Porthole windows for house

The Building With Round Windows

Jardine House by Eleanor McCollNot long after I moved to Hong Kong, an Italian restaurant called Grappa’s Cellar began hosting indie music shows inside the basement of Jardine House, the stately grey skyscraper known for its porthole windows. I danced to trippy Canadian act Caribou, local electronic wunderkind Choi Sai-ho and modern French chansonnier Arnaud Fleurent-Didier. Every time the show ended, I emerged from the basement and looked up, marvelling at how such an imposing building could contain such an effervescent secret life.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, because if any of Hong Kong’s corporate towers is likely to loosen its tie and kick back,

“it’s Jardine House, a building that represents Hong Kong in all its contradictory glory.”

When it was completed in 1972, it was Asia’s tallest building, at 168 metres, and it represented Hong Kong’s growing economic clout. Like most towers of the era, it was Modernist in style and rational in form, without even a hint of anything superfluous. And yet it somehow comes across as playful, with its round windows and the trapezoidal columns at its base, which give the building an almost dainty presence at street level. More than that, the building’s history ties together many of the threads that make Hong Kong what it is today, from opium-trading to immigration to post-colonial introspection.

Jardine House by William FurnissThese days, Jardine House has been overshadowed by skyscrapers nearly twice its height, but when it was first built, it was impossible to ignore. “It was famous as the tallest building in Hong Kong, ” says architect Edward Leung, who worked on a recent renovation of the structure’s lifts, fire services and public spaces. “It was soon taken over by the Hopewell Centre, but because the Hopewell Centre is inland, you couldn’t really see it. Jardine House you could see everywhere.”

Such prominence came at a premium. “World’s most valuable property” is how the Hongkong Standard described it when Hongkong Land paid a record-breaking HK$258 million for the land on which they planned to build a new headquarters for its parent company, Jardines. Jardines was founded in 1832 as Jardine, Matheson and Company by William Jardine and James Matheson, two Edinburgh natives who set up shop in Canton, trading tea, silk, spices and sugar. It was a lucrative business, but one that paled in comparison to their real cash cow: opium smuggling. By the end of the 1830s, Canton’s traders referred to William Jardine as taipan (”big boss”), a name that is still used to describe Jardines’ chairmen, at least informally.

After the first opium war, which Jardine helped engineer, the company moved its headquarters to Hong Kong, where it joined other British conglomerates — known as hongs — in dominating the local economy. By the 1960s, Jardines owned much of Central’s prime real estate through Hongkong Land, and it was eager to make sure it didn’t lose out on expanding its reach when the Central waterfront was expanded through reclamation. When the new land was auctioned off in 1971, not only did Hongkong Land pay a record price, it strong-armed the government into imposing a five-storey height restriction on any buildings to the north of its site, so that the view of its tower from the harbour would never be blocked.

Hongkong Land wanted to break ground as soon as possible, but it also wanted a top-of-the-line structure that could match the newest towers being built overseas. “The bosses went to the UK and the US to find out what the trends were, ” says Edward Leung. “There is so much in this building that you cannot appreciate until you examine every detail. It may look like there’s no detail at all, but that’s the beauty of it.”

I found Leung through Docomomo, an international group of architects and academics interested in modernist architectural heritage. He works with local firm Aedas to renovate old office blocks. A few years ago, he was tasked with bringing Jardine House up to date. “More and more, I need to deal with 1960s and 70s buildings, if they’re so lucky as to not be pulled down, ” he tells me as we sit inside a coffee shop in Wan Chai. Before he can embark on a renovation, Leung needs to understand the architecture of these buildings.

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