Poll to decide Hong Kong's most liked architecture of the last century

A campaign aims to promote awareness of the city's architectural heritage with a public vote

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 January, 2015, 6:30am
UPDATED : Friday, 30 January, 2015, 11:05am

Despite the dazzling skyline around Victoria Harbour and soaring towers everywhere, Hong Kong doesn't celebrate its architecture the way cities such as Barcelona, Chicago, Istanbul, London, Rome and Tel Aviv do.

An ongoing campaign, "My 10 Most Liked Hong Kong Architecture of the Century", aims to change that. Organised by the Hong Kong Architecture Centre, a non-profit that seeks to promote appreciation of the city's buildings, it has shortlisted 100 sites for which people vote.

"Sometimes we forget to look at our city, which actually has a lot of great architecture," says Corrin Chan Chui-yi, the chairwoman of the organising committee. "By launching this initiative we want to increase society's awareness of our architectural heritage."

The public vote also reflects today's social climate, says Chan, an architect who trained in Hong Kong and the US. "While much of the older generation came from the mainland and saw the city as a temporary refuge, many younger people call Hong Kong home, and are keen to take part in social affairs," she says.

When the Architecture Centre began selecting candidates for its poll last autumn, it received more than 350 nominations. A panel of 12 architects, engineers, historians, academics and cultural leaders whittled these down to the shortlist of 100 sites.

Their campaign probably wouldn't have drawn the same response if it had been organised a decade or two earlier, when historic sites could be demolished without much protest, Chan says.

The shortlist includes prominent buildings by star architects - for example, the HSBC Main Building and Hong Kong International Airport designed by Norman Foster and his team, I. M. Pei's Bank of China Tower, and Innovation Tower at Polytechnic University designed by Zaha Hadid.

But the list is an eclectic mix featuring vernacular structures as well as monumental buildings, and ranges from churches and temples to parks and housing estates.

Chungking Mansions, the stilt houses at Tai O, and the long-demolished Kowloon Walled City also made the cut, along with non-site specific nominees such as bamboo scaffolding.

"It's to suggest that architecture reflects our culture, and is not only about design and construction," Chan says.

While the vote ends on Saturday, January 31, the Most Liked Architecture campaign, which included public talks and guided tours, will continue with an exhibition at Pacific Place in March. The campaign site also features an archive section, where the public can share photos, sketches, models and stories about memorable places in Hong Kong beyond those on the shortlist.

Although the campaign refers to a century of architecture, entries span more than 1,500 years and reflects how Hong Kong has developed since the Han era, starting with archaeological site of Lei Cheng Uk Han Tomb.

Later, traditional settlements such as the Ping Shan Heritage Compound (1486) and the colonial buildings give way to modernist post-war structures, and the high-density public housing blocks that are unique to Hong Kong.

Architecture is also a "vessel" of things of the past, says historian Joseph Ting Sun-pao, who heads the jury panel.

Since retiring as chief curator of the Museum of History in 2007, Ting has organised "history walks" that show how older districts have evolved.

In Causeway Bay, he enjoys comparing the design of Christ The King Chapel, which conforms with conventional Catholic layouts, with that of the Anglican Sheng Kung Hui St Mary's Church, which resembles a Chinese monastery, despite having a cross on its facade.

"The striking contrast in their appearance reveals the different missionary approaches adopted by the two churches," Ting says.

Although known for his expertise on local cemeteries, Ting picks the former General Post Office building on Queen's Road Central as his favourite structure in the city. A four-storey Edwardian compound built in 1911, it once stood on the site now occupied by World-Wide House.

"Hong Kong was a major entrepot, and many letters from China had to pass through the city before they were delivered by sea to other parts of the globe," Ting says.

Housing the General Post Office in a magnificent building at a prominent waterfront site reflected its pivotal social role, Ting says. It was demolished in 1976 to make way for construction of the MTRC's Central station, but "everyone who lived in Hong Kong during that period would make the same choice," he says. "The building really stood out."

About a fifth of entries on the shortlist have not survived the frenetic development of the past century, including the old Hong Kong Club building, the venerable Lee Theatre, and early public housing developments such as So Uk Estate.

Other shortlisted structures remained but were modified in ways that altered their character.

"What characteristics of the old Repulse Bay hotel are we supposed to identify, when a redeveloped clone of the original was completed some 20 years ago?" asks Peter Cookson Smith, president of the Hong Kong Institute of Urban Design. "The same goes for the clock tower of the former Kowloon-Canton Railway Terminus, which now stands alone from the rest of the building which was demolished 40 years ago."

Buildings do not exist in isolation, says Lee Ho-yin, director of Architectural Conservation Programmes at the University of Hong Kong, and a juror of the voting exercise. "If we tear down a building in a row of decades-old tong lau settlements because it's not as old as the others, it's like pulling out a tooth because it's not as healthy as the rest."

Age shouldn't matter, even a new building should be able to become a monument if it's recognised as a masterpiece
Lee Ho-yin, director, Architectural Conservation Programmes, HKU

The former Central Star Ferry Pier and Queen's Pier, in Lee's opinion, should have been retained as a cluster. The piers were demolished by the government between 2006 and 2008 to make way for reclamation projects, a move which sparked demonstrations - arguably the first major protests to save venues associated with Hong Kong history and identity. Star Ferry started running services between the Central and Tsim Sha Tsui piers in 1957. The ferry was the only way for thousands to commute between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island until the Cross Harbour Tunnel opened in 1972.

While the primary role of Queen's Pier was ceremonial (Hong Kong governors, and even Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Charles landed there when they visited the city), it had gradually become a popular place for fishermen and for lovers.

Besides Hongkongers' collective attachment to the two piers, Lee says the government should have been preserved as integral parts of the Edinburgh Place complex, which also comprised the graphical City Hall and Memorial Garden. All these individual features were designed as a larger open space in the 1950s.

"Individually speaking, the two piers were not as outstanding as when we see them as parts of the cluster, which represented an exceptional example of Bauhaus style, early modern architectural heritage in Hong Kong."

Officials defended the demolition, saying the 49-year-old Central Star Ferry Pier was not old enough to be protected as a "declared monument".

Age shouldn't matter more than architectural merit, says Lee. "Even a new building should be able to become a 'monument' if it's recognised as a masterpiece," he says.

A "modern heritage" site such as Sydney Opera House, designed back in the 1950s, became a Unesco World Heritage Site in 2007 - only 34 years after its completion.

"Many people would agree that our HSBC Main Building deserves to be called a monument in Hong Kong."

Hailed as one of the most important architectural designs of the 20th century, the 30-year-old structure is still admired because of its groundbreaking off-site construction technology, flexible interior layout and 40-metre high atrium which optimises the use of natural light.

Young buildings deserve better protection while they're being given a new lease of life, says Mika Savela, a Finnish architect pursuing a doctorate at Chinese University's School of Architecture.

Murray Building in Central is one of them, says Savela. "In terms of cool, crisp modernism, this former government building is one of the best examples of late 1960s architecture in Hong Kong."

The angular windows also function as a sustainable design feature, blocking excess sunlight and saving energy without heavy use of technology.

"I hope its future use as a hotel will respect the original aesthetics," he adds.

Murray Building is not on the shortlist; neither are Wong Tai Sin Temple and Shanghai Street, much loved by Cookson Smith, nor are the three tallest skyscrapers in the city. "Someone rang us and asked why we didn't put IFC onto the list," Chan laughs.

Public participation is a major component of the project, she says. "We only have 12 people on our jury panel. But we have seven million residents in Hong Kong. They form a treasure trove for us."

For Chan, the campaign is not merely architectural, but social, too. Unlike many similar competitions where architects rank the best buildings, "this time we are looking at architecture from the people's perspective".

Cast your vote until Jan 31 at