The HSBC building influenced how commercial tower blocks and entire financial centres have been made ever since.


Banks don’t very often play a starring role in protests, unless they are providing the windows to be smashed, the Mammonic effigies to be burned, or the slick corporate infrastructure from which banners may be strung. Which makes the headquarters of HSBC Bank in Hong Kong, Norman Foster’s £700m oil rig of colonial capital, an unusual case.

For a year from 15 October 2011, the sloping granite plaza beneath the tower’s bulging glass belly sheltered the ad hoc tent-and-cardboard city of the Occupy movement. The protesters were fighting not against the tyranny of capitalism, but to preserve some of the very values that this imperial bastion represents: namely democratic rule, threatened by the coming transfer of power to the Chinese state.

When the board of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation came together in the mid-1970s to formulate plans for their new headquarters, the symbolic political power of their building was similarly at the forefront of their minds. In the run-up to the 1997 handover of sovereignty to China, which was beginning to cause alarm amongst the more panicky of the island’s residents, the bank was keen to plant a conspicuous stake in the future of the territory. Whatever Chinese communist rule would bring, HSBC’s new building had to be designed to show that capitalism would have a prominent role. It must be a beacon of reassurance, proving that there was no justification for the flight of either people or capital from the fragrant harbour.

When it was completed in 1986, the HSBC HQ was the most expensive building in the world. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
When it was completed in 1986, the HSBC HQ was the most expensive building in the world. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images
Until that point, major investments in private physical infrastructure had not been considered a priority in Hong Kong. It had always been seen as a high-octane pleasure island, a place to make as much money as quickly as possible, while keeping a keen eye on the escape route. But the coming handover provided the pressure for architectural ambitions to be crystallised. HSBC, which was practically an arm of government, issuing currency notes and shaping economic policy, decided they needed “the best bank building in the world” – an office tower that would have to be the highest quality both in name and reality for at least the next 50 years.

By the time it was completed in 1986, it would be the most expensive building in the world. Its astronomical bill (equivalent to £1.8bn at today’s prices) came down to Foster’s total approach to the project: every part of what an office building should be was to be fundamentally rethought from scratch. To make this building, the wheel had to be reinvented many times over: because in Foster’s world, there is always a better wheel to be made.

Office buildings don’t very often rewrite the way in which cities are built, but the HSBC building, both Foster’s first major project outside the UK and his first tower, tore up the rule book and influenced how commercial blocks and entire financial centres have been made ever since. It took the 1960s dream of a plug-in, prefab city and made it real, as well as reinventing the slab of stacked floor-plates as a series of vertical neighbourhoods, and it showed how a corporate monument of this scale could actually give something back to the city at street level.

Protesters move a tent during the “Occupy Central” campaign, which began in October 2011. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
Protesters move a tent during the “Occupy Central” campaign, which began in October 2011. Photograph: Bobby Yip/Reuters
Much of the drive for innovation came down to speed. The need to build in over a million square feet of office space in a short amount of time pointed towards a high degree of prefabrication, leading the project conceived as a city-sized Meccano set. Like Richard Rogers’ Lloyds building – which was completed the same year, making these buildings and their architects the twin titans of the High Tech movement – it embodied the contemporary dream of factory-floor mass production, which in reality necessitated levels of bespoke manufacture and highly skilled craftsmanship worthy of a medieval cathedral.

It was to be a global assembly line, an international kit of parts that included 30,000 tonnes of steel modules made by ship-builders in Glasgow, along with service pods from Japan, lightweight movable flooring panels from America, as well as components from Holland, Germany and Italy, all assembled in Hong Kong like a vertical jumbo jet, with a degree of precision never before attempted in a building. The aluminium cladding system alone required 10,000 drawings to be made.

As Foster wrote at the time: “The sheer visual delight of the cladding details on the bank could not have happened without a shared endeavour, enthusiasm and dedication which extended from a factory in Missouri, through to a Chinese workforce on site, and a highly mobile design team who were as much at home on the shop floor as on the drawing board. It is as much about aesthetics as water penetration and tolerances, but it is not about the architect as a remote aesthete removed from the production process.”

The building’s escalators supposedly represent the whiskers of a dragon. Facebook Twitter Pinterest
The building’s escalators apparently symbolise the whiskers of a dragon sucking wealth into its belly. Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images
The kind of structure was as revolutionary as the method of construction, having more in common with building a bridge than a conventional office block. In order to liberate the banking floors from the usual grid of structural columns and provide flexibility for future changes, the structure and servicing was banished to the edges of the plan, with groups of floors suspended from great coat-hanger trusses, dramatically slung between steel masts at either end of the building. All of these structural gymnastics are expressed on the facade, along with racks of solar shading louvres and typhoon bracing for the windows, giving the tower the look of a gleaming off-shore rig, a machine for drilling wealth from the bedrock beneath Central Hong Kong, a refinery built on opium and imperialism.

Inside, this hefty exoskeleton allowed for a revolutionary organisation of staff. Clusters of floors were organised in five “social villages”, separated by double-height communal floors where the trusses leap across the facade. Banks of high-speed elevators shuttle employees to these five levels, from where the individual office floors are accessed by a zig-zagging series of escalators, turning the circulation into a theatrical and sociable promenade.

The suspension structure also had implications at ground level, allowing the entire building to be jacked up on steel legs to free the area beneath for the public plaza. It was a significant gesture in high-density Hong Kong and it continues to be a well-used public space space, taking on a welcome lease of life as a sheltered carpet for pick-nicking Filipino maids at the weekend, who take advantage of the air-conditioning leaking out of the bulging glass ceiling above.

From here, two of what still purport to be the longest freely supported escalators in the world sweep up at odd angles for feng shui reasons – they apparently symbolise the whiskers of a dragon sucking wealth into its belly. They also serve to whisk visitors up into a 10-storey atrium, where a faceted glazed vault appears to funnel light down from above, belying the fact that there are in fact 25 storeys of offices stacked above this glass ceiling. The trick? It’s all done with mirrors. An early example of the nascent gadget fetish of the period, which led to a dysfunctional slew of computer-controlled building systems that have plagued the world’s caretakers ever since, the building employed a revolutionary mechanical “sunscoop”. A bank of mirrors projects out on the south-facing facade at 12th-floor level, like an oversized gutter, programmed to follow the position of the sun throughout the day and reflect the light back onto a curving mirrored ceiling at the top of the atrium. Thirty years on, it’s not really working out as planned: all the office lights are generally switched on in the middle of the day.
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But, in other ways, the structure has remained true to its flexible dream. Floors have been reconfigured over the years and a large dealers’ room has been incorporated on one level, which wouldn’t have been possible with a more conventional structure. Feng shui has returned too. Although the entire building was originally designed in collaboration with a trained feng shui geomancer, they could not have anticipated the arrival of IM Pei’s Bank of China building next door in 1990. The sharp corners of its faceted flanks can apparently be seen to represent knife edges, wilfully slashing away at the good fortune of its neighbours. Was it a coincidence that, in this bastion of Chinese might, one knife edge pointed towards British Government House, while the other jabbed in the direction of the HSBC building? And that, shortly after it was completed, the Governor died and there was a sharp downturn in HSBC’s fiscal fortunes?

Better safe than sorry, advised HSBC’s feng shui masters, who promptly saw to it that two cannon-shaped protrusions were installed on the roof, pointing directly back at the Bank of China. They look more like window-cleaning gantries to me, but on an island where apartment buildings have holes cut through the middle to allow dragons to reach the water, it’s somehow appropriate for the architecture to acknowledge the invisible forces of financial and diplomatic warfare being waged across these streets.