It is a wonderful irony that the mass protests that flared up on the island last week were incubated in the belly of a bank, says Edwin Heathcote
If a bank is at the centre of a protest, it is usually because people are protesting about banks. The banks don't usually like it. Protestors tried to occupy Wall Street in 2011, but instead ended up in Zuccotti Park. They tried to occupy Paternoster Square and the space outside the stock exchange in London and instead found themselves in front of St Paul's Cathedral.
The exception has been HSBC in Hong Kong. But Occupy Central, Hong Kong's version of the worldwide protest movement, had something other than the financial crisis on its collective mind – the protestors are worried about the erosion of democracy in the one-time British colony.
As I write this, the streets of Hong Kong's Central area are thronged with protestors indulging in a mass sit-in, a peaceful protest blocking the usually teeming, traffic-choked streets of the island's financial and business district.
Riot police have fired tear gas and protestors responded with umbrellas and by cladding their faces in cling-film and plastic bags. The pronouncements from mainland China have been prickly and worrying. Do not interfere, they are telling outsiders, nervy about the potential of the protests to inspire copycat movements in communist China itself.
Occupy Central is not new. Despite this current crescendo of activity, it dates from the same period in 2011 as the other worldwide protests and its base, rather extraordinarily, was that public space beneath the HSBC headquarters.
This high-tech structure by Norman Foster – the most expensive building in the world when it was completed in 1985 – is a one-time symbol of Hong Kong's financial pre-eminence in Asia. It was Foster's riposte to Richard Rogers' Centre Pompidou, complete with theatrical escalators and massive oilrig exoskeleton – except this wasn't a cultural centre; it was a bank.
Foster attempted to match Rogers' public plaza in Paris with a large public space beneath the bank building. It might not sound much, but amid Hong Kong's density, it made a massive difference. The shady undercroft became a favourite with Filipino nannies and picnicking immigrant workers; it became, in a subversion of the language of high-tech, a servant space. That covered plaza became an equivalent to the plaza under Lina Bo Bardi's MASP in São Paulo – a democratic space in the heart of the city, formed by hiking a building up on massive legs.
But, as I've mentioned, this isn't a cultural building – it's a bank. We have become used to the privatisation of public space, particularly in financial districts (Paternoster Square turned out to be too private to protest in, albeit Zuccotti Park was also privately-owned). However, the space beneath Foster's HSBC building was always conceived of, and treated as, a genuinely open and civic space.
And that was why the Occupy Central protestors adopted it, camping out under its shelter in makeshift tents and cardboard box cities. It is a wonderful irony that the most successful of all Occupy protests – a worldwide explosion of outrage at capitalism and the bankers – should have been incubated in the belly of a bank, and then find that its real target wasn't the financial sector at all, but the hyper-capitalist anti-democrats of the People's Republic of China.
Architects often make great claims for the miserly public space around their buildings or the dark, unattractive leftover gaps around them – usually the result of exigencies in the geometry, the coercion of planning regulation or the compunction to return something to the public realm. Foster's space, though, really has fostered something.
HSBC, the symbol of colonial capital, built on opium and imperialism, has become a cipher for the yearning for democracy. The meaning of that shady undercroft has been confirmed by its being almost completely covered up in curious red tarpaulin, as the company claims it prepares the space for an exhibition about Hong Kong's history.
The real reason is, of course, to obliterate a piece of public space as a nexus of resistance. Instead, the protest has spread to every street in Central. Sometimes, public space works.
Image: Leung Ching Yau Alex