Not long after I moved to Hong Kong, an Italian restaurant called Grappa’s Cellar began hosting indie music shows inside the basement of Jardine House, the stately grey skyscraper known for its porthole windows. I danced to trippy Canadian act Caribou, local electronic wunderkind Choi Sai-ho and modern French chansonnier Arnaud Fleurent-Didier. Every time the show ended, I emerged from the basement and looked up, marvelling at how such an imposing building could contain such an effervescent secret life.

Jardine House by Eleanor McColl

Jardine House by Eleanor McColl

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, because if any of Hong Kong’s corporate towers is likely to loosen its tie and kick back,

“it’s Jardine House, a building that represents Hong Kong in all its contradictory glory.”

When it was completed in 1972, it was Asia’s tallest building, at 168 metres, and it represented Hong Kong’s growing economic clout. Like most towers of the era, it was Modernist in style and rational in form, without even a hint of anything superfluous. And yet it somehow comes across as playful, with its round windows and the trapezoidal columns at its base, which give the building an almost dainty presence at street level. More than that, the building’s history ties together many of the threads that make Hong Kong what it is today, from opium-trading to immigration to post-colonial introspection.

These days, Jardine House has been overshadowed by skyscrapers nearly twice its height, but when it was first built, it was impossible to ignore. “It was famous as the tallest building in Hong Kong,” says architect Edward Leung, who worked on a recent renovation of the structure’s lifts, fire services and public spaces. “It was soon taken over by the Hopewell Centre, but because the Hopewell Centre is inland, you couldn’t really see it. Jardine House you could see everywhere.”

Such prominence came at a premium. “World’s most valuable property” is how the Hongkong Standard described it when Hongkong Land paid a record-breaking HK$258 million for the land on which they planned to build a new headquarters for its parent company, Jardines. Jardines was founded in 1832 as Jardine, Matheson and Company by William Jardine and James Matheson, two Edinburgh natives who set up shop in Canton, trading tea, silk, spices and sugar. It was a lucrative business, but one that paled in comparison to their real cash cow: opium smuggling. By the end of the 1830s, Canton’s traders referred to William Jardine as taipan (”big boss”), a name that is still used to describe Jardines’ chairmen, at least informally.

After the first opium war, which Jardine helped engineer, the company moved its headquarters to Hong Kong, where it joined other British conglomerates — known as hongs — in dominating the local economy. By the 1960s, Jardines owned much of Central’s prime real estate through Hongkong Land, and it was eager to make sure it didn’t lose out on expanding its reach when the Central waterfront was expanded through reclamation. When the new land was auctioned off in 1971, not only did Hongkong Land pay a record price, it strong-armed the government into imposing a five-storey height restriction on any buildings to the north of its site, so that the view of its tower from the harbour would never be blocked.

Hongkong Land wanted to break ground as soon as possible, but it also wanted a top-of-the-line structure that could match the newest towers being built overseas. “The bosses went to the UK and the US to find out what the trends were,” says Edward Leung. “There is so much in this building that you cannot appreciate until you examine every detail. It may look like there’s no detail at all, but that’s the beauty of it.”

I found Leung through  Docomomo, an international group of architects and academics interested in modernist architectural heritage. He works with local firm Aedas to renovate old office blocks. A few years ago, he was tasked with bringing Jardine House up to date. “More and more, I need to deal with 1960s and 70s buildings, if they’re so lucky as to not be pulled down,” he tells me as we sit inside a coffee shop in Wan Chai. Before he can embark on a renovation, Leung needs to understand the architecture of these buildings.

At the café, Leung has brought a stack of photos and documents about Jardine House, which was originally known as Connaught Centre. He pulls out a blank piece of paper and begins tracing a rectangle. One of the things the developers had discovered on their travels is that, whereas British skyscrapers placed their staircases in the corner, American towers were built around a central core of services, which freed up valuable corner space and allowed for open-plan offices. They incorporated these American features into Jardine House, which was also ahead of its time in its approach to fire safety, with pressurised stairwells fed by air shafts on the roof.

Jardine House by William Furniss

Jardine House by William Furniss

In fact, these air shafts are the reason behind one of Jardine House’s most curious architectural features: a pitched roof that seems to float above the rest of the building. “Most buildings in Hong Kong at that time had taipan rooms,” where the big boss worked and held meetings, Leung tells me. In the case of Jardine House, the taipan rooms are found in two penthouse floors that mask a ventilation system that pulls air into the roof and down into the fire escapes, keeping them free of smoke if there is a fire. “Pretty clever,” says Leung.

Though it may take an architect to really appreciate the complexities of Jardine House’s design, Leung’s enthusiasm for its exterior form is contagious. He loves the way the building’s windows are recessed, creating shadows that give the façade a distinctive texture that can be seen from afar. He especially admires how the long, horizontal lines of the ground-floor reflecting pools and covered walkway serve to balance the vertical thrust of the tower.

“You wouldn’t design this unless you were a staunch modernist,” says Leung.

It turns out that staunch modernist is James Kinoshita, an architect responsible for a number of Hong Kong’s landmarks, including the campus of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the late and lamented Hong Kong Hilton, which was torn down in 1995 to make way for the Cheung Kong Centre. Despite those achievements, Kinoshita maintains a relatively low profile: he never struck out on his own, instead working his way up the ladder at Palmer and Turner until he retired in 1988.

I met Kinoshita two years ago in Sai Kung, inside the seaside house he built for himself and his wife, Lana. He told me he was still proud of his work on Jardine House.

It’s timeless,” he said. “It doesn’t get old-fashioned. Nowadays, architects tend to mould buildings in a very unusual shape to make it distinctive. But if you try to do that, it gets dated. Keep it classical with elements of good proportion and it will outlive the fashion of the day.”

Kinoshita was born in Vancouver to Japanese parents. He grew up in a neighbourhood known as Little Tokyo, but in 1941, his family was rounded up and sent to a concentration camp in the Slocan Valley, British Columbia, along with thousands of other Japanese-Canadians. After the war, he studied architecture at the University of Manitoba, which is where he met Lana Yuen, who was studying interior design. When they graduated, he promised he would join her in Hong Kong, but only after he finished his master’s degree at MIT.

He stuck to his word: Kinoshita soon found himself working at Palmer and Turner. He remembers being surprised at how easily he was accepted. “Hong Kong was very open,” he told me. “I was surprised that no one here had any issue with my Japanese ancestry.”

Kinoshita started work on Jardine House soon after Hongkong Land had bought its property. The company put a rush on the project to recoup its massive investment as quickly as possible. They opted for a quick pile-driven foundation. “Because of that, the building had to be as light as possible, so instead of a beam and column system, we made a kind of skin around it, like a piece of bamboo. It’s hollow inside with a stiff core outside,” said Kinoshita. It turns out this is the origin of the tower’s distinctive porthole windows: bigger windows would have compromised the building’s structural integrity.

HongKongPoliceLogo_2The tower had its early critics – local wags called it “the building of a thousand arseholes,” referring to the shape of its windows and the notoriety of the taipans who stood behind them. The dean of the University of Hong Kong’s architecture school, WG Gregory, dismissed it as “a huge monolith, a mammoth obelisk, devoid of meaning.” When the Hong Kong Police revealed their new post-colonial badge in 1997, its depiction of the Hong Kong skyline pointedly excluded Jardine House, reportedly because officers were upset that Jardines had moved its official headquarters from Hong Kong to Bermuda in the lead-up to the handover .

But the subtle quirks of Jardine House’s design have won it legions of admirers.

Photographer William Furniss describes it as “a honeypot for photographers,”

thanks to its unique windows, aluminium cladding and the way it is removed from its neighbours, offering plenty of angles from which to shoot it. Hong Kong-based British artist Eleanor Mc Coll has devoted a series of hand-cut photo collages to Jardine House.

Jardine House by Eleanor McColl

Jardine House by Eleanor McColl

“Normally I’m drawn to old peaty walls and laundry hanging out, that side of Hong Kong. But Jardine House – I love retro, I love bold, and I love those big circular windows,” she says.

McColl has layered her collages with circles that evoke Jardine House’s windows, and she has altered the photos to create wild skies in hues of yellow and magenta. It’s an approach that seems to tap into the building’s hidden chutzpah – the quality that sets it apart from Central’s many staid commercial towers, the same quality I sensed when I left those concerts in Grappa’s Cellar.

Jardine House is approaching its fiftieth birthday, which means it is getting close to the average life expectancy of a Hong Kong building. The General Post Office, which opened in 1976 across the street from Jardine House, is already slated for demolition as the newly reclaimed harbourfront is developed. But Jardine House seems safe for now. It’s still there, still alive and still a deceptively stately vessel for Hong Kong’s many surprises.