Monday, February 16, 2009

The portcullis and other modern conveniences

Image of a portcullis in a gate, from the backside, from the Palazzo d'Accursio, Bologna, Italy. This image was taken by Georges Jansoone and is used with permission, from Wikipedia Commons under a GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. (I think I can put this as an alternative title and a mouseover title, otherwise, how do I credit the photographer?)Dear Gentle Reader,

How often do you see a portcullis in modern buildings?

The word portcullis is derived from the old French porte coleïce, meaning sliding door.

A portcullis is suspended in the air by a counter weight; it's a rapid-response defensive mechanism that falls into place when the restraining force of the counter weight is removed.

When enemies approach, the portcullis is dropped to obstruct the ingress of attackers.

A portcullis is heavy so, when dropped, it's an impediment to enemies attempting to access the castle's keep.

This part of the portcullis' task, forming an obstruction, or a blocking door, against attackers, is where the 'porte', or door, part of the portcullis' name comes from.

The fact that the portcullis slides vertically, downwards, into place is where the 'coleïce', or sliding, part of its name comes from.

The porte coleïce, or portcullis, also doubles as an offensive weapon; it may impale some attackers underneath its heavy, iron-clad oak or metal frame.

Once dropped, it also keeps any enemy attackers inside the castle's keep from escaping so that they can be slaughtered by the defenders at the defenders' relative leisure.

So where would you see one of these babies today, in a modern building?

Would you even see one today?

While you are thinking, let us move to my town, Hong Kong.

Image of HSBC's ubiquitous logo set into the marble cladding on a regular HSBC bank branch in Hong Kong.
HSBC is the shorthand name for the Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation which was founded in Hong Kong and Shanghai, in 1865, after the second Opium War.

HSBC was founded to fund trade (especially the burgeoning and lucrative opium trade) and its flagship operation was in Hong Kong.

HSBC was well-capitalised and held a lot of cash.

As HSBC was so well capitalised and so well connected in Hong Kong, that gleaming bastion of swashbuckling privateer capitalism, HSBC won the contract to be the central bank for the colony of Hong Kong.

Not only did HSBC offer private citizens, and joint-stock companies, the opportunity to bank with them, and not only did HSBC have the right to print the bank notes for the colony, but HSBC also held the colony's money for the British Crown.

Image of HSBC's (Hong Kong Shanghai Banking Corporation's) flagship headquarters and banking centre in Hong Kong, seen towering over the old Bank of China headquarters beside it on the left of the picture.Not a bad job; I am sure it paid well.

Of course, the security had to be tight.

Let's take a selective look at the third generation of the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong, the one built from 1979-1985 by Sir Norman Foster. This is the current HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong.

(Aside: Your humble scribe notes that, after the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control in 1997, he does not believe that HSBC remained the central banker to Hong Kong.)

Still, what high-tech, ingenious security solutions would HSBC's flagship Hong Kong headquarters, the most expensive building in the world, when it was built, incorporate into its design?

First off, HSBC made it a lengthy procedure for crooks to get to the money.

Anyone going to a banking floor, and anyone coming down, has to go up (or down) two very long escalators that go up two stories.

(Or take the heavily guarded elevators that can be locked in position with the would be burglars inside...not such a good idea to use those...)

Image of the escalators and the glass barrier separating the banking halls from the foyer down below in the main foyer of the flagship HSBC branch in Hong Kong.
Supposedly these escalators are angled to make the geomancers happy (the gentlemen who work out the feng shui of the building).

These escalators may be positioned with geomancy-friendly angles... They also slow would-be robbers down and isolate the points of ingress and egress to and from the bank.

Further, you can see that burglars cannot set up trampolines or rappel out quickly with ropes after robbing the joint (retail banking starts at the top of the escalators) because what should be an open atrium has been covered with a floor of thick glass...

(For those of you who worry that this glass partition cuts up the interior space, don't worry. There is an eleven floor atrium above this glass partition.)

This building is nothing if not glass and transparency... so where is the security?

Stop, and look down.

Image of piece of sturdy stainless steel set in the ground.
What could that be for?

And look up...

Image of the exterior of HSBC's HQ and main branch in Hong Kong.
OK. That is not too useful.

Step forwards again, into the light, and away from the building...

Image of something in the ceiling of the main foyer of the flagship HSBC branch in Hong Kong, as seen from outside the building.
Hmm. There seems to be something up there.... Something metallic, but there is too much glare from the glass. Let us try looking up from inside.

Image of something in the ceiling of the main foyer of the flagship HSBC branch in Hong Kong, as seen from inside the building. It's a stainless steel portcullis!
There you have it.

See that stainless steel grate? That is the portcullis.

Rob HSBC Hong Kong and the portcullis drops down, locking you inside the building until the police arrive.

Image of police vehicles in Hong Kong.
Maybe you'll even be impaled, in which case you ought to continue waiting for an ambulance.

If you know of other, normally archaic architectural features that are used in modern buildings, your scribe would love to know. Welcome to my town...



debra said...

This is a wonderful post, Chris! What is new is old. A great look at Hong Kong.

Reb said...

As you managed to post this, we can assume you weren't arrested for scoping out the banks security ;)

Very cool that they use a portcullis in such a marvellous building.

Anonymous said...


I like this article, very interesting, thank you,

Svetlana from Geneva

Lyzzydee said...

Great post Chris, I must look for similar things in my town, its amazing what you can find if you look with different eyes!!

The Weaver of Grass said...

Shall have to think about that Chris - but that portcullis is a jolly good idea in my book. How about bringing back the rack and the thumbscrew? (only joking!)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Chris-great post--everything old is new again.

Jenn Jilks said...

We don't have a portcullis in My Town! :-) Not many two story buildings, in fact.

Have you read Pillars of the Earth? Amazing historical fiction about the building of cathedrals.

Lauren said...

That is so interesting how they used the portcullis. Very uber-retro :-P

Travis Erwin said...

Great post Chris. I have not noticed any archaic architecture in my neck of the woods but I'll be on the lookout.

Clare2e said...

That is cool, Chris, plus I love the word portcullis.

Do any the heavy hinged metal curtains with padlocks (pulled down nightly over storefronts) count? They won't likely behead and you do have to yank them a bit, though they do tend to have chain pull releases on the inside.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Chris, I stopped by to see what all the fuss is about ;-) And to my delight, this portcullis piece! The first pic got me as I’m a reformed ren faire freak. You write long and in depth but very well and entertainingly : ) I very much enjoyed your guided tour of this impressive HSBC engineering feat, impressive in all aspects.

Raph G. Neckmann said...

Brilliant post, Sepiru Chris! I love the way you write.

The building looks as if it ought to be in a Batman film. I can imagine Batman just swooping out in time as the portcullis slams down.

Barbara Martin said...

Chris, my don't you have a way with words...lemmings would follow you anywhere. The info about the protcullis was interesting, and I agree with Reb: likely you are on someone's list.

Heidelweiss said...

Fascinating! I'm sure there are bits of archaic weaponry about town but I'll tell you of one that is a verified certainty. My needles. Come into my house uninvited and I will impale you ;). Simple as that. I suppose it doesn't hurt that I have two large dogs and a shot gun. Nope, it's the needles. Don't mess with a knitter.

Sepiru Chris said...


Cheers, Debra. Thank you you very much.


So far still safe, but, as Barbara says, we'll see what list I'm on.

If friends of mine at Securicor give me strange looks or stop talking to me, I know I am in trouble...


Long time to chat! Thanks for coming by! I see you are still in Geneva. Thanks for taking the time to visit, especially with global investments being what they are right now!


Blur your mind and pretend you're from another planet or another time. It works wonders for me, but then again I claim to be an Akkadian Babylonian scribe...

Weaver of Grass,

That portcullis does work well.

And I shudder to imagine that, no doubt, the old goodies from torture have not gone away. I am pretty sure that are simply augmented...


Retro styling... Those dayglo shirts of the early 80s have already come back too... (at least they have here)

Jenn Jilks,

Haven't read that book, although I used to have some engineering texts on the same topic. Masonry engineering is fascinating...


How sehr über retro, klar... (It is remarkable how easy German is. Basically it is misspelled English...)


I'll be waiting. I am sure your keen eyes will spot something.


Fantastic observation. I hadn't thought of them; like the purloined letter they stare me in the eyes every night on every continent...

I would think those are certainly portcullis derivatives. They do not have the same rapid response, and act far more as a door, but they are certainly derivative.

Well-spotted and thanks for sharing!


Fuss! You jest!

I am delighted that I tagged you with the ren faire hook and further delighted when you stayed once you realized that (a) the end was not in sight and (b) this was not a ren faire site.

By reformed of course I assume you date yourself to post-reformation and indicate that you love the various Swiss pikesmen and halberdsmen, those glorious mercenaries of days of yore.

Or is this, say, a Judaic thing.

Reformed as opposed to ultra orthodox or orthodox or traditional or conservative or (reform) or reconstructionistic or humanistic or liberal et al...

I should try getting birders with modified fair wren hooks... hmm...

Well, you should have seen my eyes pop out of my head when I saw your Potsdamer Platz Sony Centre image... There was a visual hook!

Every time I visit your site (often) I find myself flummoxed. The good comments have already been said, and I do not want to say something small.

I quite like the Jules letters, btw, and the underlying ideas.



Batman, swooping out to escape?

Hmm. Maybe, but maybe only in the movies.

If Batman starts swooping--with the vertical pull of gravity transmuted into multiple, lesser vector components--whilst the portcullis simply drops down in one vertical cascade of power and noise, I am not sure that Batman would swoop out in time unless he had a power assist of some sort.

Booster rockets on his utility belt, maybe...

But in our imagination, or on a Hollywood screen, then yes...


So maybe I should start jettisoning the blog and try to write for money...

(which would make the Heroine very happy, indeed...)

Or are you hinting that disaster that way goes?

As lemmings (in modern pop culture myth at least) follow each other, and their leader, to doom as they hurtle off the cliffs (as per the Disney myth) ...

I might suggest the Pied Piper of Hamelin, but if I am on lists for looking at security setups, imagine what would happen to a Pied Piper wannabe...


No eyes and no arms yet you will impale me? Hmm.

Terror does not seep into my marrow, dear Heidelweiss...

Mind you, I think of your Anglophilia, and then I think of Monty Python's Knights of the Holy Grail, and the "its merely a flesh wound" chap and I can imagine you gamely fighting on.

Then, of course, I think of your savage (your words) Lizard (and the fact that dragons were frequently called lizards) and I start to tremble indeed. Fair Heidelweiss, fear not I shall never enter your house uninvited.

You may notice a pinging even before my posts enter your computer.

That is the electronic knock of permission, before even the posts enter your domain.

I tell you this just to set your mind at ease, those fearsome quills at rest, and perchance to convince the lizard to be lulled to compliance at your breast.


David Cranmer said...

Chris, I always learn something new when I stop by your blog. Mucho gracias!

Sepiru Chris said...


Glad you enjoy visiting, come around any time. As an aside, your webzine, is really impressive.


bindu said...

That's a very creative security system!

Sepiru Chris said...

It certainly is. Fun to find.

Barrie said...

This could be the Ocean's Eleven robbery!!

Dominic Rivron said...

The last place I remember seeing a portcullis was on a thrupenny bit (which was, incidentally, 12-sided).

Dominic Rivron said...

...Argh! Which just goes to show how unobservant I am! There's one on the 1p coin too.

Junosmom said...

I am wondering, Chris, as you took these photos, that you were not pinpointed as someone casing the joint. I have heard of foreigners here being questioned for taking strategic photos of bridges and buildings. Okay,not in KY, but in larger urban areas.

Cool to see. I wonder if they've ever been used.

Sepiru Chris said...


It could well be; especially now that banks are turning out to be great casinos with their risk models... but they also pay out to the house, first...

Dominic Rivron,

I agree there is one on both coins, but what function do they serve there!


I hear you. Civil liberties have been severely constrained in many countries, the US in particular, when one looks at a before and after snapshot of 911.

Not only have official civil liberties been curtailed, but so have unofficial civil liberties.

I have a friend who snapped a photo of the iconic Transamerica Tower (the big pyramidal tower) in San Francisco from across the street.

Apparently, a private, burly security guard ran after him to have the photo deleted (through physical intimidation) because the guard considered this a safety issue.

From that perspective, the terrorists clearly won. They have effectively changed the way we live.

Look at the gentleman who was prevented from boarding a flight because he had a T-shirt with Arabic script on it.

Now, not only has a religion been demonized, and an ethnicity, but even an alphabet.

I find that terrifying and deeply saddening.

Fortunately, Hong Kong still possesses many freedoms that Britain lacks.

(There are far fewer official cameras here than in official spy-camera-mad Britain.)

And I think it is safe for someone that looks like a tourist, here, to take photos of iconic buildings.

But who knows. Maybe I have been listed.

Wait; I'll be back in a second, there's a knock at the door

daviddb said...

Fascinating. Everyday's a school day. All I did was look up in google to see how a portcullis might work.....