I am inspired by books like Wade Graham's “Dream Cities” and Rem Koolhaas's “Delirious New York” to write about the spatial experiences of contemporary cities. What make cities behave a certain way? How can architects react and adapt to ever-changing cultural, political, and economic forces? What is the back story to these places, and how did they come to be? During my trip to China and Japan last year, I started mapping out a series of essays I wanted to write about each place I traveled to. I want to turn feelings into words, and then ultimately from words to drawings and projects.
Part 1: Bank
Location: Hong Kong SAR
Time Period: 1980's to 1990's
Title: Speculation is physical
What if global capitalism became a physical model, a series of vertical extrusions highlighting the value of real estate, financial, and economic speculation, where national boundaries do not exist, and the only amiable, respectable patronage is to money?
On a cloudy, unsuspecting Wednesday, I returned to my hometown. I landed in the early hours in the morning and made my way to my hotel in Tsim Sha Tsui, and then Central. Nothing much had changed in the two years since I interned there; the city is still the crown jewel of China, built over a hundred years by the British and hardworking locals. The Chek Lap Kok airport, now 20 years old, still feels futuristic, compared to the overburdened, crowded, and disorganized airports of America.
But time has taken its toll; since the 1990's, the share of Hong Kong's GDP in the Chinese Economy has fallen from 30% to just 3% today. Not did this indicator suggest that China has grown incredibly in the last two decades – but also that the the small city-state has failed to diversify into innovation and technology. Today, Singapore and China surpass Hong Kong in terms of business innovation; conservative practices, lack of investments, and a tradition with core colonial sectors – logistics, finance, and professional services – has diminished opportunity in the city for ordinary people, crushed between the waning British and a growing China. In the very recent years, the skyline in Central has largely remained unchanged; much like Haussmann Paris, I worry that it would largely stay the same, since the heydays of explosive growth in the 70's and 80's will unlikely repeat. A city's buildings are always a record of when it was most successful, of when it generated the most prosperity for the masses. It's definitely not today, or at least not anymore.
The financial district is a giant billboard to global capitalism; just like the numerous churches of Rome during the Renaissance, glitzy banking towers litter the skyline. (There's a distinct parallel between the papal families of Rome, dueling for city influence via Church construction, and corporate banks/governments competing with each other by building more and more exuberant office buildings in Central.) Many of the towers were influenced by Feng Shui principles, as well-documented by the media; Norman Foster's HSBC building faces the harbour, unimpeded, with its back protected by the hills – an enduring symbol of British presence in the colony; I. M. Pei's Bank of China tower, whose sharp corners project bad feng shui on all surrounding buildings, still pay homage to the form of a bamboo, projecting future Chinese prosperity; Paul Rudolph's Lippo Centre, which exported and styled a Southeast Asian modernism in Singapore, just when brutalism became unfashionable in America; and Cesar Pelli's Cheung Kong Centre, whose understated chamfered block, mirrored facades, and pedestrian “belt” bridge, deflecting the sharp edges of the BOC and the rooftop cannons of the HSBC, is a reminder of how the locals of Hong Kong will always be caught between the conflict of global giants – always a middleman, not in control of its own fate, and always hustling.