Hong Kong’s Modern Heritage, Part XI: The Bank of China Tower

Some say the angular form of the Bank of China Tower gives its surroundings bad feng shui. There’s even a rumour that this was a cunning strategy by the bank to boost its own fortunes to the detriment of others. Sandi Pei Li-chung would like to correct that notion. 

“The sharpness of the geometry was simply the aesthetic that we chose to employ,” the architect told Billy Potts and Justina Chong in an interview for Zolima CityMag. “There was really no other way that we felt it could be done. It had to be done in this particular manner. We were not overly influenced by the feng shui.”

Sandi Pei is the oldest son of I.M. Pei, the renowned modern architect, and he was working for his father’s firm when they designed what many would say is Hong Kong’s most recognisable skyscraper. Made up of a series of interlocking triangles, it has been likened to a bamboo shoot growing from the slopes of Victoria Peak. And though it is less than 30 years old, it has been an indispensable part of the city’s landscape since the day it was completed in 1990. 

The story of the building is inextricable from that of the Pei family itself. Rooted in Suzhou, the family was a part of the literati class, a group that was wealthy but committed to improving Chinese society. I.M. Pei’s father, Tsu-yee, was born in Suzhou in 1893. He joined the Bank of China when he was 23 and ended up spending six decades at the institution, becoming what the New York Times described as “a seminal figure in the creation of a modern banking system in China.” 

Pei Tsu-yee was independent-minded. Two years after joining the Bank of China’s headquarters in Beijing, he was sent to run the branch in Guangzhou. But he clashed with the local military rulers by refusing them a loan. He ended up fleeing to Hong Kong and taking the entire Bank of China branch with him. That boosted the British colony’s role as a regional financial centre and established a rival to HSBC, the British-run bank that had dominated Hong Kong since it was founded in 1865. 

Pei Ieoh-ming was born shortly before the family left Guangzhou in 1917. He spent the first ten years of his life in Hong Kong before his father was promoted to general manager of the Bank of China’s Shanghai office. That brought Pei closer to his ancestral home of Suzhou, where he was able to spend time in the many ancient, immaculately crafted gardens, which were sources of inspiration to generations of scholars.

Pei was fascinated enough by the gardens that he decided to study architecture. In 1935, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania, which turned out to be propitious timing, as China was about to plunge into more than a decade of war. Pei would not return home for nearly 40 years, during which time he became one of the United States’ most acclaimed modern architects, delivering unmistakable structures like Dallas City Hall and the National Gallery of Art East Building, along with a suite of high-quality concrete high-rises that are still coveted places to live today.

Pei was finally able to return to China in 1974, when the American Institute of Architects organised a trip on the heels of Richard Nixon’s fateful visit to Beijing, which unfroze US-China relations after two decades. The trip was fruitful and he was soon invited back to China to deliver a series of lectures. In his talks, he urged Chinese architects to look to their own history for inspiration, rather than imitating Western styles. 

But when Pei was given the chance to design a hotel at Fragrant Hills in Beijing, he was surprised when his effort—which blended modernism with traditional motifs and a Chinese garden layout—was dismissed as “reactionary.” The project was a disaster from the beginning, hamstrung by a lack of construction knowledge and doomed to dilapidation by poor maintenance. The workmanship was so shoddy that when the hotel finally opened in 1982, Pei and his wife, Eileen Loo, ended up doing minor repairs themselves. Within a few years the building had already fallen into disrepair.

If that experience soured Pei on working in China, it didn’t show. The year the hotel opened, he received an invitation to design a new Hong Kong headquarters for the Bank of China, just down the road from its original tower. Pei eagerly accepted, but not before consulting his father, who gave him the go-ahead; he considered the project a great honour, considering his decades of service for the bank. 

The site chosen for the tower was devilishly complicated. Located on the edge of a hill and surrounded by busy roads and flyovers, it was previously home to Murray House, an 1840s-era military hall that had been dismantled stone by stone in 1982. But there was one advantage, according to Pei: the planned tower was outside of the flight path to Kai Tak Airport, which meant there was no limit on how tall it could be. “With that knowledge, the challenge was to create a tall building that could be built to withstand wind forces approximately twice that for New York and three times that for Los Angeles, and within a fixed budget set in Beijing,” said Sandi Pei in an interview with former M+ curator Aric Chen. 

For all the talk of bamboo shoots and feng shui, Sandi Pei says the inspiration for the tower’s distinctive shape was less fanciful. His father was staying in the family’s country house in upstate New York when he began experimenting with a bundle of sticks he found in the woods. When Sandi joined him later, they sat down together and looked at the site plan. 

“After analysing its constraints and opportunities he drew a square that he divided diagonally into four quadrants and, rather matter-of-factly, suggested that I construct four sticks of this shape with tapered tops. It was that simple,” he says. “The construction of these four independent shafts allowed us to manipulate the form easily by sliding them up and down to create a progression of square packages, each concluding with tapered tops tilted toward the centre.”

That’s when the architects called in their trusted engineer, Leslie Robertson, who translated Pei’s sticks into huge diagonal braces that could hold the 288-metre tower aloft. “Such a perfect marriage of architecture and structure as the Bank of China Tower is unusual in the creation of skyscrapers,” John Seabrook wrote in a profile of Robertson for The New Yorker. Pei clad the building in mirrored glass, an aesthetic trademark that can also be seen in the Louvre Pyramid, which Pei designed two years later. He also designed a miniature Chinese garden at the tower’s base, complete with water features and grottoes, evoking the Suzhou retreats of his youth.

The Bank of China was impressed, partly because the tower’s structural ingenuity meant that it would require 40 percent less steel than another building of comparable height, which kept costs within the bank’s modest budget of US$130 million. That stood in sharp contrast to Sir Norman Foster’s lavish HSBC headquarters, which was under construction nearby at a cost of US$668 million – the world’s most expensive building at the time. 

The tower has become a symbol of Hong Kong since it was completed in 1990

The tower broke ground in 1985 and was meant to open on the auspicious date of August 8, 1988. A massive publicity blitz was planned to showcase the tower as China’s leap into the world of global finance. But construction delays pushed back the opening by two years, by which time the Chinese government had massacred an unknown number of pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. In an anguished editorial for the New York Times, I.M. Pei said the killings “tore the heart out of a generation that carries the hope for the future of the country.” The Bank of China Tower opened without much fanfare on 15 June 1990.

Today, as a symbol of the Chinese government, the Bank of China is no less contentious than it was in 1989. Many of its Hong Kong branches are currently barricaded against constant vandalism by pro-democracy protesters, though the tower has been spared such indignity.  

Perhaps that is because it has taken on a life of its own, transcending its occupant to become a symbol of the city itself. Architect and critic Peter Blake called it “the finest Modern skyscraper” since Mies van der Rohe’s beloved Seagram Building opened in 1958. Whatever its feng shui, it is now as much a part of the Hong Kong landscape as the hill on which it is built.

 

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