Hong Kong’s Skyline Icons: The Peak Tower (But Which One?)

Five years ago, it was a bright afternoon in the Hong Kong offices of Sir Terry Farrell when an employee brought in a model of the Peak Tower. 

“Is that the one from London?” asked Farrell.

“Yes,” the employee replied. It was the original model that Farrell’s team crafted when the London-based architect was angling for work in Hong Kong. He first visited the city in 1964 to visit Cecil Chao, the heir to a Shanghainese shipping fortune, who is an old schoolmate of his. (Chao would go on to become a billionaire property tycoon with a taste for the flamboyant.) The visit piqued Farrell’s interest enough that when he eventually launched his own architecture firm in 1980, one of the first things he did was enter a competition for a new Hongkong Land development.

He lost that one, but he didn’t give up on the city. “I had a sense of the potential,” he said. “We committed to Hong Kong.” And Hong Kong eventually returned the favour. In 1991, Michael Kadoorie—scion of the family that runs power company CLP and Hongkong & Shanghai Hotels, which owns the Peninsula—invited Farrell to make a bid for a new tower on Victoria Peak. (Through their hotel company, the Kadoories own the Peak Tram and the land adjacent to the terminus.) The brief, as the South China Morning Post reported in 1993, was ambitious: “Make me an Eiffel Tower for Hong Kong,” Kadoorie told Farrell. “Make me a building that will become Hong Kong’s most recognisable symbol.”

Farrell won the competition, the first in a straight flush of successful bids that sent the architect’s career skyrocketing. Over the next several years, along with the Peak Tower, Farrell would design a new headquarters for MI6, Charing Cross Station and a number of other significant buildings in the UK. In Hong Kong, he won competitions to design the new British consulate and the vast complex around the new Kowloon MTR station – all within 12 months of his Peak Tower win. Those projects cemented Farrell’s reputation as a leader of Postmodernism, the eclectic, expressive architecture style that emerged in response to the rigidity of Modernism

But the initial reaction to his plans for the Peak Tower were not kind. In 1993, the South China Morning Post summed up reactions to Farrell’s design in an article titled “Piqued by a peak at the new Peak Tower.” It quoted impressions ranging from “a monstrosity” to “God awful,” with an assembly of academics, architects and Peak residents lambasting the building often described as a “flying wok.” Elizabeth Sinn, a historian at the University of Hong Kong, told the Post, “It looks like a public toilet. This building detracts from the beauty of the Peak.”

It wasn’t the first tower on the Peak. Farrell’s project involved the demolition of the original Peak Tower, which was designed by local firm Chung Wah Nan Architects and completed in 1972. And that tower replaced a modest lookout that had been built in the 1950s. Some of the commentators who blasted Farrell’s tower lamented the loss of that original attraction: “[I] would prefer what we had 30 years ago, a small humble building which allowed the Peak to stand out for itself,” said architect and town planner David Lung in 1993. 

Like other mountains around Hong Kong, Victoria Peak was formed by volcanic activity more than 140 million years ago. It was uninhabited until British colonists arrived in the 1840s. They were almost immediately drawn to its upper levels, seeing as how the 552 metres of elevation made Hong Kong’s scorching summers more bearable to people used to a more temperate climate. Hercules Robinson, the fifth governor of Hong Kong, had paths cut up to the Peak around 1860, and soon after the first structures were built atop it: a signal station and a small hospital called the Sanatorium. 

The Peak’s first residents were Granville and Matilda Sharp, who lived in the Sanatorium after it was abandoned as a hospital. (It turned out the higher elevation and cooler temperatures did nothing to help patients convalesce. Matilda was later honoured in the name of another Peak institution, the Matilda International Hospital.) A summer retreat for the governor was built in 1867. The wealthiest members of the colonial elite soon followed, building estates that were reached through an arduous trek by Chinese workers who carried their European employers on sedan chairs. Over the next two decades, more than four dozen mansions were built on the Peak, with so many people spending their summers there that an Anglican church was built so residents could avoid having to trek to and from St. John’s Cathedral every Sunday. 

The journey became easier in 1888 when the Peak Tram opened. Hong Kong’s first railway used a steam engine to pull a cable that hoisted tramcars up and down the steep mountain slope, and it transformed the Peak from an exclusive summer retreat to a much more accessible suburb – though one that was still exclusive, thanks to Hong Kong’s segregation laws

The tram sparked a development boom, and not just a residential one. As soon as the tram opened, the entrepreneur behind it, a Scotsman named Alexander Findlay Smith, bought a house named Dunheved from insurance executive NJ Ede and converted it into the Peak Hotel. Two years later, Findlay Smith sold the property to a new owner who added a third storey. Over the next few decades, it was continually expanded into a sprawling, ornate property with breathtaking views over Victoria Harbour and the East Lamma Channel.

In 1922, the Peak Hotel was purchased by the Kadoories, who owned the rival Hongkong Hotel in Central. But it turned out all those additions over the years had been built in rough quality, and the hotel gradually deteriorated in the Peak’s misty climate. It closed in 1936, burned down in a fire two years later and was never rebuilt. The Japanese occupation of Hong Kong from 1941 to 1945 put a hold on any plans to revive the Peak as a tourist destination, but it slowly made a comeback after the war. In 1947, an old stone building that had been used as a shelter for sedan chairs was converted into a café with a large garden terrace. (Originally known as the Old Peak Café, it still operates today as The Peak Lookout.) A few steps away, next to the Peak Tram terminus, a simple circular shelter was built to provide a lookout over the harbour. 

It stood until 1970, when it was knocked down to build the first Peak Tower. Chung Wah-nan’s design included a new terminus for the tram. Two large columns were built on top of it, on which perched an oblong two-storey structure capped by an outdoor observation deck. “The tower’s height resulting from this floating form made it effectively stand out as the city’s new tourist landmark, visible from other parts of Hong Kong, especially when the site is in a dip along the line of the hills,” says Shirley Surya, design and architecture curator at M+, which has collected photographs of the original Peak Tower, as well as plans and drawings of the second generation. 

Although Chung’s design was decidedly modern in style, he cited ancient Chinese guard towers as the inspiration for its form. “[That] gave it much stronger symbolic value that exuded confidence in Hong Kong’s future,” says Surya. “This was very much needed considering that the tower was conceived just two years after the 1967 riots.”

Hong Kong changed quickly through the boom years of the 1980s. By the time Terry Farrell was invited to submit his design for a new tower, the original one was seen as a symbol of an older era – despite being just two decades old. Its demolition was met with indifference. “Far from the fanfare which heralded the opening of the Peak Tower in 1972, its closure yesterday was so quiet you could have heard the moss creep up the outside walls, now looking decidedly shabby,” reported the Post on July 1, 1993. “Befuddled tourists, fresh off the tram, wandered around trying to use closed lifts to get a non-existent cup of coffee, scratching their heads at the empty shops.”

The article hints at the reason why Michael Kadoorie was so eager to replace the tower with a new one. “The tourists these days just don’t spend money like they used to, everyone waits until they get to China,” the owner of a traditional Chinese arts shop inside the tower told the Post. Compared to the relatively modest shopping arcade of the first tower, the new one would have a seven-storey mall that would be an attraction in itself. There was additional pressure from across the street: in 1993, the old Peak Hotel site was redeveloped into the Peak Galleria, a glitzy mall owned by Hang Lung Properties, which had previously acquired the land from the Kadoories’ hotel company.

In a 1993 interview, Farrell recounted how he sketched out his initial concept for the tower in less than an hour. “I got a huge photograph of The Peak viewed from Central and Tippexed out the existing building,” he said. He concluded that the shape of the original tower wasn’t distinct enough when viewed from a distance. “I needed something legible, something recognisable from harbour level, something iconic and monumental.” After working through a variety of shapes—eggs, squares, rectangles—he settled on a bowl. “It had a really good silhouette in the sunset,” he said, adding that “the shape is loaded with associations. It reflects the contours of a Chinese temple, a boat, a dove with wings outstretched and even the Peak Tram logo.”

The new tower was completed in 1997. Like the first one, it was a vote of confidence in Hong Kong at a turbulent time – in this case, the year Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred from Britain to China, and nobody knew exactly what the future would hold. Two decades later, though, is it the icon that its developers hoped it would become? The tower has been enshrined on the HK$20 banknotes issued by both HSBC and the Bank of China. But is it really our version of the Eiffel Tower, as Michael Kadoorie wanted?

Not in the eyes of Elizabeth Sinn, one of the early detractors quoted in the Post. “I haven’t thought much about the Peak Tower since I made that off-the-cuff remark almost 30 years ago,” she says. “Actually, I think I said at the time that it looked like a UFO landing on a public toilet, or something like that, and got misquoted! Not that it matters very much now. Over the years, I might have gotten so used to seeing it, the shock isn’t there any more. I still think it detracts from the beauty of the Peak.”

Sinn wasn’t a fan of the first tower, either. She still has fond memories of the simple 1950s lookout that she visited as a child. “Maybe forever after, I have been measuring all the subsequent buildings on that site to that standard.”

For her part, Shirley Surya seems cool to the idea that the Peak Tower is one of Hong Kong’s great landmarks. “I think the first Peak Tower played a much more significant symbolic role than Farrell’s as the city’s tourist and urban landmark,” she says. “I appreciate Farrell’s choice for a form that could be reduced to a simple sketch or silhouette – a floating device to rise above the dip that reinforced the site contours, achieving the necessary prominence without interrupting the natural line of the hills. But that is similar to Chung’s.”

Surya still has a photo of her mother standing in front of the original tower. Compared to the experience of visiting the current tower, she says, “I felt a greater sense of exhilaration seeing this photo of my mom before the first Peak Tower, wishing I was there to experience it.”

The tower’s distinctive bowl shape is visible from afar

Though she may not consider it iconic in the Hong Kong context, Surya still thinks the tower is significant for the way it reflects Farrell’s approach to architecture. “The bowl shape was selected for its wealth of symbolic interpretations,” she notes. “The unabashed use of such associations was indicative of Farrell’s celebration of the potential of a multivalent and multicultural architecture of the future that could relate to the city, its history, heritage and the contemporary world. Its curved outline also creates a formal contrast to the rectilinear blocks of the city below.”

Since the Peak Tower was completed, Farrell’s firm has designed several MTR stations and the Kennedy Town swimming pool. It has used Hong Kong as a base for a lucrative expansion into mainland China, producing landmarks like the 442-metre-tall KK100 tower in Shenzhen and the 528-metre CITIC Tower in Beijing. 

Back in 2016, at his office, Farrell gazed upon the model of the Peak Tower with satisfaction. And for good reason: it was the building that launched his career in Asia. 

Correction: The original version of this story stated that M+ has collected plans and drawings of the original Peak Tower. In fact, it has only collected photographs, and the original plans are in the archive of the Hong Kong Heritage Project.

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