Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Communists and Nationalists at the BOC

Hong Kong's eye-catching new IFC Tower II may be the Tower of Mordor with razor-sharp prongs topping the gargantuan structure, but for me the most dramatic building in Central still remains the 78-storey Bank of China (BOC) tower. It is truly fitting in more ways than one, that the last great modernist architect, I.M. Pei was selected to design the building. For one, the BOC officials wanted their new building to make a statement, heralding China's increasing influence in what, in the 1980s, was still a British colony. They could arguably not have picked a better architect than I.M. Pei, a consummate master of combining steel and glass into visually stunning geometric shapes. Pei visualized the building as a bamboo grove, and apparently got his inspiration by tying a small bundle of sticks together and sliding a few of them upwards.

And of course, another reason to choose him was that he was Chinese, having been born in Southern China to a wealthy Shanghai banking family. The 1949 Revolution happened while he was studying at Harvard, so he had not been able to return home. But then, his was not just any banking family - his father had actually been the senior manager of the Bank in Shanghai and had been chased out by the Communists in 1949! So it was fitting indeed that when the Communist BOC officials selected Pei, they actually flew to New York to visit Pei's 89-year old father to ask his permission to get his son to design their building. It may have been meant by China as a message to Hong Kong's capitalists that all was forgiven.

On Pei's first visit to China, he was asked to design a modern hotel for them that would be sited on the Forbidden City, after they'd leveled it! Fortunately, that did not happen after he strenuously declined. But although Pei gave them what they wanted in Hong Kong, an imposing building, as it was completed in 1989 in the wake of Tiananmen, it took on a more ominous countenance than he had intended. It today remains a forceful presence on Hong Kong's skyline (especially with its terrible feng shui!). But more on that story another time...

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