11 January 2021
Ken Shuttleworth is Founder of Make Architects, where he currently oversees several high-profile tall building schemes around the world. He is the former President of the British Council of Offices, and in 2013 he set up the Future Spaces Foundation to advance research and debate about sustainable cities.

From his London office, Shuttleworth spoke to Chinachem Group Executive Director and CEO Donald Choi, his long-time friend and former colleague at Foster + Partners. They worked together on various landmark projects, including the Hong Kong International Airport, one of the Top 10 Construction Achievements of the 20th Century. Shuttleworth shared his philosophy as an architect and the firm’s role in contributing to the environment and building liveable communities.

In the course of his 40-year career, Shuttleworth has worked on some of the most ground-breaking architecture landmarks in the world. In addition to the Hong Kong International Airport, his other highly acclaimed projects include the HSBC Main Building in Hong Kong; the City Hall and 30 St Mary Axe (formally known as Swiss Re Building) in London.

Choi has worked globally as an architect and developer for over three decades. Currently Executive Director and CEO of Chinachem Group, he believes in the power of design and architecture to empower society. He is also active in community services. He is the President of the Hong Kong Institute of Architects and Convener of Greater Bay Area Urban Designer Alliance.

Feeling of increased sense of community in lockdown

Choi (C): What was it like in London during the lockdown?

Shuttleworth (S): Despite the disruption it caused to our daily lives, we’ve developed more community spirit. More people are helping each other out, visiting or calling up neighbours and relatives. We feel connected to our community.

C: It’s true. Every crisis comes with opportunity and I think Covid is no exception as it brings the community closer together despite that we all work in different places. We’re still able to connect to each other through technology.

S: Yes, over lockdown’s peak we had 160 people working from their kitchen tables, but you do miss the social connection. But when London’s lockdown restrictions were eased, some 30-50 staff members came back to the studio and I came back once in a while. The connection is great.

Technology enables remote team works

C: Apart from the London studio you also have studios in Sydney and Hong Kong as well, right?

S: Yes. Our Hong Kong studio has been around for 10-15 years and we’ve had a team in Australia for eight years. We really have a good spread of works between the Hong Kong and Sydney studios.

C: I worked on the Hong Kong airport project with you before. Since our time zones were different, our works done in Hong Kong could be passed to you in the London office to carry out. Literally we worked 24x7!

S: We still use that same ethos. We have one team working in three locations to make the most of time differences. We have people working in London, Sydney and Hong Kong on projects in China. We can check the project status wherever we’re in the world. That’s a great advantage.

Advantages of Hong Kong as a dense city

C: Over the course of your career, you worked on many landmark projects in Hong Kong, such as the HSBC Hong Kong headquarters, the Hong Kong International Airport, etc. How do you see Hong Kong as a high-density city, especially when we are working towards the net zero target?

S: The great advantage of a dense city like Hong Kong is that everybody is close to each other. In Hong Kong you don’t need to drive your car everywhere and you can just commute to work quickly via the MTR, which is environmentally friendly. You can also walk around. When I worked on the HSBC project, I lived in the Mid-levels area, which is within an easy walking distance of the site.

If you go to cities like Los Angeles, it is really spread out. So you spend a lot of time travelling to work and there are pollution problems. I think what Hong Kong probably needs more is green space, more connection to nature. But I know Hong Kong does have some great country parks!

Architect’s responsibility

C: Indeed, and they are not too far away from the urban area. But I agree with you that we do need more greenery throughout the urban area. As architects I think we want to design buildings to improve our quality of life. So how do you see the architect’s responsibility in designing more liveable cities to improve people’s quality of life?

S: It’s our main responsibility. I’m in a business of improving people’s life. I love the fact people’s lives are improved through the buildings we produce. We may turn a project down if it isn’t in line with our values. We all need to do something to help reduce carbon footprint.

C: As an architect I’m still passionate about this profession because it can change people’s lives. When done correctly, we can also make our planet more sustainable for future generations.

S: I think we need to touch the planet as lightly as possible. We need to make buildings as energy efficient as possible. We also have to use more sustainable building materials and construction methods.

How new technology helps with sustainable development

C: The entire lifecycle of a building is something that the architect should also pay attention to, not just the initial capital cost. Do you think the advancement of technology can help us achieve this goal?

S: We always leverage on technology to achieve the best we can. In my career, we shifted from the drawing board to computers in the 1970s. With technology we can design things much more accurately and get rid of waste. We can trial and test different concepts quickly. Technology empowers us with the capability to manipulate the space; it’s fantastic. Technology helps us identify better ways of getting sustainable materials to work, for example the potential of using cross-laminated timber as an alternative to concrete, which wasn’t possible a few years ago.

Developer’s role in sustainability

C: No architect can do his or her job without clients. So what do you think is the client’s role in helping the design team in realising a better vision and creating better projects and buildings for the community? What role does the developer play?

S: When I was in the first year in university, I didn’t know we needed clients. I only discovered this in my second year! For sure they play an important role. If they don’t want to save the planet, care for the environment and think about where the materials come from, then we need to let them know.

C: When we look back at the buildings we designed in the past, we always realise that we could have done it better. We can always see our progress.

S: For me, I’m keen to explore new ways of doing things and always want to be one step ahead. Other architects may just refine what they’ve done before. But we’re more aggressive. We deliberately don’t have a house style. We just do whatever we consider to be right for a particular project, for that client, on that site, at that moment, for the planet. Like Chinachem, we strive to make constant improvements.

Improvements made in public transportation, building design

C: We’re also trying to do projects to contribute to our community and the planet as we move forward. You’ve visited Hong Kong many times since the early 1980s. Do you think Hong Kong has also made improvements in terms of sustainability?

S: I remember when I first visited Hong Kong, every building was single glazed. But now single glazing is like a thing of the past. The MTR network has improved a lot. There’s also been a huge improvement in building design, fewer heavily glazed, all-glass buildings, more insulation.

C: I think the attitude in Hong Kong is also changing. We are much more aware of the needs to build more sustainable buildings. We are looking at passive design. We want to design better ventilated buildings.

S: Cars going electric is fantastic. Zero emissions. Moving silently around. I think very soon there won’t be CO2 emission from cars on road. Now if you open a window, there are still lots traffic fumes. But if this trend goes on, possibly 10 or 20 years away from now, there will be no more fumes from the roads.

C: As you’ve mentioned, Hong Kong has a good mass transit railway system. Can Hong Kong set itself as an example of walkable urbanism?

S: In many parts of Hong Kong, there are elevated walkways connecting major buildings as well as MTR stations. It’s already a model for other cities.

C: If there’s one thing that developers can change to improve the built environment, what is it you would you advise them?

S: For developers, it’s the location of the project, in terms of what surrounds it. Make sure you’re not damaging the surrounding environment. You’re part of the neighbourhood. For example, that the building is not going to overshadow the school nearby. And do more stakeholder engagement and really listen, for example, they can invite school kids to the construction site.

C: Yes, and I think we should also make public space more accessible to the community. That’s where human interactions and social activities happen. A lot of architects just concentrate on the building itself but overlook the importance of public space design.

S: So true. We need to engage the community in these spaces. We might put on a gallery, accommodate a coffee shop or a bicycle repair shop, etc to encourage people from across the community to have fun there. We need to have the community in mind during the master planning stage.

C: Hong Kong has a very unique urban model… such as elevated walkway networks connecting different buildings and transport nodes. Other high-density cities can actually learn from us, not just from our achievements but also our mistakes.

S: Hong Kong’s high-level walkway is a success and is like nowhere else. London and Paris, for example, are much more on the ground level. Hong Kong is a good example of what a dense, multi-level city of the future can be.

On housing affordability and Greater Bay Area development

C: Another big problem facing Hong Kong is the high home prices. For many reasons Hong Kong’s home prices have gone up a lot. Homes are getting smaller and smaller. As an architect, how do you see this problem, and what can be done to improve the quality of life despite a small living space?

S: While homes are getting smaller, there needs to be a minimum standard and you can’t go below it. The root cause of the problem is that there’re not enough residential buildings being built, and that demand is strong. Like in London, everybody wants to live in central London, and therefore house prices there go up and up. It’s same in Hong Kong. But during the pandemic, more Londoners have moved to the outskirts of the city, putting pressure on London’s house prices. I’m not sure whether it’s the same in Hong Kong.

C: Even the New Territories, the suburbs of Hong Kong, are overcrowded! But now there’s talk about reclaiming land off Lantau Island. I think Hong Kong’s residential districts will be more decentralised in the future. As the Greater Bay Area continues to take shape, thanks to improved connectivity, not only homes but future workplaces will also be more decentralised across the region within a one-hour travel distance.
Ken Shuttleworth and Donald Choi worked together on the design of the Hong Kong International Airport.



“I’m in a business of improving people's lives. I love the fact people's lives are improved through the buildings we produce. We may turn a project down if it is not in line with our values. We all need to do something to help reduce carbon footprint.” — Ken Shuttleworth, Founder of Make Architects

Ken Shuttleworth led on the design of many acclaimed buildings, including the HSBC Main Building in Hong Kong.

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