This is the first in a new series exploring the stories behind the structures that define Hong Kong’s skyline.
They stand like sentinels as you approach Hong Kong from the west. On one side of the harbour, Two International Finance Centre—better known as 2IFC—rises 88 floors and 415 metres above the north shore of Hong Kong Island. And on the other side, the International Commerce Centre (ICC), soars 118 storeys and 484 metres above West Kowloon. The towers face off against one another in a striking duality that feels appropriate for this particularly narrow passage.
Like so much of the things that define Hong Kong, however, this rough symmetry was completely unplanned. Both towers are the result of a brief window in time after 1998, when height restrictions along Victoria Harbour were lifted and developers rushed to get approval for towers that would be bigger and taller than anything the city had seen before. Height restrictions were reimposed in 2003, after a public backlash, but in those intervening five years, a number of supertall projects—including 2IFC and the ICC, but also the recently-completed Victoria Dockside tower and an as-yet-unbuilt 90-storey tower above Harbour City—were given planning approval, promoting concerns that the waterfront would soon be lined by a wall of skyscrapers that blocked views of the mountains on either side of the harbour.
While their rise at complementary points on either side of the harbour may have been a coincidence, there are a number of parallels in their stories. Both towers are part of massive mixed-use complexes built by Sun Hung Kai Properties atop reclaimed land. Both were designed by internationally renowned architects who have since passed away. And both competed for the title of the tallest building in Hong Kong, a rank held by 2IFC after its completion in 2003, only to be dethroned when the ICC was topped off seven years later.
The road to both towers began in 1985, when the Hong Kong government floated the idea of reclaiming an enormous amount of land along Victoria Harbour. It would make room for a laundry list of new amenities: a highway bypass, a new convention centre, a third tunnel under the harbour, a railway link to the planned airport on Chek Lap Kok, new recreational areas and—of course—it would also create new land that could be sold off for development, bolstering government coffers. A feasibility study conducted in 1989 laid out the framework and work began soon after.
The scale of the plan was enormous. It called for 340 hectares of land to be reclaimed along the western shore of Kowloon, from Tsim Sha Tsui to Lai Chi Kok, severing harbour access to neighbourhoods like Yau Ma Tei and Sham Shui Po, whose original reason for being had been their proximity to the water. That didn’t seem to attract much public attention, however – it was the plan to reclaim 70 hectares along the harbourfront of Wan Chai and Central that led to public uproar. There was a palpable fear that, at some point or another, the harbour would simply disappear, reduced to a narrow canal flowing between a sea of highrises.
The backlash coincided with democratic reforms that colonial governor Chris Patten pushed through just before the 1997 handover of sovereignty from Britain to China. In 1995, environmental activists Winston Chu, Jennifer Chow and Christine Loh founded the Society for the Protection of the Harbour to lobby against further reclamation. The same year, Loh won a seat in the first—and only—fully elected Legislative Council. She successfully introduced a private member’s bill, the Protection of the Harbour Ordinance, which passed into law in 1997. Since then, the government must demonstrate an “overriding public need” for any new reclamation in the harbour. It effectively scuttled plans to reclaim the whole of Kowloon Bay, and it also led the government to scale back the extent of reclamation in Central.
But reclamation that had been previously approved went on as scheduled. IFC’s first phase included the Airport Express terminus, the terminus of the Tung Chung MTR line, a bus depot, a shopping mall, the Four Seasons hotel and residences, and the 38-storey, 210-metre 1IFC tower. It opened in 1997, right in the middle of the Asian Financial Crisis. 2IFC joined it six years later, just as Hong Kong was plunged into the trauma of SARS. Despite the bad timing—or maybe because of it—the tower’s completion was heralded as a fresh start for post-handover Hong Kong. “The shimmering International Finance Centre helps underpin Hong Kong’s status as the financial capital of Asia,” raved the South China Morning Post in 2004. The building boasted 22 high-ceilinged trading floors, double-deck lifts, enormous column-free spaces and raised floors for easily accessible telecommunications wiring.
Sitting atop the terminus of the Airport Express, 2IFC felt as if it was just as connected to Wall Street and the City of London as it was to the rest of Hong Kong. “For global road warriors, the location is ideal,” noted the Post. “They can pack their briefcase, catch a lift downstairs, check in to their flight at the downtown check-in and catch the Airport Express that in 23 minutes has them at Chek Lap Kok.”
Appropriately enough, the tower was designed by César Pelli, a global jetsetter who had designed a number of high-profile skyscrapers around the world, including One Canada Square in London and the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur. In a 2008 interview with Catherine Shaw, Pelli said the building’s prominent harbourfront location led him to design a tower with a monumentality that felt serious and deliberate. “The tower was designed to create a new gateway to the city and strike a simple, strong and memorable presence – a great obelisk at the scale of the city and the harbour,” he said.
There is indeed something of an obelisk in the tower’s form: clad in grey-blue curtain glass, it narrows progressively towards the top, which is crowned by steel fins that curve inwards. It’s a design that emphasises the building’s verticality, while also endowing it with a sober sense of purpose. Some may feel the effect is undermined by the building’s resemblance to a nose-hair trimmer, but compared to some of the far-fetched towers that have risen in other global cities, like London’s so-called “Cheese Grater” or the bottle-opener-like Shanghai World Financial Center, 2IFC feels positively austere.
For several years, the tower stood proud and alone, its status as the tallest building in Hong Kong made all the more clear by its physical distance from the crowd of skyscrapers further inland. But soon enough, a rival emerged. The ICC is not only taller than 2IFC, it’s more insouciant in its form, with glass that flares out at the bottom like a cape, and a giant LED display on its façade. On several occasions, artists have been invited to program the LEDs, turning the building into a giant art object. Chinese artist Cao Fei covered it in video game iconography; German musician Carsten Nicolai used the building as a strobe light that blinked in time with a minimal electronic composition; and Hong Kong artists Sampson Young and Jason Lam turned it into a clock that counted down to 2046, Hong Kong’s so-called “second handover,” when the Basic Law is set to expire.
The ICC is the work of Paul Katz, who told me in 2011 that its cape-like appendage is actually meant to be a “dragon’s tail” – a feng shui consideration as well as a nod to its location Kowloon, whose name (gau2 lung4 九龍) means “Nine Dragons,” is a reference to the eight peaks of the Kowloon hills. (The ninth dragon was the child emperor Zhao Bing, who fled here after the Song Dynasty fell in 1279.) Like Pelli, Katz was conscious of the ICC’s status as a landmark. Its glass curtain wall is more reflective than that of 2IFC, and the building is positioned in such a way that it reflects the afternoon light, turning the tower into a gleaming white column. “The building was placed on the point based on how it would be perceived from across on the island and from Kowloon,” said Katz. “The site was fairly tight but we did have the ability to rotate the building quite carefully, with a scale wall that is designed to reflect light a bit differently than all the buildings around it.”
Katz passed away unexpectedly in 2014, three years after the ICC was completed; he was just 57 years old. Pelli died in 2019 at the age of 92. Their buildings remain some of Hong Kong’s most prestigious addresses. 2IFC remains a prized location for corporate offices, but it is mostly off-limits to the public, except for a public exhibition on the history of currency in Hong Kong inside the Monetary Authority’s headquarters. By contrast, the ICC is home not only to offices but also to the Ritz-Carlton, a public observation deck and a rooftop bar on the 118th floor, from which Hong Kong—even 2IFC—looks impossibly small and toy-like.
A city’s architectural icons reflect its values at any given time. The massive towers of Notre-Dame reflected the power of the church in medieval Paris; in Beijing, the Forbidden City was a reminder of imperial control. Similarly, 2IFC and the ICC set the tone here: this is a city where commerce rules. “One of the most important things about a tall building is its longevity,” said Katz in 2011. “You design a building that you think is going to be there at least 100 or 150 years.” A century from now, what will the two sentinels of Victoria Harbour say about Hong Kong?