Old Supreme Court, Hong Kong

Supreme Court, Hong Kong. Click to enlarge. Detail of the facade with date Thanks to photographs taken by Y6 Sha Tin Junior School, I can see all sorts of things that the Legislative Council building (the Old Supreme Court) in Hong Kong has to tell us. This is a massive reminder of the Colonial era.

What can we learn by just looking at it? To start with the architect helpfully had the date of its erection carved on the front in Roman numerals. So we know that it was built in 1910.

Pediment. Click to enlarge.It is much bigger and more imposing than most houses. A passing tourist would probably guess right away that it could be a public building, erected by the government. If that passer-by takes time to look at the detail, they would find that the architect said as much in stone. Within the pediment (that triangular feature crowning the centre of the facade) is the British royal coat of arms, surmounted by a crown, supported by a lion and unicorn, with the royal motto "Dieu et Mon Droit" draped beneath it. (It may seem surprising that the British Royal House has a motto in French, but that's just one of the little quirks of history.) Having the British royal arms on a building of this date almost always means that it was built by the British Government. You will know that Hong Kong became a British Crown Colony in 1842. The coat of arms sits on top of a lunette. Either side of the lunette, just visible in the photograph on the right, if you click to enlarge it, are the initials E and R. They stand for Edward Rex, in English "King Edward". Queen Victoria's son Edward was on the throne from 1901-1910. That is why we call the buildings of his time Edwardian

On top of the pediment - high above all, to show that nothing could be more important than she - stands the figure who tells us the purpose of the building. It is a woman holding a pair of scales and a sword. This is Justice. Truth is weighed in her scales. Her sword had power to punish. So she is a symbol of the  justice meted out in the law courts below. Justice also appears on the top of the Old Bailey in London. In this era architects loved to adorn important buildings with statues that had meaning. 

The idea of Justice being personified by a woman goes back to Ancient Greek and Roman times. That is not the only clue that the architect admired these long gone cultures. The whole building looks back to the architecture of the Greeks and Romans for inspiration. The brilliance of these cultures glittered in the minds of many people in Europe as they sought to escape the worst aspects of the Middle Ages. In an age where understanding of science had grown dim, and much learning lost, a return to the ways of the Greeks and Romans seemed to offer logic, reason and progress. It was a Renaissance - or rebirth - of Classical ideas.

Ionic pilaster of the Old Supreme Court.The architecture inspired by Greek and Roman models is known as Classical, or Neo-Classical (new-classical). It emphasises order and symmetry. The Greeks were noted for their grasp of geometry. Straight lines and neatly repeated patterns prevail in their buildings. The Old Supreme Court was designed by Sir Aston Webb so that each front has a regular pattern. Each arch or window along a row is exactly the same. Classical architecture follows five different model styles, known as Orders, each of which can be recognised by the type of column or pilaster. Ionic columns of the Old Supreme CourtSir Aston Webb chose the Ionic type of column and matching pilasters. Yet his style is not a simple copy of a Greek temple. That would be impractical for the Supreme Court. Greek temples were generally single-story buildings with an open colonnade in front and few rooms. The Supreme Court needed far more rooms of different sizes. They would be best fitted into a building of more than one storey. So instead of having an open front with columns supporting the roof and pediment, Sir Aston Webb created something of the look of a Greek temple, by having pilasters supporting a pediment, but filled in the upper part of his front colonnade, which would create more space inside on the upper floor. Along the facade shown left he created a balcony or walkway on the upper floor. His arcading was similar to Roman arcading, but not a simple copy.

Balustrade on the Old Supreme CourtThe balcony is edged by a balustrade to ensure people don't fall off. But here we see how a practical purpose can be turned into an ornament. The attractive balustrading is repeated at windows and on the parapet along the edge of the roof, giving the building a coherence of design. The idea is borrowed from Andrea Palladio, whose reuse of Classical models was much admired and influenced later architects.

The Romans had created the dome as a feature of architectural design. The curves of domes and arcades broke the monotony of straight lines. In the Edwardian period the dome was popular for public buildings. The richness of detail and contrast between lines and curves of the Old Supreme Court creates interest for the eye. Contrast that with the smooth, jet-age lines of most of the skyscrapers that now dwarf the Old Supreme Court. 

HSBC building designed by Sir Norman FosterWhen it was first built the Supreme Court would have dominated its surroundings architecturally, impressing everyone with the majesty of the law. What does the present skyline of Hong Kong say? The towering new HSBC bank headquarters shouts with pride that Hong Kong has grown as a financial and business centre. It looks forward, rather than back. Now we see ourselves as having surpassed the Ancient Greeks and Romans in our science and learning. So modern architects no longer feel a need to copy the distant past. They express a confidence in our own age.

Even so Hong Kong intends to preserve its hints of history. The Old Supreme Court has been declared a monument. It has much to say not only about the history of Hong Kong, but of cultures long ago and far away that captivated many minds.