Neighbourhood Sounds

Skyscrapers of Victoria Harbour - built to display wealth and power

The dizzy heights of the city's skyscrapers are where the rich and powerful gravitate. This last Neighbourhood feature takes a look upwards

PUBLISHED : Friday, 25 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 22 May, 2013, 6:02pm

Hong Kong is an architects' playground. Against a backdrop of steep hills and framing the city's crown jewel that is Victoria Harbour stand impossibly tall structures, packed as tightly as trees in a jungle - a testament to wealth and power.

Jammed into that narrow band of land between hills and sea, the soaring skyscrapers, glittering with lights come dusk, are seen as the symbol of Hong Kong's success. And behind all the glass and steel are some of Asia's most powerful people, high-rise neighbours in one of the city's most exclusive communities.

But down on the ground, there is a growing determination to preserve the existing skyline.

After the closure of Kai Tak Airport in 1998, developers took advantage of a decade of relaxed height restrictions to raise the city's skyline before new height limits were imposed. By the time the government acted in 2007, a wall of skyscrapers had risen up.

There are now more than 650 buildings that are at least 100 metres tall, and 41 that are over 200 metres tall.

Dubbed the "vertical Wall Street" due to its overwhelming number of banking tenants, the International Commerce Centre (ICC) on the reclaimed land of West Kowloon is the tallest structure in the city - 490 metres above sea level and 118 storeys high.

Occupying the 2,500,000 sq ft of office space are prominent international banking giants and hedge funds, such as Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse. Even the smallest office is 3,000 sq ft, while the biggest - home to investment bank Morgan Stanley's Asia-Pacific headquarters - takes up 600,000 sq ft over 16 storeys.

(Click on the picture below to launch infographic)

The ICC and the 415 metre high Two International Financial Centre (Two IFC) across the harbour - both owned by developer Sun Hung Kai Properties - are the tallest skyscrapers in the city.

Two IFC, in the Central business district, was built in 2003. The top 14 floors house the operations centre of one of Asia's most powerful central banks, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which sparked controversy back in 2001 when it bought the offices for HK$4 billion. The money came from the massive reserves in its Exchange Fund, which had assets of nearly HK$2.8 trillion at the end of last year.

Two IFC is also home to property giant Henderson Land Development, owned by Lee Shau-kee, the third-richest man in Hong Kong and ranked 29th on the Forbes World's Billionaires list.

Other prominent tenants include the French bank BNP Paribas, British financial services company Standard Chartered, the MTR Corporation, and Japanese multinational the Nomura Group.

Rents at Two IFC are HK$120 to HK$130 per sq ft, according to Sun Hung Kai Properties, and HK$70 to HK$80 a sq ft at ICC.

But these big contributors to gross domestic product aren't necessarily welcomed by locals.

There are complaints the skyscrapers have blocked views, as well as the flow of air, and have created temperature hot spots.

When the government started reviewing outline zoning plans of various districts in 2007, its new building height restrictions were aimed at creating steps of rooftop levels to preserve views of the hills, skyline and water. "The change came too late," said Roy Tam Hoi-pong of conservation group Green Sense.

One structure approved before new height restrictions came into force on the Kowloon peninsula is a 63-storey complex of offices, shops and a hotel being built by New World Development.

"The view of Lion Rock behind Tsim Sha Tsui will be blocked in future from Wan Chai," Tam said.

The development will stand "awkwardly" in the middle of Tsim Sha Tsui, surrounded by shorter buildings, the campaigner added.

Meanwhile, The Wharf (Holdings) has in its possession approval for a plan to redevelop part of its Harbour City mall into a 96-storey tower - some 386.7 metres tall, just 100 metres shorter than the ICC next door. The approval dates back to 1999.

Even when the new height curbs apply, developers are still able to damage the cityscape, former Town Planning Board member Bernard Lim Wan-fung said. "For city planning, height is not the only consideration; a three-dimensional approach is needed when examining plans," Lim said.

He and Tam both expressed worries over a new trend for short but "fat" designs. Tam said his concerns stemmed from Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's announcement in the policy address that the government would look into ways to increase plot ratios to provide more flats.

"Such an increase must be dealt with cautiously," Tam said. "Urban land intensity is already very high."

But, ultimately, tall is all for developers.

Tony Tang Wai-man, architect and project manager with Sun Hung Kai Properties, said developing upwards was an inevitable trend and a testament to the city's growth.

"Hong Kong has always been moving forward. Every 10 years we reach some kind of benchmark - which is why we need development," Tang said.

"Hongkongers care most about efficiency and convenience, so will be able to accept and understand these upward developments."

He said recent demands to conserve historical sites showed Hongkongers were also now caring more about their architectural heritage. "It is understandable Hongkongers want to protect some heritage," he said, "but there needs to be a balance between conservation and development as they go hand in hand."

Height has another value in Hong Kong, a spiritual one. Fung shui master Raymond Lo explains: "Staying high means when people look down, they see a lot of lower things - we call that water."

And water represented wealth, a reason why companies liked offices perched above the city, Lo said.

A race was going on in those upper echelons, he added - a desire to beat others to the highest spot and attract ever-more wealth, even if it was achieved at the expense of other people's fung shui.