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Hongkong and Shanghai Bank - 10 questions to Lord Norman Foster

»The best office tower in the world« was the brief given to Norman Foster by his client , the Hong Kong Shanghai Building Corporation. When we visited the building in 1992 and November 2007,  it still looked as new as on the day it was finished in 1985. We wanted to know by Lord Foster himself though, what this building meant for his personal career and the success of his architecture firm.

Lord Norman Foster
Lord Norman Foster
Lord Norman Foster
Photos: Frank Kaltenbac

Only few buildings do not seem to age for decades. On visits in 1992 und 2007 (photos) the building of the bank just looked like being finished yet. DETAIL asked Lord Norman Foster how much the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank project has contributed to the success of his office Foster and Partners - and how important it has been to him in a personal way.

Hongkong view from Victoria Peak
Hongkong view from Victoria Peak, photo: Frank Kaltenbach

Only few buildings do not seem to age for decades. On visits in 1992 und 2007 (photos) the building of the bank just looked like being finished yet. DETAIL asked Lord Norman Foster how much the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank project has contributed to the success of his office Foster and Partners - and how important it has been to him in a personal way.

Hongkong Island at night
Hongkong Island at night, photo: Frank Kaltenbach

Were there any major changes in terms of function or plan layout of the office spaces inside? If yes, in what way?

Lord Norman Foster:
The building was far ahead of its time in being designed to meet previously unheard-of performance criteria. That has given the Bank huge flexibility. For example they were able to introduce a large trading floor quite easily and without disruption – something that could never have been anticipated when the building was designed. No traditional bank headquarters building has anything like this degree of flexibility, which is a consequence of relegating the normal central core to the edges of open, flexible floors. Interestingly, if you talk to the Bank, they will tell you that they link their consistent financial growth and strong world rating to the way the building has been able to adapt to suit changing needs.

View across Victoria Harbour, poto: Frank Kaltenbach

Have the users made use of the maximum of flexibility which the open office space provides?

In a sense I have already answered that, but since we have completed the Bank there have been several changes of senior management, so we are now addressing the needs of a completely new generation, which means that priorities and perceptions have changed.

Hongkong skyline
Hongkong skyline, photo: Frank Kaltenbach

Were there any major refurbishments of the facade or interior, any updating in terms of a state-of-the-art green building?

It is quite an efficient building in energy terms, with its extensive use of shading, displacement ventilation and sea water cooling. However like any building owner-occupier the Bank are always looking for ways to reduce consumption. The only significant change externally is that for security reasons, the lift lobby entrances now have glass enclosures.

HSBC-Bank at night
HSBC-Bank at night, photo: Frank Kaltenbach

Is the light scoop in the atrium still working?

Not to its full capacity – it requires some maintenance, but it is on course to be refurbished.

HSBC-Bank, Cheung Kong Center, and Bank of China Tower, photo: Frank Kaltenbach
HSBC-Bank, photo: Frank Kaltenbach

Is Feng Shui still an issue for new office buildings in Hong Kong and in mainland China? If yes, in what sense?

It is still a factor, but in my experience this has never led to a design conflict. If a building has good feng shui it’s probably also a good place to be, and that’s something we are all trying to achieve.

HSBC-Bank, view from Queensway, photo: Frank Kaltenbach

After the HSBC Foster + Partners received the commission for the Chek Lap Kok Airport, HACTL Superterminal and now for the West Kowloon Cultural District. Was the success of HSBC one of the reasons for these commissions?

The Bank has always been a symbol, not just of HSBC but also Hong Kong. However I do not believe that it is the reason for further commissions. I believe that our longstanding commitment to Hong Kong has always been important and we maintain a significant local presence. All of our commissions have been achieved on merit. I believe our masterplan for the West Kowloon Cultural District was selected because we offered a design that was favoured by the majority of people in Hong Kong. We listened to the community.

Entrance of the HSBC-Bank in Queens Road
Entrance of the HSBC-Bank in Queens Road, photo: Frank Kaltenbach

How important was HSBC for Foster + Partners? Did this project change the office from a midsize office to a global player?

It was not the scale of the project that allowed us to grow. The Bank challenged every preconception about the design of a high-rise office building. It showed that we could not only take on a project of unprecedented scale and complexity, but that we could also bring fresh thinking to bear – the potential to reinvent a building type. As a practice we had, from our very beginning, a strong emphasis outside the UK. Our very first project in 1967 was for a Norwegian client.

View on Des Voeux Road
View on Des Voeux Road, photo: Frank Kaltenbach
Foyer with escalator
Foyer with escalator, photo: Frank Kaltenbach

What did you learn from HSBC for later projects?

We learnt a great deal about the nature of the office tower; how to analyse the workings of a large organisation; cost control and environmental management; not least how to prefabricate and assemble a complex building, bringing components together literally from across the globe; and much more – it’s a long list.

Foyer, view from escalator
Foyer, view from escalator, photo: Frank Kaltenbach

Would you say that the HSBC was the »best« or »most important« building Foster + Partners has done so far? If not, which building would it be?

It is impossible to choose a favourite or »most important« building – every project has been special in its own way. Having said that, the Bank was our first significant project in Asia, an area which has grown in significance to us since then. Its design has undoubtedly been very influential and as a project it does mark a significant point in our evolution.

Entrance/Foyer, photo: Frank Kaltenbach

At the time the HSBC was built Hong Kong was a UK colony. What is different building there today for Foster + Partners as an architect, since Hong Kong now belongs to mainland China?

When the Bank was completed it was the tallest building on the Harbour. It remains a powerful presence even though it has been physically overtaken by a new generation of towers.
Looking back, it was built during a very sensitive time in Hong Kong’s history. It was politically very important for our client that the building should be created without compromise and that it should be a statement of confidence – our brief was to create »the best bank building in the world«. At the time, Hong Kong was not capable of producing the components for a building of this sophistication – everything had to be shipped in. Since then, of course, the impact of China’s rapid industrialisation on Hong Kong, as a market place for, and gateway to, the mainland has been remarkable. It is even more exciting to be working and building there today than it was thirty years ago.

Inside, photo: Frank Kaltenbach
Interior, photo: Frank Kaltenbach
Inside the load bearing structure becomes visible, photo: Frank Kaltenbach
20 Hongkong-Dollar form HSBC-Bank
20 Hongkong-Dollar form HSBC-Bank, photo: Frank Kaltenbach

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