The most expensive building of its time, the HSBC Headquarters in Hong Kong established Norman Foster as a prolific global phenomenon. An entry to the 1979 design competition conducted by the global financial firm HSBC, the 44 storey skyscraper was Foster’s first building outside the UK. 

Completed in 1985, the skyscraper comprises three individual towers placed alongside each other, with a twenty-nine floor and thirty-six storey block on either side of the forty-four-storey high central tower.

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Northern Facade facing Victoria Harbour ©Calvin Sit

Beacon of Reassurance

Constructed on the site of the old HSBC building, the skyscraper was conceived during a sensitive period in Hong Kong’s history. HSBC, which was established in 1865 to facilitate financial trade between Europe and Asia, wanted to symbolise the prominence of capitalism in the former colony regardless of the political climate. The corporation wanted the headquarters to be a visible demonstration of the bank’s commitment to its birthplace. 

During the handover of sovereignty to China in 1997, the building was established as a beacon of reassurance to the migrating masses, pointing to the absurdity of the frenzy. 

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Old HSBC Headquarters, 1950s  ©Old HK Photo

Inside – Out Architecture

“……the brief for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters was a statement of confidence: to create ‘the best bank building in the world’.” – Foster & Partners

To meet the requirements of the brief, Foster reimagined, restructured, and redesigned every aspect of a corporate building. An example of high-tech architecture (emerged in Britain in the late 1960s), the skyscraper was characterised by a combination of the potential of structure and industrial technology. A common theme of this architecture style, the structure of the skyscraper was pulled out from the inside and displayed on the facade. 

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A revolutionary design  ©Foster & Partners

The ‘traditional’ central structural core was pushed to the east and west edges of the building. In the core’s absence, an open space emerged that provided flexibility and ease of reconfiguration of office layouts. 

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Office Floor Plan with core placed on the eastern and western edges  ©Foster & Partners

The office floors were raised off the ground, which left space for a sheltered public plaza and allowed pedestrians to pass underneath the building. The entrance to the plaza features a 40m high atrium, adorned with mirrors on top that reflect the sunlight creating a light scoop down the atrium. A pair of escalators connect the public plaza to the upper floor.

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Natural light penetrating the atrium  ©Foster & Partners

Another major consideration was to allow the high-speed lifts to only stop at the double-height reception areas. From there, movement and connectivity were provided by the 62 escalators that run throughout the building, reflecting village-like clusters of office floors. The reception areas break down the scale of the building both visually and socially. The stepped profile of the three individual towers (29, 36, & 44-storeys high), create floors of varying width and depth allowing for garden terraces. 

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Design Evolution ©Foster & Partners 

Structural Marvel

Designed with Ove Arup & Partners, the skyscraper is a hanging steel structure, featuring eight masts, each consisting of four columns, supporting five discrete double-storey height steel suspension structures which span 33.5m between the masts and cantilever 10.7m beyond them. The system provided the opportunity to express the lift cores along the perimeter of the building and allowed the creation of large span column-free floors. An 8m diameter rock tunnel was constructed beneath the building to provide seawater for air-conditioning.

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Bamboo scaffolding was used  ©Foster & Partners

The requirement to build about 99,000 square metres in a short timescale suggested a high degree of prefabrication, including factory-finished modules. Adopting a suspension structure also allowed building downwards and upwards simultaneously. 

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Upper and lower levels were constructed simultaneously  ©Foster & Partners

According to Foster, Hong Kong lacked the technology and prefabrication skills at the time, and hence the building components were shipped from the UK, the USA, Japan, Germany, and Italy and were assembled on site. This required a very high degree of precision in engineering and assembly, which was unprecedented in the history of building construction.

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 ©Foster & Partners

Feng Shui

On an island where apartment buildings have holes cut through the middle to allow dragons to reach the water, one can expect feng shui to play a significant role in the erection of an architectural symbol. A feng shui geomancer was, thus, consulted during the designing of the skyscraper. The open atrium facilitated the flow of wind and positive qi through the building. 

The public plaza escalators were built at an angle, as it is believed that evil spirits can only travel in straight lines. The unobstructed view of Victoria Harbour was considered a sign of prosperity as water is strongly associated with wealth in feng shui. 

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Public plaza with the escalators built at an angle ©Fosters & Partners

In 1990, IM Pei’s Bank of China building was constructed nearby and its sharp corners were seen as knife edges, slashing away the good fortune of its neighbours. One knife edge pointed towards the British Government House, while the other faced the HSBC building. Shortly after the Bank of China building was completed, the Governor died and there was a sharp downturn in HSBC’s fiscal fortunes. Hence, two cannon-shaped protrusions were installed on the roof, pointing directly back at the Bank of China, said to balance its negative qi.

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Two cannons to balance the negative qi of the Bank of China building ©Dezeen

Visionary Approach

The HSBC building tore up the rule book and influenced how commercial blocks and entire financial centres have been made ever since. It made the 1960s dream real of a plug-in, prefab city. It not only reinvented the slab of stacked floor-plates as a series of vertical neighbourhoods but also showed how a corporate monument could give something back to the city at street level. 

The revolutionary building has remained relevant in the field of architecture for its reinvention of corporate buildings and a crucial part of the high-tech architecture movement. 

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Entry from the Statue Square  ©Norman Foster

The skyscraper was built keeping the evolving nature of the island in mind. The hanging structural design allowed 30% additional superstructure floor area to accommodate changes in planning regulation in the future. Its impact on the public domain is also visible with the plaza being used as a shelter from the heat by nearby workers and it has become a popular picnic spot for many.

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Picnic spot for many, HSBC Headquarters, Hong Kong  ©Ben Johnson

The structure has remained true to its flexible dream and has seen multiple configurations, even the incorporation of a large dealer’s room, over the years. While newer and taller structures have emerged in the vicinity, the HSBC headquarters remains a landmark and symbol for the residents of Hong Kong.

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©Paul Yeung
Author

Currently pursuing his Bachelor's in Architecture, Vaibhav Gurung is a writer, conservationist, and artist. He aims to bring the worlds of sustainability, indigenous culture, and design philosophies closer together through his work. A vivacious conversationalist, he takes pride in his aesthetical and empathetic abilities to guide his designs as well as his daily life.

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