Hong Kong when the lease term expired on midnight, July 1, 1997.

Whilst Hong Kong was under the rule of Imperial China it was mostly inhabited by a small population of fisherman and farmers and their families, and this was obviously reflected in the architecture of the island. The majority of space in Hong Kong was empty land with few fishing villages. With almost no money and no population the only buildings were small fishing huts known as ‘pang uk’, many of which still exist in the surrounding islands of Hong Kong today. Due to a lack of real skill in labour and lack of funds and materials, these buildings weren’t made very well, made from wood and bamboo and whatever other materials they could find. Also still existing today all over Hong Kong are ‘Tin Hau’ temples which were built dedicated to the Chinese sea goddess, Mazu. ‘The Tin Hau Temple at Joss House Bay which is considered the most sacred, built in 1266, it is the oldest and the largest Tin Hau Temple in Hong Kong and a Grade I historic building.’ Criminals from China were often outlawed and sent to Hong Kong and pirates too often occupied the island, with a lack of authority and regulations on the island this made it quite a dangerous place. Therefore Farmers built fortified villages to protect themselves, their families, their livestock and crops from bandits.

When Hong Kong became a colony of Great Britain, newly constructed architecture was influenced by the styles of architecture being used in Britain at the time such as ‘Murray House’ which was built by Royal Engineers Major Aldrich and Lieutenant Collinson in 1844 as office quarters of the Murray Barracks. ‘Murray House’ is ‘one of the oldest surviving public buildings in Hong Kong.’ The building was designed in the popular Victorian Britain classical style. ‘The heavy stone walls (with flat arched openings) are on the ground floor to give a sense of stability, while the lighter doric and ionic columns are on the floor above to allow better ventilation’ as heat rises, accustoming to the hot and humid climate of Hong Kong. ‘Each floor also had verandas on all sides in response to the local subtropical climate’, the weather in Hong Kong is often very humid and often hit by heavy typhoons during monsoon season, so although architecture was influenced by the styles of architecture in Britain it was adapted to suit the weather conditions of Hong Kong creating, in a sense, a unique style of architecture. In 1982 the space was bought the the Bank of China and the building was relocated, brick by brick, to Stanley on the Southside of the island where it now holds restaurants and shops.

In the late 19th century ‘tong lau’ buildings were constructed all over Hong Kong both for residential and commercial uses. ‘The term tong lau is used to describe tenement buildings built in late 19th century to the 1960s in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Southern China and South East Asia.’ These were originally built to house the many migrants who moved to Hong Kong from China to find work. The ground floor was usually used for small shops, often owned by the tenants above. The early buildings were generally 2–4 storeys tall and 4.5 m in width and often influenced by both Chinese and European architectural features but they were usually neoclassical in style. The roof was usually made from wood and the balconies from iron. The balcony's design was based on Cantonese styles whilst the fenestration was French in style and were made of wood and glass. An example of this is Lui Seng Chun, a reinforced concrete building built in Hong Kong in 1931.

After the Second World War, the design of Tong Lau buildings changed. Iron balconies were replaced with concrete ones, windows began being made by stainless steel instead of wood and in the 1970s and 80s air conditioning was put in. Space was also reduced as there was influx in immigrants after the war. People had to sleep in bunk beds and share bathrooms and communal areas. Few Tong Lau still exist in Hong Kong today as after the 1960s they were mostly demolished and replaced by taller apartment and commercial buildings.

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The earliest skyscraper built on the island was the ‘Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters’ which opened in 1935. At 70 metres, it was Hong Kong’s tallest building for years but by the 1970s the building was demolished as the bank needed a newer building with more space. Today the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters is still located in the same place. Although it is only 47 floors high (180 m), ‘it still remains one of the most architecturally significant buildings in contemporary Hong Kong.’ ‘The building has a modular design consisting of five steel modules prefabricated in the UK by Scott Lithgow Shipbuilders near Glasgow, and shipped to Hong Kong. About 30,000 tons of steel and 4,500 tons of aluminium were used.’ The construction of high rise buildings didn’t really take off until the 1970s and really boomed in the 1980s. This was a result of more space issues.

Luckily for Hong Kong, as the population was reaching worryingly high numbers, the solution and ability to build skyscrapers salvaged the island. During this time many of Hong Kong’s most famous buildings still today were constructed such as the Hopewell Centre (1980), the Bank of China Tower (1990), and Central Plaza (1992), all of which were among the tallest buildings in their time of construction. As building’s are constantly being replaced by newer, larger ones, Hong Kong’s skyline is dominated by contemporary architecture characterised in the popular styles of modernism, postmodernism and functionalism. Another construction boom took place not long after, in 1998 last until the early 2010’s. ‘The second boom saw the completion of the International Commerce Centre, Two International Finance Centre, Nina Tower I, and One Island East. At the height of the construction boom in 2003, 56 skyscrapers over 150 m (492 ft) were completed throughout the city.’

Unlike previous building trends of the 1980s and early 1990s, many high-rise buildings of the second boom are for residential use due to a surge in demand for luxury housing properties in Hong Kong. In addition, the closure of the Kai Tak Airport and the relaxation of height restrictions on the Kowloon Peninsula allowed many tall skyscrapers to rise in Kowloon, such as Sorrento, Langham Place Office Tower, and The Cullinan, all of which exceed 200 m (656 ft). The building of skyscrapers has even spread out to ‘The New Territories’, such as the developments of Metro Town and LOHAS Park in Tseung Kwan O. Since then the production of skyscrapers has dropped ‘due to a heightened community awareness of skyscraper's effect on urban ecology, such as changes to air circulation (dubbed as 'wall effect') and air pollution.’

As the airport is the first part visitors see as they arrive in Hong Kong it must represent the greatness of the city and this was succeeded by architects, Foster + Partners when they constructed the building in 1998. The function of an airport is something that is considered very seriously by its designers and it is clear that architect, Norman Foster did exactly this. Travelling is often rather stressful, especially for the many business men that are constantly going to and from Hong Kong International Airport, therefore an airport must be designed to make this as easy and stress free as possible. This was not so much the case with the previous Kai Tak airport which was the international airport of Hong Kong from 1925 until 1998 and was was ranked the 6th most dangerous airport in the world by The History Channel program Most Extreme Airports as the placement of its runway meant that planes flew so dangerously close to the skyscrapers on the mainland that it was said that passengers were able to see what was on television screens through building windows.

The new airport, now located at Chek Lap Kok is a far more pleasant experience ‘with natural light flooding through the roof and the vast, uninterrupted space, movement is uninhibited and the stress of travelling eliminated.’ It also contains the largest airport retail space in the world. At the bottom of the airport is the MTR Airport Express train which takes passengers to Hong Kong island in less than half an hour making it a quick and easy trip, it is also linked to the city ‘via an impressive chain of highways, railways and bridges.’ Today Hong Kong is one of the biggest global cities in the world and a main pit stop for connecting flights making it ‘one of the world’s largest and most advanced airports… By 2040 it is expected to handle eighty million passengers per annum - the equivalent of London's Heathrow and New York's JFK airports combined’.

The building was voted one of the Top 10 Construction Achievements of the 20th Century by the Construction Industry Manufacturers Association as ‘the land on which the airport stands was once a mountainous island. In a major reclamation programme, its 100-metre peak was reduced to 7 metres above sea level and the island was expanded to four times its original area - equal to the size of the Kowloon Peninsula.’ The main reason Hong Kong has so many large sky scrapers is to do with the relation between population and space. More than 7 million people live on about 1,108 km² of land in the region. The big demand for space makes Hong Kong one of the most expensive cities to live in in the world. Another reason for the large skyscrapers is to do with status, the higher the building the more impressive it appears which in turn makes the business it represents appear more impressive too, it also symbolises the wealth and power of a building.

Although Hong Kong has become far more westernised and international, many of its original traditions are still used in modern day architecture such as the ancient Chinese pseudoscience ‘feng shui’. Literally translating as ‘wind water’, feng shui ‘is a traditional Chinese architecture-based art and theory involving the establishment of a living space that is harmonious with the environment’ and architects in Hong Kong will rarely put up a building before consulting a feng shui master first. The Chinese believe that feng shui can effect the luck and fortune of a business, even the name and logos of Chinese business’ will be designed based around the rules of feng shui. The feng shui rules include the importance of having mountains behind the building and water in front and the importance of shapes, for example, Hong Kong’s famous ‘Bank of China Tower’, designed by American-Chinese architect I.M. Pei, was considered unlucky the form of the building is made up of several triangles, many also believe that this building is shaped like ‘a screwdriver that is drilling the wealth out of Hong Kong’.

One of the triangles faces ‘The Lippo Centre’, a building that used to belong to Allen Bond, known as the Bond Centre. Bond was forced to sell the building due to financial problems. Another triangle points at Government House which used to have one of the best feng shui locations on the island as it has a clear, unobstructed view of the sea, however, the building is now considered so unlucky that it has practically been abandoned, Margaret Thatcher is said to have had a bad fall there when she visited it. At the top of the HSCBC building are two metal rods that point at the ‘Bank of China Tower’, this feng shui technique is used to protect the building from the negative energy of the tower’s triangles by deflecting the energy back towards it.

‘When the HSBC headquarters were built in the mid-1980s the escalators were reset from their original straight position so that they would be at an angle to the entrance of the building. Because evil spirits can only travel in a straight line, this realignment was thought to prevent waterborne spirits from flowing in off Victoria Harbour.’ Both ‘IFC One’ and ‘IFC Two’ have great feng shui as the buildings sit on Victoria Harbour front, the water flowing towards the buildings represents wealth flowing towards them. ‘The roof of IFC Two’ is shaped like a crown signifying the power and status of the building, as the tallest building on the island (484 m) and 12th tallest in the world, the crown-like roof is an appropriate element to the building.

Like most skyscrapers in Hong Kong, the floors in the both IFC towers miss out any number with a 4 in it as these are considered unlucky since four sounds like the word ‘death’ in Cantonese. The ‘International Commerce Centre’ (abbreviated ICC), completed in 2010 and located in West Kowloon, is a 118-storey, 484 m commercial skyscraper, designed by the American architectural firm Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) in association with Wong & Ouyang (HK) Ltd.. This was the 4th tallest building in the world (third in Asia) when its construction was completed in 2010. The height was originally meant to be 574 m hight however, regulations that do not allow buildings to be taller than the surrounding mountains disallowed this. This luxurious commercial building contains a shopping mall, the five-star hotel, The Ritz-Carlon, the world’s highest swimming pool and bar, and multiple five-star restaurants.

‘The LED light show set a new Guinness World Record for the “largest light and sound show on a single building” using a total of 50,000 square meters on two facades of the International Commerce Centre.’ The ‘Hopewell Centre’ (1980) has on its roof a pool of water used not for swimming but to prevent any risk of fire since the building’s round shape looks like a cigarette or a candle. This was a later add on to the building. Jardine House, often referred to as ‘The house of a 1000 arseholes’ as it has 1007 round windows and also as double entendre, alluding to the wealthy men that work there, is a 52-story building built in 1972. The round windows are in fact a ‘homage to the portholes of the maritime trading business established by Jardine Matheson’, which is still one of the wealthiest businesses’ in the world, ‘Their round shape is synonymous with coins and the sun, symbolising both wealth and prosperity.’ Further out of the many city center many buildings have been built with large square holes in the middle, these holes are called dragon gates and the purpose of them is to allow dragons to fly freely from the mountains to the water to drink, one of the most famous dragon gate buildings is The Repulse Bay.

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