Conceived during a sensitive period in the former colony's history, the brief for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters was a statement of confidence: to create 'the best bank building in the world'. Through a process of questioning and challenging − including the involvement of a feng shui geomancer − the project addressed the nature of banking in Hong Kong and how it should be expressed in built form. In doing so it virtually reinvented the office tower.

The requirement to build in excess of a million square feet in a short timescale suggested a high degree of prefabrication, including factory-finished modules, while the need to build downwards and upwards simultaneously led to the adoption of a suspension structure, with pairs of steel masts arranged in three bays. As a result, the building form is articulated in a stepped profile of three individual towers, respectively twenty-nine, thirty-six and forty-four storeys high, which create floors of varying width and depth and allow for garden terraces. The mast structure allowed another radical move, pushing the service cores to the perimeter to create deep-plan floors around a ten-storey atrium. A mirrored 'sunscoop' reflects sunlight down through the atrium to the floor of a public plaza below - a sheltered space, which at weekends has become a lively picnic spot. From the plaza, escalators rise up through the glass underbelly to the banking hall, which was conceived as a 'shop window for banking'.

The 'bridges' that span between the masts define double-height reception areas that break down the scale of the building both visually and socially. A unique system of movement through the building combines high-speed lifts to the reception spaces with escalators beyond, reflecting village-like clusters of office floors. From the outset, the Bank placed a high priority on flexibility. Interestingly, over the years, it has been able to reconfigure office layouts with ease, even incorporating a large dealers' room into one floor − a move that could not have been anticipated when the building was designed.

Sketches + Drawings




Martin Pawley

“Foster and his team were working on the other side of the world, in another culture with a simultaneously cosmopolitan and native face. In the end, the building was not the creation of electronic international banking, nor a semi-colonial gift from an old power to a younger one; its design grew, more than anything else from an unprecedented act of learning.”


Martin Pawley

“Legend has it that Foster received only one directive from the bank director Roy Munden when he won the architectural competition for the job in 1979 - 'build me the best bank in the world'. When the architect got down to business the only other directive that emerged was 'keep it simple'.”

The Guardian, April 1986

Ray Guy

“The bank is very fluid in its staff movements. The design had to reflect that and it also had to reflect the changes that are coming into banking. We were the first electronic bank in the Far East and the rest of the world has now caught up; now we are taking a ten-year step and the building has had to reflect that. It has also had to confront everyday changes within the building because we move approximately 50 per cent of this building every year in terms of office accommodation, so flexibility had to be built into the building.”

lecture at the Burrell Museum, Glasgow, January 1986

Norman Foster

“Many buildings are statements of confidence in the future, so they are inextricably linked to the political processes which generate their need, and some of that is really highly symbolic. The Bank was certainly no exception. It was a very considered move, as a vehicle to enhance the prosperity of that particular bank, which has since moved dramatically into the world league. But it was also a symbol of confidence in the future of the colony.”

lecture at Glasgow Royal Conference hall, 8 May 1997

Deyan Sudjic

“The Bank… is the most astonishing expression of the nation of architecture as a prefabricated industrial process, in which the highest objective I the creation of highly serviced, limitlessly flexible, non-hierarchical internal spaces. And in which format values are eschewed in favour of exteriors that are made legible – which express how they are made and what they do.”

Blueprint, November 1985

Chris Abel

“There is a lot more that is Gothic than Classical in all this structural and spatial magic, contrary statements about Foster’s work notwithstanding. If the ‘medieval’ services towers, ‘flying braces’ and ‘incomplete’ appearance of the building had not already promoted the idea, then the soaring proportions of the atrium (read more) and the great translucent eastern window, easily justify the building’s popular description as a ‘cathedral of commerce.’

the Architectural review, April 1986

Chris Abel Architecture and Identity: Responses to Cultural and Technological Change

“The bank’s Second Machine Age technology may be global, but the structural expression and spatial qualities are distinctly Pacific, if not precisely local; lightweight floating floors and delicate transparent screens against a massive aggressive supporting structure: Madam Butterfly meets Godzilla.”


High Pearman

“The aesthetic of the Hongkong Bank is wholly a result of its method of construction, an aesthetic that is not confined to the exterior, but permeates the whole internal life of the building. At every suspended in the sky, every visible structural component evidently has an important role within the load-bearing capacity. It is both earnest and restless, and quite unlike a conventional office tower, where big efforts are made to make the internal spaces as neutral as those found in any low-rise building.”

Contemporary world Architecture, 1998

Robert Hughes

“Foster’s 1985 tower for the Hongkong and Shanghai bank in Hong Kong reversed the general dogma that a high-rise office block had to have a sold central core; it is not a ‘block’ but a frame a vertical web whose generous, open ground floor level has become a Sunday gathering spot for Hong Kong’s Filipina maids. It has probably done more to change the way people think about what Foster calls ‘the culture of office buildings’ and the relation of the corporate with the public domain in the city’s matrix, than any other twentieth century structure.”

Time magazine, 19 April 1999

Norman Foster

“By lifting the main body of the building above the ground and creating a glass underbelly we allowed banking to be seen as a dynamic activity; the banking hall becomes a showcase to be viewed from the plaza below.”

Stephen Gardiner

“Communication again; the building is the village, the office group is the community, the escalator is the lane. In Foster’s imagery, you could call them that.”

the Listener, February 1983

Peter Conrad

“In the congested centre of Hon Kong, the Bank unfurls from the sky, like a mechanised Jacob’s Ladder, and touches the ground.’

The Observer Magazine, 11 April 1999

Facts + Figures

  • Appointment: 1979
  • Completion: 1986
  • Area: 99,000m²
  • Height: 183m
  • Capacity: 8800
  • Client: Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation
  • Structural Engineer: Ove Arup & Partners
  • Quantity Surveyor: Northcroft Neighbour & Nicolson with Levett & Bailey
  • M+E Engineer: Roger Preston & Partners
  • Landscape Architect: Technical Landscapes Ltd
  • Lighting Engineer: Claude and Danielle Engle Lighting/Bartenback Wagner Lichttechnische Planung GmbH
  • Additional Consultants: Project Planning Group, Jolyon Drury Consultancy, Cini-Little Associates, Dieter Jaeger / Quickborner Team, Humberside Maintenance Systems, John Lok / Wimpey Joint Venture, Boundary Layer Wind Tunnel Laboratory, University of Western Ontario, Mass Transit Railway, Fitch & Chung, Professor Eric Lye


  • PA Innovations Award
  • Quaternario Award for Innovative Technology in Architecture
  • Institution of Structural Engineers Special Award
  • Structural Steel Award
  • Marble Architectural Awards East Asia
  • R.S. Reynolds Memorial Award administered by the AIA
  • Premier Architectural Award at the Royal Academy, London

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