It’s a foggy day outside the penthouse headquarters of P&T, but director Remo Riva presides over a full view of Central, which has been recreated as a scale model in his office lobby. All the familiar landmarks are there: the Standard Chartered Bank Building, the Landmark, the Entertainment Building, Jardine House, Exchange Square. “I think I’ve done some 15 buildings in Central,” says Riva, gazing across the miniature landscape.
P&T are not flashy architects – unless you are a serious architecture buff, you may never have heard of them. But they are prolific. Riva’s business card contains a fold-out photo gallery of 41 different buildings. Over the course of any given day in Hong Kong, you will probably come across at least one P&T building, if not dozens. They aren’t just corporate skyscrapers in Central; P&T have designed arts facilities like the Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre in Shek Kip Mei, the campus of Lingnan University and sports centres like the new Victoria Park pool.
The reason for this abundance? Architecture is a marathon sport – and P&T have been running the longest. The firm’s roots go back to the mid-19th century, when a young English architect named William Salway was on his way to visit his parents in Australia. On his way back to England, he stopped over in Hong Kong and decided to stay. He founded his own architectural practice in 1868 and was joined in 1880 by another young architect, Clement Palmer. Most of their early projects were typical of the era: ornately colonnaded rows of buildings, like the Beaconsfield Arcade, built in 1880 on Queen’s Road Central, or the 1878 office of the Chartered Bank, whose Venetian arches wouldn’t have looked out of place on the Piazza San Marco.
In the early 1880s, Palmer won the bid to design the second generation of HSBC’s headquarters, on Des Voeux Road, which lent the firm a notoriety it used to win business from nearly all of Hong Kong’s biggest conglomerates. By 1895, Salway had left for Melbourne and William Turner had joined the practice, which adopted the name Palmer and Turner. Over the next few decades, the business expanded its reach beyond Hong Kong, working on projects throughout Britain’s Asian empire.
“You can track the development of architecture in the region by looking at what Palmer and Turner has done,” says Aric Chen, curator of design and architecture at the upcoming M+ museum of visual culture. The firm’s reach can be seen in the towers it built for the Bank of China in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore, all of which share a restrained Art Deco style, despite their differences in age (Shanghai’s was completed in 1937, Hong Kong’s in 1952 and Singapore’s in 1954). That aesthetic prevailed for quite some time after World War II. When the Chartered Bank Building was completed on Des Voeux Road in 1957, it was the final installment in an entire city block of Art Deco bank headquarters, all of them designed by P&T.
It was a far cry from the austere International style that had begun to dominate cities in the West. “Modernism came late to Hong Kong,” says Riva. It soon made up for lost time – or as Riva puts it, “In the 1960s, there was a new wind.” Arriving on that breeze was James Kinoshita, a young Canadian architect. Kinoshita joined P&T just in time to work on the new Hilton Hotel, a massive 1,000-room structure located where the Cheung Kong Centre is today. “Jim Kinoshita had this incredible flair for solving problems in really elegant ways,” says Chen. “Under partners like him, Palmer and Turner played no small role in cementing modernism as a style [in Hong Kong].”
After the completion of the Hilton in 1962, P&T’s architects racked up one Modernist success after another, from the AIA Building in Wan Chai to Choi Hung Estate, one of Hong Kong’s first public housing projects. Kinoshita’s partnership with engineer Heinz Rust proved especially fruitful. The Kennedy Road Substation, completed in 1967, was a fanciful structure that was cantilevered over a waterfall. Kinoshita and Rust soon worked on Jardine House, whose distinctive façade, which Kinoshita describes as a piece of perforated bamboo, was both an efficient structural solution and a memorable aesthetic device.
“Hongkong Land, being Scottish, they wanted to have the cheapest possible structural solution,” says Riva. Kinoshita and Rust’s structural façade allowed Jardine House to be built in an astonishingly short time. This kind of rush was typical for Hong Kong – and it still is today. “Hong Kong is very much a bottom-line kind of mentality,” says Riva. The government’s high land value policy means that simply buying land accounts for 80 percent of a development’s total cost, which doesn’t leave much left for design and construction. At the same time, Hong Kong’s building regulations are notoriously strict, which limits an architect’s room to manoeuvre.
There is room for creativity—if you walk through the mezzanine of the Standard Chartered Bank Building, you’ll see Riva’s cheeky stained-glass illustration of Hong Kong—but not too much. Look-at-me designs like Frank Gehry’s ultra-expensive Opus are no way to build a long-term business in Asia. “Every square foot counts,” says Riva. “Being pragmatic and practical in terms of detailing, not necessarily being too innovative but using proven methods and solutions and modifying them to suit the project – we’re always developing from a strong base to make something new.”
Some of the ideas born of necessity in Hong Kong’s harsh working environment have spread throughout the world: skinny towers that sit on podiums, elevated pedestrian systems that thread through densely-built neighbourhoods. “A lot of typologies we take for granted now, the tower on podium, or the atrium hotel, these were fairly novel at the time that Palmer and Turner was working in these modes,” says Chen. “They’re not the first firm to ever have done [them], but they’re certainly to be credited with building these milestones we see in Hong Kong and throughout the region. They’ve really been an anchor and emblem of Hong Kong’s centrality in the movement of ideas throughout the region.”
Like Kinoshita, Riva joined P&T from abroad, arriving here in 1972 after working in his native Switzerland and later Australia. In his 44 years at the firm, he has watched it grow from 40 employees to more than 2,000, spread across the globe. “It has grown on the back of Asia growing and China opening up,” he says. It now competes for business with other global mega-firms like the Hong Kong-based Aedas, which has a similarly diverse portfolio. If you want a stark visual example of this new architectural reality, pay a visit to Exchange Square, whose centrepiece Forum, designed by Riva and completed in 1988, was demolished in 2011 and replaced by a new crystalline structure by Aedas.
“Architecture, not just in Hong Kong but in many parts of the world, has become very corporate,” says Chen. “I think Palmer and Turner has responded to the market accordingly. They certainly proved themselves as a very competent successful firm that can pull off increasingly complex projects that are demanded of them. The scale of projects that developers ask for now, especially in this region, is very different from what was required in the immediate postwar period.”
What sets P&T apart is its history. Again, Exchange Square is a case in point, offering a view of many of P&T’s successes, from Jardine House to the Pedder Building, built in 1923. When it was built in the 1980s, Exchange Square was the first development to make sense of Hong Kong’s unruly network of elevated footbridges, weaving them into a public space with fountains and sculptures. Rocco Yim’s design for the IFC Mall, which opens onto Exchange Square like a train station onto a town plaza, pays homage to its role as a central urban space.
Riva often finds himself in Central, where he can’t avoid glancing up at buildings of his own making. “I’m my own worst critic,” he says. He looks up and finds fault with his work, which he attributes to Hong Kong’s rushed pace of development. “You’re constantly running from deadline to deadline,” he says. But he isn’t making excuses, because as any architect will tell you, shaping a city is a dream come true. “It’s not anything I expected,” says Riva. “I came to Hong Kong by chance. So it’s a nice feeling.”