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Hongkong & Shanghai Bank Headquarters
1 Queen's Road Central, Hong Kong Island, Hong Kong
associated engineer
Ove Arup & Partners
date  1979 - 1985
era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  HN539371
Foster + Partners’ steel and glass building for the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank is the bank’s fourth headquarters on the same spot. Standing in one of the world's most densely populated conurbations, it was the most expensive building in the world when completed. Its design encompasses numerous innovations not seen before in high-rise structures and it remains state of the art.
On 3rd March 1865, Scotsman Thomas Sutherland (1834-1922) founded the Hongkong & Shanghai Banking Corporation Ltd (now known as HSBC). He wanted to establish a bank to support international trade that was owned and managed locally. It remains Hong Kong's principal issuer of banknotes.
The bank’s headquarters have always been located at this site. The original building was demolished in 1886. Its replacement, erected the same year, was in typically ornate Victorian style with four tiers of verandas and colonnades topped by a domed turret.
The third building, constructed in 1935, had a larger footprint and a plainer design, influenced by Art Deco and Classical styles. It was Hong Kong's first to be fully air-conditioned.
In 1978, the bank decided to rebuild and enlarge its headquarters again, as the earlier building could not accommodate all its departments under the same roof. In June 1979, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) sought proposals on the bank’s behalf. The bold brief for the new structure was to create "the best bank building in the world", of the highest quality, for the next 50 years.
On 13th November 1979, Foster Associates (now Foster + Partners) was selected from a shortlist of six architects, and established a Hong Kong office in January 1980 to progress the design. In January 1981, their scheme was approved by the bank but work had to be completed by the end of 1985.
The 1935 headquarters closed on 26th June 1981, with demolition commencing on 6th July the same year. The two bronze lions at the entrance, by British sculptor William Wheatley Wagstaff (1880-1962), were moved into storage.
The new building had to meet the client's banking needs, offer flexibility of layout and be constructed within the short timescale. Hong Kong has no indigenous heavy industries, so everything for the project had to be imported. Consequently, the design produced by Foster Associates, led by Norman Robert Foster (b.1935, now Baron Foster of Thames Bank of Reddish), and structural engineer Ove Arup & Partners (now Arup) relies upon innovation and prefabrication.
Foster's design has a dramatic aluminium-clad steel exoskeleton and glazed curtain walls. The 178.8m tall building is rectangular in plan, approximately 54m by 70m. It rises 47 storeys above ground, with a basement 18.8m deep containing four levels, constructed within a perimeter diaphragm wall 254m long and founded on eight main caissons each 10m in diameter. Its street-level public plaza is 3,514 sq m is in area.
The maximum gross floor area allowed by planning regulations at the time was 100,000 sq m and this building has a gross area of 99,171 sq m, making a net area of 70,398 sq m. However, the structure has been designed to accommodate the future addition of 30 percent extra floor area, should regulations change.
Achieving the necessary above and below ground space within the timeframe led to construction being carried out upwards and downwards simultaneously. The superstructure arrangement adopted owes much to bridge design. Two parallel rows of four steel masts support five levels of suspension trusses from which are hung structural floors of 30m span, as well as service modules and stairs. The suspension trusses resemble giant coat hangers, spanning 33.6m east-west between pairs of masts with cantilevers of 10.7m to either side.
The mast array allowed the service cores to be located at the building’s perimeter, freeing a central volume in which the floors surround a ten-storey column-free atrium. Each mast consists of four tubular steel columns braced at the floor levels by rectangular Vierendeel beams.
The mast design was developed following wind tunnel testing at the University of Western Ontario, Canada. The tests also showed that the dynamic loading of conventional pinned connections in the steel frame could cause noise (and wear), so spherical plane bearings — seen more commonly in large-scale machinery — were used instead. More than 650 of the bearings havebeen used, varying in diameter from 150mm to 600mm.
The building has a stepped profile of three linked towers — 29, 36 and 44 storeys high — with floors of varying width and depth, plus garden terraces and a helipad at the topmost level. The masts extend from lowest basement level to the tops of the towers.
The structure is braced by 24 two-storey cross braces, which connect the masts inside the building at double height spaces. Two three-storey cross braces, at either end of the atrium, provide north-south stability. Floors consist of primary and secondary beams, decked with steel and 100mm of concrete overlay.
An external 'sun scoop', mounted at 12th floor level and made up of 480 mirrors, reflects natural light down through the atrium and its curved glass base to the busy plaza below. Solar gain is regulated by sunshades, and the building’s air-conditioning system is cooled by seawater.
Escalators rise through the glass from the plaza to the banking hall, designed as a 'shop window' for banking. Internally, the huge scale of the building is divided into flexible groups of offices. Bridges spanning between the masts define double-height reception areas, accessed by high-speed lifts with escalators beyond. The high level of transparency means that the building’s occupants, some 3,500 people, all have a view of either Victoria Peak (to the south west) or Victoria Harbour (to the north east).
Close collaboration and ongoing development of ideas were required among the team of bank, architect, engineer, contractor and manufacturer to realise the design concepts. Techniques were borrowed from other industries where they did not exist in building construction. Examples include the use expertise in steel pipeline work to solve the problem of corrosion, and oilrig construction to inform the approach to prefabrication.
Assemblies unique to the project were developed, including 139 combined prefabricated services modules for lavatories, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning plant, and an under-floor system for air-conditioning and sprinklers. Among other features, there are 62 escalators — the most on any single site in the world at the time — and 23 passenger lifts, which were originally transparent and built with technology from the NASA space programme. A document transport system serves 35 floors.
Developing protection from corrosion for the steel frame resulted in a completely new process — cementitious barrier coating. The space between the frame and its aluminium cladding is subject to condensation, providing ideal conditions for rust if the steel is unprotected. Encasing the steel in concrete, though effective, would have required a layer at least 50mm thick, spoiling the visual slenderness of the exoskeleton. The cementitious coating used includes admixtures enabling just a 12mm thick layer, and its chemical effectiveness increases in high humidity.
All the prefabricated components, manufactured and delivered by different organisations worldwide, had to fit together accurately on assembly. Precision manufacturing and tiny tolerances, on a scale hitherto unprecedented in the history of building construction, were key to the success of the project.
Another component of the structure was its feng shui (a Chinese philosophy for ensuring people are in harmony with their surroundings), and the whole building was designed in collaboration with a trained feng shui geomancer. The two entrance escalators — possibly still the longest freely supported escalators in the world — apparently symbolise the whiskers of a dragon sucking wealth into its belly.
The bank’s new headquarters began to be occupied in July 1985. The lion statues were re-installed at the entrance and the project was completed on 18th November 1985. At the time, it was the most expensive building in the world, costing more than HK$5 billion, and the tallest on the harbour in Hong Kong.
The building contains 27,400 tonnes of structural steel, 3,500 tonnes of aluminium cladding and 32,000 sq m of glass. The cladding system alone required 10,000 detailed engineering drawings and is described by Foster as a "sheer visual delight".
In 1990, the Bank of China building, designed by architect Ieoh Ming Pei (b.1917), was completed nextdoor to Foster’s building. Its sharp corners were believed to symbolise knife edges, upsetting the balance of feng shui and bringing misfortune. Two cannon-shaped structures were installed on HSBC's roof, pointing towards the Bank of China, and harmony was restored.
In the years since completion, the bank has been able to reconfigure its office layouts without difficulty — even incorporating a large dealers' room into one floor. However, the sun scoop is in need of refurbishment to work as efficiently as it did at first. In a 2005 interview, Foster explained "the Bank was a statement of confidence, created without compromise".
On 23rd November 2006, a new lobby at ground level beneath the atrium opened, marking the first major addition to the building since its completion. The 320 sq m glass lobby stretches the length of the plaza, from Queen’s Road Central to Des Voeux Road. It creates a new reception area as well as improving security and access to the upper floors. It also contains the HSBC Asian Story Wall, a multimedia installation displaying archived bank heritage and artworks.
Research: ECPK
"A Critical History of Contemporary Architecture: 1960-2010", eds Dr Elie G. Haddad, Asst Prof. David Rifkind and Sarah Deyong, Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2014

Hongkong & Shanghai Bank Headquarters