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‘Box’ or Gem? A Scramble to Save Asia’s Modernist Buildings

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HONG KONG – When the General Post Office opened on the Hong Kong coastline in 1976, a local newspaper predicted that the modernist-style building “would certainly be as iconic” as its Victorian predecessor.

Not quite.

The building, with its white concrete facade, sharp angles and tinted glass, became an integral part of downtown Hong Kong. However, it was never included on the register of protected landmarks in the city. Now that Hong Kong officials were under pressure to generate revenue, the nearly 12-acre site, valued at over $ 5 billion, went up for sale this month.

Supporters of the building are trying to save it because whoever buys the land below has the right to demolish the post office.

“Some people in Hong Kong may think it’s just a white box,” said Charles Lai, an architect in Hong Kong, a Chinese territory, on an autumn afternoon outside the post office, where people were lining up to send packages.

“But actually, that simplified aesthetic is right where the value lies,” he added.

In cities across Asia, residents and design fans gather to rescue or document post-war buildings that officials believe are too new, too ugly, or too unimportant to save from demolition. Many of the buildings were urban buildings that served as the centers of civil life in the inner city. The campaigns are, so to speak, an attempt to preserve the collective memories stored in them.

The effort also reflects an aversion to the generic-looking malls and condos that have replaced modernist-style buildings in urban Asia, as well as the nostalgia of city dwellers watching their skylines change constantly.

Mr. Lai said the five-story Hong Kong Post Office building, designed by a government architect, was interesting because its shape defined the functions defined in it – a principle of the modernist movement that was popular in the 1920s-1970s. For example, customer floors have higher ceilings and larger windows than those for mail sorting machines.

“These are places that are part of people’s daily life. You don’t have to be very pretty to be meaningful, ”says Haider Kikabhoy. Those who lead historical walks in Hong Kong said about the city’s landmarks after the war.

For older buildings, authorities “usually focus on the rarity of the architecture, the design of the building, or the historical significance,” Kikabhoy said. “But there are many ways to understand history, and social history is just as important.”

In architecture, modernism expressed itself through “brutalism” and other styles that wanted to recall 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 ugliest building in town.

In Asia, modernism influenced the design of landmarks like Tokyo’s Hotel Okura, which opened before the 1964 Olympics, and the dramatic curved concrete buildings designed by architect Leandro V. Locsin in the Philippines.

Some of the region’s modernist structures became instantly famous, while others had no following until recently. The interest seems to stem in part from a wider re-evaluation of brutalism in Europe and beyond, and the excitement of social media as people rediscover their unusual design features.

In some cases, buildings from the mid to late 20th century meet with public interest precisely because they are about to be demolished.

Since last year, two in Hong Kong – a 1967 office tower and a 1973 hotel – have been demolished, resulting in a reassessment of their architectural heritage.

In Thailand, ubiquitous symbols of whimsical modernist design – stand-alone cinemas – have almost been erased. Several hundred had shaped the landscape in its prime in the 1980s, said Philip Jablon, an independent researcher who wrote a book about it. The last one, La Scala, took place in Bangkok in July and made movie buffs lament the end of an era.

In Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, a decade-long project documenting dozens of modernist buildings, the majority were found to have been destroyed or modified during a construction wave funded by foreign developers, said Pen Sereypagna, a Phnom Penh architect involved in the research effort was.

About 30 of the buildings were designed by Kannodsche’s most famous architect Vann Molyvann, who studied modernism in Paris with students of Le Corbusier.

In some cases, interest in modernist buildings has translated into conservation victories.

That summer, a conglomerate agreed to keep the Hong Kong State Theater, a quirky 1952 film house, as part of a redevelopment project. (Mr Kikabhoy, who worked to save the building, is now a paid consultant for the New World Development conglomerate.)

In Singapore, the Urban Development Agency announced in October that it would propose a plan to preserve the Golden Mile Complex – a huge, mixed-use building completed in 1973 that Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas once praised as a “unique work” – as part of a redevelopment the location on which it is located.

While not every modernist building in Singapore should be saved, said Karen Tan, founder of local design consultancy Pocket Projects, the protection plan for the Golden Mile Complex is “an actual affirmation of the importance of such buildings to the country’s social society and cultural identity. “

Historically, she added, the urban development model of the city-state “is based on a very tabula rasa biased approach to be demolished and rebuilt”.

Hong Kong has occasionally agreed to keep modernist buildings in the city center. Among them are the Police Married Quarters, a 1951 building that housed once married police officers and their families, and The Murray, a 1969 government building with tiled grating rests on huge white arches.

However, saving the General Post website presents new challenges.

Hong Kong Development Minister Michael Wong described the website as “very valuable and very strategic”.

The place is politically sensitive because it’s in the heart of Hong Kong’s waterfront, near the People’s Liberation Army property, at a time when the Chinese government is cracking down on the territory’s pro-democracy movement and has enforced a national security law that will take effect over the summer .

Supporters of the building expect the buyer to be a mainland China developer who may not be inclined to preserve a relic of the territory’s British colonial days, which ended in 1997.

Katty Law, a prominent proponent of the city’s modernist architecture, said of the post office, “They are looking at the money side, the amount of floor space they can generate, and how much the developer can build. You’re not looking at the building. “

A planning letter demands that some postal facilities be included in every new building on the site. However, proponents say that the existing post office itself has value.

They appeal to the city’s antiques council to reverse the 2013 decision to exclude buildings built in 1970 or later from the examination of protection status. Buildings like the General Post Office could be designed for “adaptive reuse” in a manner that generates new revenue – just as the Murray became a luxury hotel and the Police Married Quarters turned into a tangle of upscale boutiques.

The Hong Kong Development Bureau said in a brief statement that the Advisory Council’s policy has not changed. So the post office building may be at dusk.

Mr. Lai, the Hong Kong architect, said he was not sure what to make of the government’s stance on the building.

“The government, intentionally or unintentionally, treats this as something that can be replaced,” he said. “They don’t really see it as a symbol or emblem that makes people think, ‘Are you doing this on purpose to erase colonial history, or just can’t see the value?'”

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