The Quiet Modernist

“中環雨天繁忙時間交通 Rush Hour Traffic in Central on a Rainy Day” / 香港人流 Hong Kong Human Logistics / SML.20130326.7D.36557.BW

Jardine House (right). Photo by See-ming Lee

It’s late on a Monday afternoon and James Kinoshita is sitting at home in Hong Kong’s Sai Kung district with his son, Andrew. Overhead is a tile roof that slopes towards a garden of blooming azalea and bougainvillea; just beyond are the placid waters of Port Shelter. James bought the property in 1976 with his wife, Lana, when he was a partner with Palmer and Turner, Hong Kong’s oldest architecture firm, and Lana was a sought-after interior designer.

“It was a weekend home at first,” says James.

“A work in progress,” adds Andrew.

Needless to say, Sai Kung was a very different place in the 1970s. It was only a fraction as developed as today, though the Small House Policy had recently been enacted, leading to a spread of three-storey village houses across the district.

“I didn’t like the Spanish type of red tiles that all the houses had,” says James. “They didn’t look like Chinese village houses. So what I wanted to do was to have a pitched roof and use black tiles.”

Achieving that meant dealing with a building code designed to encourage the construction of identical boxes, not anything unique. There was a height restriction of 25 feet; no single floor of the house could be larger than 700 square feet. James solved the problem by building two houses and linking them together with a covered terrace.

James is no stranger to dealing with constraints. Though the public would be hard-pressed to recognize his name, the octogenarian architect was responsible for many of Hong Kong’s most famous buildings, including Jardine House, the Polytechnic University campus and the late (and often lamented) Hong Kong Hilton, most of which were built under tight deadlines that would shock many contemporary architects. In an era of starchitects, where every new building seems to be accompanied by pompous self-justification, James Kinoshita stands out as much for his modesty as his enduring modernist legacy.

Hong Kong Hilton, 1982

Hong Kong Hilton in 1982. Photo by germán

Born in Vancouver to a Japanese-Canadian family, James’ childhood was split between Vancouver’s Little Tokyo and a camp where his family was interned during World War II. Later, he attended the University of Manitoba, which is where he met Lana, who was studying interior design. “I promised I would come to Hong Kong,” he says, but that had to wait until after he finished his master’s degree at MIT. “I worked for a couple of years to earn enough money to come here and ask for her hand.”

After arriving in Hong Kong, he got a job working on the Hong Kong Hilton for Palmer and Turner, which led to a string of big projects for the 146-year-old firm. “Hong Kong was very open,” he recalls. “I was surprised that no one here had any issue with my Japanese ancestry. The partners at Palmer and Turner treated me as an equal.”

James soon began work on Jardine House, which at 585 feet was the tallest building in Asia when it opened in 1973. “[Hongkong Land] had bought the site in 1970 at a record price, so what they were after was to get it built as quickly as possible and to get their return as quickly as possible,” he says. That meant a piling foundation, which was much quicker than the alternatives. “Because of that, the building had to be as light as possible, so instead of a beam and column system, we made a kind of skin around it, like a piece of bamboo – it’s hollow inside with a stiff core outside. It still had to have windows, so we thought of drilling holes in the bamboo,” which is how the famous porthole windows came to be.

Jardine House has long been overshadowed by buildings more than twice its height, but James still regards it with fondness. “It’s timeless,” he says. “It doesn’t get old-fashioned. Nowadays, architects tend to mould buildings in a very unusual shape to make it distinctive. But if you try to do that, it gets dated. Keep it classical with elements of good proportion and it will outlive the fashion of the day.”

Andrew jumps in. “Now, everything becomes eye candy and functionality follows form. I believe that every constraint you have forces you to become more innovative, which is when those creative juices come through. The challenge forces you to bring your own ability to another level.”

Both James and Andrew have reservations about how some of the recent additions to the PolyU campus depart from James’ original red-brick design. James is especially vexed by Zaha Hadid’s Innovation Tower, which was completed last year. “It was the wrong choice of architect,” he says. “She’s forcing it to have a different character. It should try to keep within the vocabulary of the existing [campus].”


PolyU in 1976

“Don’t ask me what I think about it,” says Andrew, laughing. Like his father, Andrew is an architect, although he started out by studying engineering. It was an internship at Palmer and Turner that pulled him towards design; he later worked for renowned architect Moshe Safdie before moving back to Hong Kong. He now runs his own firm, Underwood Design, as well as a partnership called TETRA.

In fact, all of the Kinoshita children — Andrew, Yuri, Reimi and Hiromi — are involved in design. “We would take them to museums and whenever we travelled we would be looking at architecture, so that probably rubbed into the children,” says James. Andrew has particularly fond memories of joining his family in France in 1981 and visiting Ronchamp, where Swiss modernist Le Corbusier designed a chapel. “It was so fascinating, the space, the forms, the light permeating through the windows. It was very inspirational.”

Now that James is retired, he and Lana spend much of their time travelling. They most recently visited Kyoto, with a detour to visit Tadao Ando’s Church of Light, which is known for its minimalist concrete design. “I really cannot stand his work!” exclaims Lana later that afternoon, over tea. “Architects should serve society with their work. That Ando, I don’t know what we tried to do – he built a wall and tried to make you feel dizzy.”

Andrew chuckles. “He’s my favourite artist. I love his churches.”

James says that, of all his work, his favourite building is the Hong Kong Electric Kennedy Road Substation, which was completed in 1970. Vaulted over a waterfall — not something you want close to electrical current — “it involved a lot of structural acrobatics,” he recalls.

But that building is now gone – and so is the Hong Kong Hilton, James’ first Hong Kong project, which was demolished in 1995 to make way for the Cheung Kong Center. He says it’s just part of the job: “If change has to be done, it has to be done.”

Andrew, by contrast, seems more sentimental. He remembers partying until dawn at the Hilton’s Cat Street bar. “My wife and I spent a night in the hotel after we got married in 1994,” he says. “It was our last chance to be able to see one of my father’s works.”


Now-demolished Kennedy Road substation (left) and a scale model (right)

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Sunday January 19 2014at 11:01 pm , filed under Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Heritage and Preservation, Public Space and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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