A HK Landmark’s Final Days

13-Feb-2014 Intellasia | Wall Street Journal | 6:00 AM Print This Post

I.M. Pei’s Bank of China tower, with its zigzag-corseted angular facade, is one of the most recognisable pieces of Hong Kong’s famous skyline.

But in a city with some of the world’s highest rents, even the work of a Pritzker-Prize-winning Chinese-born architect- now well into his 90s- is not immune to the relentless game of real-estate musical chairs. The clock is ticking on Pei’s first and only other Hong Kong building, Sunning Plaza, an office tower and retail complex completed in 1982.

Indeed, most tenants were required to leave by the end of September, some six months after Hysan Development Co. announced that the building would be demolished. The company, one of the city’s major property developers, had received government approval to redevelop the site way back in 2009.

Residential tenants next door in Sunning Court, a high-end residential building also slated for demolition, have all cleared out as well.

By 2018, Hysan said, the space will be filled with a single office-retail building offering up to 25 percent more floor area. (Sunning Plaza measures 277,000 gross square feet; with Sunning Court, they total around 375,000.) The company deemed the 32-year-old Sunning Plaza no longer competitive with its peers and wants to increase its portfolio of Grade A office space while introducing more green, sustainable features, spokesman Mark Tung explained. While acknowledging Pei’s standing as an architect, Hysan determined it isn’t feasible to preserve parts of Sunning Plaza in the new complex, he said.

As its days dwindle down, a Sunning Plaza appreciation:

Although it did not achieve the same acclaim as its sibling skyscraper, Sunning Plaza was ground-breaking. According to Ho-Yin Lee, director of the architectural conservation programme at the University of Hong Kong, the tower was one of the first in Hong Kong to have a “curtain wall”- an exterior wall “hung” on a building’s structural frame.

“I remember in the mid-1980s, Sunning Plaza stood out from its surroundings,” Prof Lee said, adding that Pei’s signature clean-cut aesthetic and use of mirrored glass made the curtain wall even more distinctive.”Sunning Plaza had a major influence in encouraging more clients and developers to accept the use of the reflective glass curtain walls,” Prof Lee said. They became common in high-rise commercial buildings across Hong Kong, in shades from pink to gold.

Glass-curtain walls had nearly derailed Pei’s career a decade earlier. Windows of Boston’s John Hancock Tower, designed by his firm, started falling onto the sidewalks below even before the building was finished, prompting pedestrian fright, a lawsuit and a storm of bad publicity. The problem turned out to be the multilayer glass, and all 10,000 windows had to be replaced. But by the 1980s the technology had been perfected, allowing Pei to use glass-curtain walls successfully not only in Sunning Plaza, but also in his Bank of China masterpiece.

Pei also imported other American ideas into Hong Kong through Sunning Plaza. For example, the tower was built on a metre-high platform, requiring visitors to walk up a few steps to reach the ground floor.

“This is a very North American feature,” Prof Lee said. “In most buildings in Hong Kong, the ground floor is practically the same as the street level.” Those very steps earned Sunning Plaza fame as a setting in several Hong Kong movies, including John Woo’s classic 1986 hit, “A Better Tomorrow.”

Pei also included a plaza, whose outdoor dining area offered a respite from the urban density of Hong Kong’s bustling Causeway Bay district. “Having an outdoor space like this would be seen as a waste of space,” Prof Lee said, noting that nearly all high-rise commercial buildings from the 1970s onward were designed to a plot’s full capacity.

“It’s an interesting urban space; it’s an oasis among a very dense city,” echoed Puay-peng Ho, director of the architecture department at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

For more than a decade it was occupied by Inn Side Out and East End Brewery, joint pubs for which the outdoor space- perennially carpeted with peanut shells discarded by patrons- became the defining aesthetic. Bryan Efimetz, who lives across the street and was a regular patron, counted them among “the most fun bar and restaurants in all of Causeway Bay,” packed every night with both locals and “people from all over the world” having a good time.

The pubs’ owner, J.R. Robertson, said he thought he’d have several more years before having to leave, despite the 2009 announcement of redevelopment plans. In fact, he spent more than 2.5 million Hong Kong dollars (about $320,000) refurbishing the kitchen after renewing his lease in 2012. Given limited options in Causeway Bay, he relocated to a second-floor space at a nearby private sports club, accessible only to its members- a deeply disappointing outcome for him.

Still, is it a shame to tear down Sunning Plaza? “Personally, not really,” Prof Lee said. “I don’t think this is one of I.M. Pei’s best designs.”

Prof Ho concurred. The outdoor area aside, it’s a rather “generic” office building, he said.

“Pei is much more known for his museum buildings,” he added, “For office buildings, apart from the John Hancock Tower and the Bank of China, there aren’t any that really stand out. [Sunning Plaza] is basically on a square plan with chamfer [45 degree bevelled] angles. It’s sort of related to Pei’s interest in using triangular shapes, but a very tame attempt.”

A representative at Pei’s firm, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in New York City, said the architect, who will turn 97 in April, is “no longer taking interviews.”



Category: Hong Kong

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