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‘Box’ or Gem? A Scramble to Save Asia’s Modernist Buildings
The New York Times
New York, New York, USA
Mike Ives
Date Published: 
Hong Kong, London, Singapore, Cambodia, Landmarks, Preservation, Public Policy, Architecture
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2020-12-25 22:41:29
2020-12-25 22:47:00
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Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times
Groups across the region are rallying to save buildings that officials consider too new, too ugly or too unimportant to protect from demolition.

When the General Post Office opened on Hong Kong’s waterfront in 1976, a local newspaper predicted that the Modernist-style building would “certainly become as much of a landmark” as its Victorian-era predecessor.

Not quite.

The building — with its white concrete facade, harsh angles and tinted glass — became a fixture of Hong Kong’s downtown. But it was never added to the city’s register of protected landmarks. Now, with Hong Kong officials under pressure to generate revenue, the nearly 12-acre site, which has been valued at over $5 billion, was put up for sale this month.

Supporters of the building are scrambling to save it because whoever buys the land underneath would have every right to tear down the post office.

“Some people in Hong Kong might think it’s just a white box,” Charles Lai, an architect in Hong Kong, a Chinese territory, said on a fall afternoon outside the post office, where people were lined up inside to mail packages.

“But, as a matter of fact, this simplistic aesthetic is exactly where the value is,” he added.

In cities across Asia, residents and design buffs are rallying to save or document postwar buildings that officials consider too new, too ugly or too unimportant to protect from demolition. Many of the structures were municipal buildings that served as downtown hubs of civic life. The campaigns, in a sense, are an attempt to preserve the collective memories stored inside.

The efforts also reflect an aversion to the generic-looking shopping malls and condominiums that have been replacing Modernist-style buildings across urban Asia, as well as the nostalgia of city dwellers who watch their skylines constantly change.

Mr. Lai said the five-story Hong Kong post office building, designed by a government architect, is interesting because its form defines the functions performed within — a principle of the Modernist movement that was popular from the 1920s to the 1970s. The floors for customers have loftier ceilings and larger windows, for example, than the ones for mail-sorting machines.

“These are places that are part of people’s day-to-day life; they do not necessarily have to be very pretty to be significant,” Haider Kikabhoy, who leads heritage walking tours in Hong Kong, said of the city’s postwar landmarks.

With older buildings, the authorities “tend to focus on the rarity of the architecture or how well designed the building is, or the historical significance,” Mr. Kikabhoy said. “But there are many ways to understand history, and social history is just as important.”

In architecture, modernism was expressed through “Brutalism” and other styles that sought to evoke the conditions of the machine age and relied heavily on concrete as a material. The Barbican Center in London, which opened in 1982, is a classic example of the Brutalist aesthetic — and was once voted the city’s ugliest building.

In Asia, modernism influenced the design of landmarks such as Tokyo’s Hotel Okura, which opened before the city played host to the 1964 Olympics, and the dramatically curved concrete buildings that the architect Leandro V. Locsin designed across the Philippines.

Some of the region’s Modernist structures became instantly famous, but others did not have a following until recently. The interest appears to have stemmed in part from a wider reappraisal of Brutalism in Europe and beyond, and social media buzz as people rediscover their unusual design features.

In some cases, buildings from the mid- to late-20th century generate public interest precisely because they are on the cusp of being demolished.

Since last year, two in Hong Kong — a 1967 office tower and a 1973 hotel — were torn down, a process that prompted reappraisals of their architectural legacy.

In Thailand, ubiquitous symbols of quirky Modernist design — stand-alone movie theaters — have been nearly erased. Several hundred had dotted the landscape during their heyday, in the 1980s, said Philip Jablon, an independent researcher who wrote a book about them. The last one, La Scala, held its final screening in Bangkok in July, prompting cinema buffs to lament the end of an era.

In Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, a decade-long project to document dozens of Modernist buildings found that the majority had been destroyed or modified amid