Defining Skylines: An Interview with Forth Bagley, Managing Principal

Principal at KPF, designers of six of the twelve tallest towers in the world, Forth Bagley discusses the importance of mixed-use programming in supertall towers and the duty these buildings hold to their host cities.


This Q&A is adapted from China’s Contemporary Architecture Magazine’s upcoming June edition.

As cities around the world are developing rapidly due, in some part, to the advancement of construction technology, many of KPF’s design works are defining their skylines. What are KPF’s thoughts on the impact of super high-rise buildings on the city?

One of the basic principles of our firm is a belief in the power of high-density urban centers – in cities – in bending the course of human history towards scientific, economic, social and environmental progress. Our practice was established with the goal of elevating commercial buildings into inspiring architecture.

When built in center city locations connected to public transportation, these towers signal policy that consolidates tens of thousands of office workers, hotel guests, shoppers, and residents connected to multi-modal transportation interchanges. High-density, mixed-use mega projects connected to public transportation are some of the most environmentally progressive buildings in the world.

Three of KPF’s supertall towers. From left to right: China Resources Tower in Shenzhen (image courtesy of Tim Griffith), CITIC Tower in Beijing (image courtesy of H.G. Esch), and Suzhou International Finance Square in Suzhou (image courtesy of Rex Zou).

As the basic building blocks of the city, tall buildings have a responsibility to the cities they inhabit – not just as iconic forms on dynamic skylines, but more importantly as symbols of environmental, economic, and social policy.

It has been said that KPF allows the dream of generating super high-rise buildings to come true. What are the advantages and highlights of KPF’s design plans compared with other architectural design firm?

One of the things that drives our practice more than anything is a pragmatic desire to get buildings built. An unbuilt building has limited impact on a city. A built building can change a city forever. We approach every building – especially big and tall buildings – with a programmatic, common sense approach.

I think one of the things that differentiates our practice from some of our competitors is that we really believe in the power of program to inform the form of the building. We don’t create form for form’s sake, but use the form of the building to respond efficiently to the programmatic requirements within it. I’ve always felt a good example of that is Shanghai World Financial Center, one our most famous supertall towers in China. The tower changes shape as it rises to accommodate the changing program of office, hotel, and observation program. The structural system and form of the building is totally in the service of the program within it. And once the program is housed efficiently, it’s then our job to make the building simple and clear on the skyline.

Shanghai World Financial Center. Image courtesy of Mori Building.
The stacked programming in the Shanghai World Financial Center, including the Park Hyatt Shanghai. Right images courtesy of Marc Gerristen for Hyatt Hotels.

In terms of the structure and technology of super high-rise buildings, what innovative practices has KPF recently carried out?

Most of our attention is directed towards how more and varied programming can be accommodated in the supertall. We are architects, and so are 100% focused on architecture – not structural engineering or other disciplines. I think the most interesting work we’ve done recently – in Lotte Tower in Seoul, in CTF Tower in Guangzhou – was accommodating many different types of program within singular forms. More and more we see the supertall tower as a city within a city. We’re working hard to figure out more and better ways for all of the program within these towers to interact so that the sum of all of the programs adds up to something more exciting than their programs alone. If you view the supertall as a small city or a big neighborhood, you can begin to see potential connections that you wouldn’t if you viewed it as just a singular building.

Overview and section plans of Lotte World Tower (left) and CTF Tower (right). Photographs courtesy of Tim Griffith.

Confronted with different historical contexts, cultural backgrounds, and urban environments compared with Europe and the United States, how has KPF carry out its practice in China?

We continue to work very hard to make sure our practice is rooted in China. We’ve invested heavily in growing talent in our Chinese offices, and are doing more and more essential work in China. China is our most important market because it’s a dynamic, innovative place to practice architecture.

We’ve worked to connect our global offices so that we operate as a single unit. This allows us to keep our practice fresh and make sure significant urban and architectural ideas can be shared.

KPF’s Shanghai office. Image courtesy of Xiao Long.
One Shenzhen Bay. From left to right: One Shenzhen Bay overview (image courtesy of Vivian Liu), retail storefront, residence programming (both images courtesy of Parkland Real Estate), and the Raffles Hotel (image courtesy of Raffles Hotels and Resorts).

What do you think is the relationship between the localization and globalization of architecture?

This will continue to be a fundamental dynamic in the practice of architecture over the next decade, and it’s further complicated by COVID and the travel restrictions that will likely linger for at least a short while.

At KPF, we’ve always tried to approach each building as an individual design challenge related to its context. But our global footprint allows us to imbue local architectural responses with best global practices.

Ping An Financial Centre. Image courtesy of Tim Griffith.

What would you like to say to young Chinese architects who aspire to work on super high-rise buildings?

Firstly, all architecture is a collaborative exercise. Supertall towers are complicated buildings and necessarily more collaborative to create. The structural and mechanical engineers are critical to success. So is the contractor. If you want to work on supertall towers as an architect, you need to embrace collaboration. You have to want to communicate outside the profession and to engage other people in order to get these complicated buildings built.

Secondly, come work with us at KPF!