Hong Kong’s soaring skyscrapers showcase both architectural flair and mercantile ambition. We shine a spotlight on the stars of the city’s skyline
Close your eyes and think of Hong Kong. What do you picture? Maybe it’s a street aglow with buzzing neon signs. Maybe it’s a steaming bowl of wonton noodle soup. Chances are, though, it’s the city’s skyline — that magnificent procession of skyscrapers caught between the cerulean waters of Victoria Harbour and the hulking green mass of Victoria Peak. Here’s a guide to some of the outstanding buildings in this upstanding line-up.
The HSBC Building was the most expensive building in the world when it was completed in 1986 at a cost of over US$650 million, but that’s not the only ground it broke. British architect Norman Foster’s design boasted sustainable features that were well ahead of their time. He banished internal supporting structures to create an enormous atrium that brings natural light into every corner of the tower. Sun shades reduce heat gain during the sweltering summers, while a seawater cooling system keeps energy costs down. The building’s main banking hall is elevated, creating a sheltered public space where Hong Kong’s domestic helpers stage elaborate picnics every Sunday. At night, the tower lights up in HSBC’s corporate colors of red and white — except at Christmas, when it glows red and green instead.
International Commerce Centre
Since it opened in 2011, the 490m ICC has guarded the entrance to Victoria Harbour like a sentinel, matched on the other side of the water by Two International Finance Centre — which was the tallest building in Hong Kong until the ICC stole its crown. Designed by global skyscraper specialists KPF, ICC is remarkable for the curtain glass “dragon’s tail” that sweeps down the building and over its main entrance, an allusion to the mythical creatures that gave Kowloon its name. The tower’s entire 118-storey façade is illuminated by white LED lights, which have been put to good use by artists like Carsten Nicolai, who transformed the building into a giant strobe light during the 2014 edition of Art Basel Hong Kong. More recently, artists Sampson Wong and Jason Lam used the building façade for a controversial installation featuring a countdown clock to 2047 — the year Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status within China is set to expire.
British architect Terry Farrell designed this observation tower, which was built in 1997 to replace a 1970s-era observation structure. The semi-circular upper portion is meant to evoke a wok, while its sturdy base was inspired by the thick walls of historic Chinese fortresses. The tower is nestled in a gully right below the summit of Victoria Peak, the highest natural point on Hong Kong Island, and now houses a new terminus for the historic Peak Tram. So when you’re done admiring the skyline from The Peak’s viewing terrace, simply take a ride up the mountain for a different perspective.
Bank of China
When the Bank of China decided to build a new Hong Kong headquarters in the early 1980s, it was as much a political decision as a business one: Hong Kong’s handover to China was approaching and the state-owned bank was eager to assert its influence. The bank’s choice of architect, Guangzhou-born I.M. Pei, was equally symbolic. The Pritzker Prize winner behind the Louvre’s glass-andsteel pyramid had built an acclaimed practice in the United States at a time when there were few other international architects of Chinese descent. His design called for a 368m, 70-storey tower made up of triangular prisms, with an asymmetrical trunk inspired by growing bamboo shoots. At night, strips of white LED lights trace the outline of the building’s crystalline frame.
When this 178m tower opened in 1973, it was the tallest building in Asia. It may not be able to lay claim to that title anymore, but this building still enjoys a commanding view of the harbor thanks to a savvy land deal that prohibits new high-rise development in front of it. Jardine House is acclaimed for its distinctive street presence, with angled columns that recall the walls of a Chinese fortress. But most people know it for its distinctive unique circular windows, which were actually an ingenious structural solution by architect James Kinoshita. By designing a structure that he often describes as a bamboo rod with holes drilled into it, he effectively removed the need for internal supporting structures.
A jaunty Art Deco-inspired design is just one of the things that has made Central Plaza a landmark since it opened in 1992. For one thing, it’s hard to miss — the 374m, 78-storey tower was the tallest building in Asia until 1996 and the tallest in Hong Kong until 2003. Central Plaza is also remarkable for the glass pyramid that crowns its roof, which is occupied by the Sky City Church. The roof is emblazoned with a neon clock that displays the time through various combinations of colors. Its name has caused some confusion, since Central Plaza is in Wan Chai, not Central. The developers apparently didn’t want to sacrifice the prestige of Hong Kong’s historic central business district just because they were building their tower in a cheaper part of town.
Also read: The neon lights of Hong Kong
This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Smile magazine.