The auction of the Murray Road Carpark in Hong Kong, as the first Grade-A site in Central to be sold in the recent 20 years, pushes the fate of the nearby General Post Office (GPO) building to the edge off the cliff yet again. Inaugurated in 1976, the GPO was designed as a highly efficient “mail factory” for handling the growing demand for postal services. The permanency of the building has been always in question since the expiry of the 120-feet height limit imposed on the GPO site in 1985. The debate in retaining the GPO within the Site 3 development lies in how both history and the future can be projected onto this heavy, boxy building. What are the common social values embedded in the functionalistic civic infrastructure that is considered to be obsolete in the age of digital communication?
‘As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country’
Reading through newspapers of the mid-20th Century, the Post Office always occupied a corner. It covered announcements of opening hours, special mailing dates, and even recruitments for extra labour in peak seasons. The accessibility to P.O. boxes was a major concern to Hong Kong people who scattered in high density, who might not even had their own personal address in that time.
What does it mean today to have a stand-alone postal building when everything can be housed in generic skyscrapers? Other than just being a post office, it was also an infrastructural hub between economic, public, civic and transportation spaces in Central and the Victoria Harbour. The P.O. boxes on mezzanine floors are accessible from a dedicated entrance on the pedestrian footbridge, so that they can still be reached when the mailing halls are closed. The post office was more than a public resource and was a common ground for communication. In the early design schemes for the GPO, it was to incorporate the Star Ferry Pier foyer and also other government services. It was a space where one would open their P.O. box with a key, in the same hope of the Hong Kong Post’s motto: “As cold waters to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country”.
The building is now commonly dismissed as an interface that is already replaced by computer technologies. The heavy mailbags can be handled with just few kilobytes on our phones. The now-disassembled Queen’s Pier which neighboured the site was a political signpost; while the GPO is a civic signifier which stands for the colony’s role in bridging China, Asia and the world since 19th Century.
‘This Will Kill That’
Victor Hugo published his substantial work ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ in 1831, dedicating an entire chapter ‘This Will Kill That’ in illustrating architecture losing its mediatory role as ‘the chief registrar of humanity’ after the invention of the Gutenberg printing press. Meanwhile in 21st Century, has digital media killed architecture? Is architecture still the common symbol that stands for a city when everyone can read “history” off from Wikipedia?
The task today is to reconstruct architecture as the medium of reading our own city, and that history can be studied on these reinforced-concrete pages.
The 1970s global metropolitan drive scaled up the urban fabric of Central and the new GPO was aligned and tied with buildings developed by Hongkong Land, a major economic force, such that the land lease conditions of the Connaught Centre (now Jardine House) imposed a height restriction to the GPO site. Elevated walkways ‘considered as an integral part of Connaught Centre’ bridged the growing sizes of street blocks from inland to the harbour. Not to mention, the relocation of the postal facility was to make way for the MTR at the very site of the outmoded red-brick 3rd Generation GPO.
The postal service headquarters was built in reinforced concrete and held up by a grid of post-and-beam structure. The efficiency of plan was to host the then latest machines. It is structurally efficient and legible from the clear division of bays between columns, and the horizontality expressed from strips of windows on the façade. The brise-soleil details gave a subtle yet impactful definition of the faith in geometric efficiencies in modernism. The building is a machine that had even incorporated a central vacuum cleaning system as its internal organ to upkeep its cogs of life.
The GPO was highly specialised with direct access to the waters yet, like its processor, it lost its own ship breaths and became landlocked after the reclamation of Lung Wo Road in 2006. The GPO’s original design anticipated to take up two extra floors after the expiry of the 15-year height restriction as the postal services were thought to thrive. Yet, it has always been transitory in terms of its occupancy. Facilities had been moving in and out during the relocation of works to the Hung Hom International Mail Centre and the Central Mail Centre in Kowloon Bay.
The New Addition
Rather than demolishing the building or preserving it in an unhappy marriage with the foreseeable shopping malls and office blocks, the GPO’s symbolic potential can be unlocked with its structural flexibility, the open plan, and its connectivity to the harbour front and Central.
The two unrealized floors are precisely the experimental grounds to manifest the conservation of functionally obsolete modernist architecture. The new addition, in theory, stands as a protest against the failing attempt of the two additional floors for the Central Market revitalisation project under the many statutory and lease restrictions.
Eugène Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s restoration model of Notre Dame de Paris’s Spire in Le French May 2017 exhibition ‘Paris, Toit Emois’ (The Roofs of Paris) was a perfect reminder to the conservation debates in Hong Kong. The task of the 19th Century architects in restoring Gothic architecture is akin to our question today in sustaining the minimalistic buildings from the previous century.
Viollet-de-Duc defined ‘restoration’ as ‘to reestablish it [an edifice] in a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.’ Restoration is a design problem that true authenticity requires close examination and intellectual input from the current times. He topped the cathedral in Paris with his reworked design for the missing spire. The project manifested the edifice’s historical and political importance at the religious origin of the country, and also ‘the procession, the progress, and the various transformation of humanity’.
By proposing to complete the dormant grounds shall allow the GPO to be ‘restored in a manner suitable to its own integrity’, becoming the ‘spire’ of the GPO. Both Hugo and Viollet-le-duc were frustrated with the ignorance and negligence of medieval architecture in their times, just as Hong Kong has experienced traumatic failures in historical and modern architectural conservation over the past 15 years. We have seen in Hong Kong many historical artefacts such as Lee Tung Street and the former Marine Police Headquarters forced to be glided in capitalistic gold, failing to retain the original unity of the sites.
Rendering the full tectonic potential of the minimalistic structure shall reactivate the role of functionalistic civic architecture in the city’s progressive narrative. The GPO shall become the Rosetta Stone in translating the city’s history of connectivity and capitalistic pursuits to the hieroglyphic image of Hong Kong’s skyline today.
The Spire of Notre Dame de Paris, Viollet-le-Duc
(Le French May 2017, Paris, Toit Emois)
About the Author:
Stephanie Veanca Ho holds a Master of Architecture (HKU), and is currently pursuing an MPhil in Architecture and Urban Studies at the University of Cambridge. She is an architectural critic who specializes in urban transformations and adaptation, particularly of Paris and Hong Kong.