Now a beloved Hong Kong landmark, the twelvehundred- foot tower was hugely contentious. The points of the triangles that make up its multi-faceted fa ades appeared to many locals as offensively, dangerously jagged, leading many to compare it to a knife. Photograph by Paul Warchol
In a career that spanned almost seven decades, I.M. Pei somehow managed to straddle the global design world like a colossus, without ever once upstaging his own buildings. Admittedly, many of his projects were even more towering than his personal reputation: case in point, the Bank of China Tower in Hong Kong, the tallest structure outside the United States at the time of its completion. When the international spotlight descended upon the opening of that project in 1990 (or on Boston’s JFK Library eleven years earlier, or on the National Gallery expansion in Washington a year before that) the smiling, bespectacled figure whose face occasionally appeared in photographs next to the building always looked just a little embarrassed to be there.
Pei’s capacity for self-effacement might have been reflexive: the natural outgrowth of a studious, cloistered childhood, spent with his Buddhist mother among the landscaped gardens of Suzhou. But it was also unquestionably strategic. The professional advantages of the architect’s signature reticence come into striking relief against the background of his most famous project in his native country—the lofty bank tower that is now a beloved Hong Kong landmark, but that was a source of roiling contention and political intrigue up to the very moment it opened its doors.
PORTRAIT BY VICTOR ORLEWICZ
From the get-go, the Bank of China was a problem child. “The bank gave us no preconditions for design,” said Pei, shortly after receiving the commission in 1984— failing to mention its incredibly daunting site, which would dog the builders for the next five years. The parcel secured by the client was girded on all sides by freeways, with pedestrian access only possible via elevated catwalks. This is hardly uncommon in ultra-dense Hong Kong, but it represented a special logistical headache for Pei, since his tower would have to be as tall as possible to squeeze value out of the 0.6 hectare plot. Making matters worse, the location came with some nasty historical baggage: it had previously been home to Murray House, a British colonial building that had been the scene of grizzly atrocities committed by its Japanese occupiers during WWII.
That was only a small foretaste of the cultural and social hornet’s nest into which Pei and company had stepped. At the time, Hong Kong was still a British possession enjoying semi-independent status; the Bank of China, though it operated in the city as a subsidiary entity, was a mainland institution. With the People’s Republic set to take over the province in 1997, sensitive diplomatic negotiations were at hand, and critics in financial and media circles accused Hong Kong officials of trying to butter up their Beijing counterparts by cutting them a sweetheart deal. They might have been right—notwithstanding the insistence of local officials that the HK $1 billion sale “reflected the full market value of the site,” a comparable piece of real estate had just changed hands for nearly twice the per-square-foot price.
For Pei, however, there were more immediate difficulties afoot. Not the least was that, barely a five-minute walk away, a competing institution had given Norman Foster a budget that dwarfed Pei’s five times over: the HSBC Headquarters, then the most expensive building in the world, was already well underway while the Bank of China was still getting off the ground, and it promised to be one of the most extraordinary skyscrapers of the 1980s (a promise it ultimately lived up to). Pei, who had relatively little experience in high-rise construction at the time, would have to do more with less, a puzzle made all the more daunting by the structural challenges of building in monsoon-prone Hong Kong. Enlisting famed engineer Leslie Robertson to help him, Pei went looking for a solution.
What he found was elegant, simple, striking—and, in the short term, the cause of still more controversy. The one thing Pei and Robertson knew their building would enjoy that Foster’s did not was height: their twelve-hundred-foot tower would be more than twice as tall as HSBC, an advantage the duo exploited to spectacular effect. Putting an emphasis on the vertical, Pei created a massing of jagged, shard-like volumes ascending to an angled peak; he then doubled down on the up-up-up visual logic, expressing the building’s framework by tracing it in a series of zigzagging lines, working their way skyward along the multi-faceted facades. This move coincided beautifully with Robertson’s approach, which carried most of the structural load on the exterior of the building, minimising the need for interior supports. What it did not coincide with, unfortunately, was age-old Chinese design principles, causing an instant uproar. The x-shaped forms that crisscrossed the envelope symbolised death in traditional feng shui theory, and so Pei made alterations, leaving the more triangular geometry seen today. Even then, the points of the triangles appeared to many locals as offensively, dangerously jagged, leading many to compare it to a knife.
The last and most stunning development to accompany the Bank of China’s construction came less than a year before its scheduled opening. In May 1989, China was seized by its largest (and to date its last) organised anti-regime demonstrations. The Tiananmen Square protests—and the ensuing military-led massacre that followed —shocked the world and sent a chill down the spine of Hong Kong residents awaiting their city-state’s transfer to PRC control. Now, perched right atop the Garden Road, there stood a gigantic reminder of the island’s future, the official money vault of the Chinese Communist Party.
Triumph over adversity
But the building had one more surprise in store. Notwithstanding the always-restive political climate in Hong Kong (even more restive than usual in recent years), the Bank of China tower has largely managed to triumph over the adverse circumstances of its birth. Together with Foster’s, Pei’s building inaugurated a new era of ultra-tall construction in Hong Kong, strengthening the city’s unique sense of itself as a place of daring innovation. Pei’s tower would become arguably the most prominent, most recognizable anchor on this new skyline— the great crescendo to the island’s soaring urban aria—and its echoes can now be heard far beyond the Special Administrative Region. The brash, eye-catching contemporary architecture that has since swept the whole country has emanated outwards from Hong Kong, a cultural David vs. Goliath story that began, in many ways, with the Bank of China.
As for the man behind it, it is almost impossible to imagine today that a designer could walk away from such a fraught undertaking so unscathed as Pei did, floating above the public debate with apparent ease. At the time of the tower’s debut, a journalist asked the architect how his understanding of the project had changed in light of Tiananmen and everything else. “The building was meant to celebrate the modernisation of China,” said Pei. “To me it still does.” Imagine what Twitter would make of that—but then, Pei would have known better than to engage, letting the design speak for itself and taking the long view. He certainly knew how: when the architect died in 2019, he was 102; on the list of long-lived greats (Frank Lloyd Wright at 91, Philip Johnson at 98, now Frank Gehry, 92 and counting). Pei wins not just on the numbers, but for how much more we remember him for his work as opposed to his personality. That was Pei’s gift, creating a form that glitters and beguiles for an instant, then slips behind the fog coming off Victoria Harbour. We hardly knew him.