Hong Kong’s Skyline Icons: The Henderson Makes a Statement

Six years ago, Henderson Land paid HK$23.3 billion (US$3 billion) for an old multi-level car park at 2 Murray Road. It was a mind-boggling price – the world’s most expensive land sale at the time. Not only that, but development restrictions capped the height of any new building on the site at 190 metres, no taller than many ordinary housing estates around Hong Kong, and less than half the height of the city’s two tallest skyscrapers, the IFC and ICC.

But the location is hard to beat. 2 Murray Road flanks the eastern edge of Chater Garden, giving it a commanding view of — and from — the heart of corporate and institutional power in Hong Kong. Its neighbours include the Court of Final Appeal, the historic Bank of China Building, City Hall, the Hong Kong Club, I.M. Pei’s Bank of China Tower and Norman Foster’s HSBC headquarters. So it’s only natural that Henderson, Hong Kong’s third-largest developer by market capitalisation, wanted to build something that would grab local and international attention: a new skyline icon in a city already full of them.

For that, Henderson turned to Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA). It’s the firm founded by the late Iraqi-British architect known for embracing digital parametric design to create buildings that appear to flow like water and curve like leaves. Hadid had a long history in Hong Kong, starting with a 1983 proposal for a private club on the Peak that seemed as if it was merging into the landscape. But it wasn’t until 2013 that she completed her first building in the city, the Innovation Tower at PolyU, and The Henderson — as 2 Murray Road is known — is by far ZHA’s largest and most ambitious Hong Kong project to date.

“It was very clear it should be something exceptional,” says ZHA director Sara Klomps, who moved to Hong Kong five years ago to oversee the project. And not just exceptional from a visual sense, but from a functional standpoint, too. That meant something “future proof,” to use a buzzword common in design these days, although a more accurate term might be future flexible. “Our ambition is to develop an office building that is addressing the needs of the future,” says Klomps. “It wasn’t the pandemic yet when we started, but we were trying to develop a building that is as flexible as possible.”

From the beginning, that meant 3.5-metre ceilings that could accommodate a trading floor on every level of the building, a rare feature on the commercial property market. (As a result, the tower has just 36 floors, compared to nearly 60 in a residential building of similar height.) And each floor is free of columns, thanks to the building’s six super-columns and offset core, which opens up space by moving its core — the lifts, staircases and pipes — to the side instead of the centre. “Again, done with flexibility in mind,” says Klomps, who notes that many companies are looking for collaborative workspaces that require larger and unobstructed floorplans. Each floor in the building spans just under 1,400 square metres.

Starting the project with adaptability in mind turned out to be a prescient move when the Covid-19 pandemic hit just a few years into the design process. “That’s when other factors came in – having enough ventilation, enough daylight, making sure spaces are not cramped,” says Klomps. “Luckily we didn’t have the interiors fully developed yet. We developed a completely contactless journey, so you can walk into the front door and make it to your seat without touching a thing.” The high ceilings already encourage air flow, but additional filtration was added, as well as natural ventilation that can be automatically triggered when outdoor air quality is good.

The Henderson has a commanding view over Chater Garden, in the midst of Hong Kong’s centre of power. Rendering by Arqui9

There will also be spaces where workers can get some fresh air, notably on a double-height refuge floor. “It is very green and open, so tenants can use it as a breakout space or lunch area,” says Klomps. That’s not the extent of the building’s access to the outdoors. It will have several  publicly-accessible open-air spaces that Klomps says will define how the general public engages with the building.The site’s land lease requires it to be integrated into Central’s footbridge network. “That’s normal in Hong Kong,” says Klomps. “We had to allow that connectivity. In a lot of buildings you go through a mall. We could have done that. But we wanted to keep the passersby in an urban context. We wanted to maintain the connection to the park. It’s a very similar thought to the HSBC Building,” she says, referring to the nearby bank headquarters that floats atop a public plaza. “You lift the entire building up and let the open space flow.”

The Henderson’s ground floor and footbridge level are meant to be lushly landscaped gardens, with the footbridge level also populated by food and beverage outlets. “In such a key location we didn’t want to create another building that comes down to the ground, cuts off the park, cuts off the public realm, has just a small lobby and is finished,” says Klomps. That required a sacrifice on Henderson’s part, because the public open areas eat into the building’s gross floor area (GFA) – which is to say the amount leasable space the developer can use to make money. “Henderson is going above and beyond,” says Klomps. “There’s a lot of spend happening in terms of GFA, but they were happy to give these areas up in order to offer something different. It’s not usual for a client to offer up all this space.

Klomps says Hong Kong is unusually stingy in offering GFA allowances for green space or environmentally-friendly features. She’s not alone in that assessment: when we spoke to architect and developer Donald Choi last year, he lamented the restrictiveness of Hong Kong’s building codes compared to other cities in the region like Singapore and Shenzhen, which offer generous incentives for the kinds of public spaces and greenery The Henderson will offer. “In Hong Kong the regulation hasn’t caught up,” he said. “We’re still limiting a lot of these amenities because of our outdated regulations.”

GFA restrictions can also limit sustainable features. Klomps says that in most other cities, a tower like The Henderson would have had a double-skin façade, which creates an air pocket that regulates a building’s internal climate without needing excessive cooling or heating. But in Hong Kong, every millimetre counts, especially when the client spent so many billions just to acquire the land. “There is a 250-millimetre façade zone” included in the GFA allowance, says Klomps – not much wiggle room. Even if they had installed louvres to shade each floor from the sun, Hong Kong’s GFA regulations allows them to project outwards no more than 300 millimetres before they need to cut back on GFA elsewhere in the building to compensate. Most developers aren’t willing to make that sacrifice.  “In Hong Kong, every [new] building is smooth skinned,” says Klomps. “That’s very unfortunate.”

All of these limitations required some ingenuity in order to make the building as environmentally-friendly as possible. The glass is as reflective as building codes allow, with interior shading from a silver backing, and high-performance glazing with a high shading coefficient – “everything you can do to get the solar gain down,” says Klomps. The tower will also have rooftop solar panels that control a patented “solar responsive ventilator” that pumps air around the interiors of the glass façade when the sun is strongest.

That’s a remarkable feature, but most people working in or passing through the building will never notice. What has the potential to make it an icon is the way it looks. Inspired by the bud of a bauhinia, Hong Kong’s official flower and a symbol of the city, the building’s undulating form already stands in contrast to the typically rigid towers around it. Klomps says the curvaceous structure is integral to the idea of letting the city flow through and around the building. And she is quick to defend it against any notion that such fluidity — a ZHA trademark — is purely aesthetic.

“It’s never purely formal,” she says. “The question is why do we associate flexibility with a square box? Anyone’s initial instinct is to say a box is more practical than a building that is round. I’m not so sure. If you look in nature, at organic forms, there are no boxes – well, almost none. If we do something less rectilinear and less prescriptive we enable people to inhabit the building in a way that is different.”

She says there’s an emotional utility to the curves. “When there are moments of surprise and softness it leads to a different kind of identification and acceptance of a building. That’s why architects like [Friedensreich] Hundertwasser and [Antoni] Gaudí have such a response from people. In all our projects we are always flowing the spaces into each other and creating some kind of in-between space. In a way, the buildings therefore become more part of the city and its citizens.”

The Henderson is nearing completion and will be open to the public early next year. It’s impossible to say whether its developer will get its money’s worth, but one thing is certain: simply by virtue of its difference, it’s already the icon it has set out to be.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that each floor in The Henderson spans 45,000 square metres. In fact, the floors span just under 1,400 square metres. We apologise for the error.

This story was produced with the support of bodw+. Zolima CityMag maintains editorial independence over its content. To read this story on bodw+, please click here.

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