Hong Kong’s Modern Heritage, Part VI: City Hall

Hong Kong’s City Hall opened with a princess in distress. Or to be completely accurate, The Princess in Distress, a raucous production staged by the Tai Lung Fung Cantonese Opera and Harry Odell, the Cairo-born impresario responsible for the State Theatre. The new building contained a 1,500-seat concert hall, a 475-seat theatre, an art gallery, a banquet hall, a public library and more – all of it making up for the nearly 30 years Hong Kong had been without a civic centre.

City Hall

A view over City Hall’s Memorial Garden, with the High Block ahead and Lower Block at left

It was a momentous occasion, one that moved Governor Sir Robert Black to deliver an ecstatic speech when he officially opened City Hall on 2 March 1962. “Here, in these build­ings which I am opening today, there will be a welcome for the citizen not as a bearer of his rates and taxes, but as a partner in the artistic and social life of the city,” he proclaimed. “He will come not to beard one of his obedient servants in his lair, but to share in whatsoever is beautiful and available in this building.”

Black went on to quote the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—“A city such as vision / Builds from the purple crags and silver towers / Of battlemented cloud”—before continuing his rhapsodic introduction. “Here in this colony, upon barren rocks, through the joint labours of people of many races, one of the great metropolises of the world has risen,” he said. “Surely no one, a hundred years ago, even when dreaming dreams or seeing visions with all the purple crags and silver towers of clouds to inspire him, would have dared to prophesy such a transformation.”

Today, nearly six decades later, City Hall is no longer the star of Hong Kong’s cultural life. The Central Library in Causeway Bay is bigger; the Cultural Centre across the harbour hosts more events; and the West Kowloon Cultural District will eventually contain the city’s largest concentration of performance and exhibition spaces. City Hall’s original architectural integrity has been chipped away by years of renovations, redevelopment and land reclamation. And yet it still stands, thronged with people every day, a reminder of a time when Hong Kong looked to the future with bright eyes and a sense of optimism.

Hong Kong had seen something similar before, when the first City Hall opened in 1869 with money raised from public subscriptions. It too contained a theatre, a library and a museum. But in a colony where many aspects of life were segregated by race, it functioned less as a true civic centre than as a club for members of Hong Kong’s British elite. The building faced Statue Square, Hong Kong’s ceremonial heart, and its prime location was coveted by HSBC, the city’s largest bank – and when HSBC came calling with a big cheque in hand, the government found it hard to refuse, especially since the old building was in serious disrepair. In 1933, half of the building was sold. Three years later, it was torn down for a new HSBC headquarters. The remaining half was sold to the Bank of China in 1947 to make way for its own tower.  

The push for a new City Hall began that year with a government committee that included prominent members of the public, including Harry Odell. It’s worth noting that, although Hong Kong at the time had a kind of city council, the Urban Council, City Hall was never meant to be a seat of government; instead, it followed the British tradition of a town hall that serves as a cultural centre and a place for the public to gather.

“It represented a deliberate gesture on the part of the government to project the colony as a cosmopolitan entrepôt in the midst of the Cold War, and an ‘international’ city with an ambition to participate in the global conversation about modern architecture, modern cities, and town planning,” says Cole Roskam, an associate professor of architectural history at the University of Hong Kong. Until World War II, Hong Kong had been a place to make money, but not really a home. City Hall marked a symbolic change, the first step towards building a city of citizens, not colonial subjects.

City Hall

Looking out to the Memorial Garden from the Lower Block

The architecture was an important part of that symbolism. Bright and airy, the clean lines and big windows were a deliberate departure from the heavy stone architecture that had characterised prewar Hong Kong. Their minimalist approach was representative of the International Style, best known in the work of architects like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Le Corbusier, that was becoming popular around the world. Pioneered in Europe in the 1920s, it called for straightforward, streamlined buildings that rejected the national and cultural chauvinism that had led to World War I. The horrors of World War II only accelerated the trend towards this genre of modernism.

Indeed, City Hall was nothing if not a fresh start for Hong Kong. Built on a newly reclaimed plot of land on the shores of Victoria Harbour, the complex consisted of a 12-storey tower—the High Block—and a four-storey Lower Block connected by covered passageways. A World War II memorial garden sat between them. Granite, glass and white-washed concrete were the primary building materials, blending in with two adjacent civic structures, both built in the same kind of breezy modernism: the second-generation Queen’s Pier, which had opened in 1954, and the third-generation Central Star Ferry Pier, which was completed in 1957. Together they formed Edinburgh Place, which served as a gateway to Central, connecting the waterfront to the ceremonial heart of the city, Statue Square.

British architects Alan Fitch and Ron Phillips were responsible for City Hall’s design. Philips had only recently arrived in Hong Kong to work for the government’s Architectural Office when, in 1956, he was tasked to work on the civic centre, as well as a car park for the Star Ferry. The master plan for the complex had already been laid out by Gordon Brown, former professor of architecture at the University of Hong Kong, but Philips and Fitch were free to fill in the details as they saw fit.

For the High Block, which was slated to contain the library, administrative offices, a marriage registry, art gallery and museum, they decided to create what Phillips describes as “an uncomplicated repetitive fenestration in a concrete frame on the north and south faces,” with the east and west sides of the tower left blank in order to create a “strong statement.”

The Lower Block was divided into two halves, one with the the ballroom, banquet hall and main foyer, the other home to the auditorium and theatre. The architects built a glazed façade on the first half in order to “exploit the view of the harbour and provide an open airy environment.” On the other half, the position of the auditorium required them to leave the harbour-facing wall blank, which Phillips thought looked “overly brutal,” so they added five small balconies to soften the appearance.

“It was definitely a controversial project in terms of its aesthetics,” says Roskam. Some disliked the minimalist aesthetic; others felt the building should have been more obviously rooted in Hong Kong. “Aesthetically, the decision to embrace the International Style was also an effort to move away from the historical precedent of neocolonialism, and its overt overtones of colonial authority and control,” he says. “Modernism suggested a neutrality and, again, a cosmopolitanism that colonial officials were eager to emulate.” It’s important to note that City Hall was Hong Kong’s first genuinely public cultural centre, geared not only towards British or Chinese residents but to everyone.

City Hall

Walkways connect the High Block and Lower Block, providing shelter underneath

City Hall still plays an important part of Hong Kong’s cultural scene, even if it is no longer the star. But its spotlight on the city’s urban stage has dimmed over the years. One thing that had always been central to the design of City Hall was its location on the waterfront; the building and its memorial garden opened onto a large plaza that stood in front of Queen’s Pier, one that Phillips once said was designed to promote “freedom of movement and a sense of unlimited space.” But in 2006, land reclamation for the Central-Wan Chai Bypass moved the waterfront more than 200 metres further out, trapping City Hall behind a new four-lane boulevard. The Central Star Ferry Pier was demolished, followed by the Queen’s Pier.

Phillips—who went on to design the Murray Building and is now retired in England—says he is sad to see what has happened to the civic centre he helped design. “I thought the relocation of the Central Star Ferry a disaster,” he says. “Its original location for pedestrians and vehicles was a direct link to the Central district. And together with Statue Square, Edinburgh Place with all the surrounding buildings it generated a hub for the city. Alas, the only constant in life is change – but one hopes that it does not come about without due regard for what’s gone on before.”

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