Architect Paul Katz: Designer of Asia's tallest skyscrapers

Architect Paul Katz: Designer of Asia's tallest skyscrapers

The brains behind mega developments Roppongi Hills, Shanghai World Financial Tower and Hong Kong's International Commerce Centre explains why up is the only way to go
Paul Katz
Paul Katz wants to build up, not out. His projects reflect that vertical ambition.

Paul Katz and his team at Kohn Pedersen Fox (with offices in New York City and five other international cities, including Hong Kong, Shanghai and Seoul) are the architects behind some of Asia's biggest and most superlative-laden developments. The most recent is Hong Kong's International Commerce Centre. On a recent stop in Hong Kong, Katz explained why density is the key to a great city and insisted Hong Kong needs to step up its game.

CNNGo: Is bigger better?

Paul Katz: Not at all. Our interest is in density. Density is very important to the future way to grow cities rather than sprawl. From a sustainable point of view, density has proven to be better for the environment and for human interaction, for creativity, for living close together. 

Asia is where half the world's population is and it is undergoing such a rapid transformation. The modern city will need to be built based on density to suit the new lifestyle.

CNNGo: In terms of architecture, what's the key to successful city planning?

Katz: Great cities are built out of variety and so where the buildings are all tall or the buildings are all small is not really the answer. The greatest cities have a great diversity in scale.

One of the things that people react to in Hong Kong is when that diversity gets lost, so the reaction is we don't want anymore tall buildings. But what makes Hong Kong great is when you get those contrasts between big and small.

One of the lovely things about Tokyo is that you get big, medium and small buildings all put together. So you can go out of Roppongi Hills and you go down the street and you can go to a little noodle place in a side alley.

CNNGo: Your critics might say that by encouraging urban buildup, you are actually acting against the idea of diversity of scale that you preach.

Katz: As the population grows continuously you have to solve the problem of where all these people are going to live and work and play. Edward Glaeser's book, "The Triumph of the City," talks about the ecological benefits of a city that develops vertically upward versus the negative effects of sprawl.

CNNGo: So, you can’t escape building, but it is the way that you go about it that matters?

Katz: Right. How to build is a philosophical, economic and ecological decision. Certainly we try to maintain the unique culture and the heritage in a city wherever we build.

One of the things that is very good in Hong Kong and maybe Singapore is the link between public transportation and real estate development. You can zip around multi-centered cities using public transport. You have city centers growing around the metro stations.

As quality of life in the centers improve, young people will have less interest in using cars and just use public transportation.

In New York, Zipcars mean you don't really need to own a car, because you just pay by the hour. Those ultimate models of car ownership will transform the way we live in the future. The next step in urban development will be the changing of what the car means and possibly abandoning the need to own a car.

CNNGo: For an architect, is Asia the best place to be right now?

Katz: Asia is a place that is defined by speed. The transformation is happening at such a rapid pace. You can get so much done.

Japan is an architect's heaven. Design permeates everything there. Japan is total design.

Hong Kong and Singapore are also very sophisticated cities that are changing all the time and the nature of the city is to allow for transformation. Tokyo, New York and London have all transformed themselves over time in a positive way. They are all better than 10 years ago.

CNNGo: You received a lot of criticism for the Roppongi Hills project, particularly the revolving doors scandal. What were the lessons learned there?

Katz: Everything we do is a lesson and a model for the next building. It is all a series of experiments based on the past.

It was very unfortunate about the child and being in Japan it was taken very seriously. All the doors were taken out. Was it successful? Well, Roppongi Hills influenced many mixed-use developments that came after it.

Architects are only tailors. We are quite fallible. People often do not build what we design. We are disappointed when we can't convince the client. We're humbled by what we do. We don't think we're that smart.

CNNGo: Is Hong Kong still an “architect’s playground”?

Katz: Hong Kong has lost a lot of what made it special, but it does still have this magic about it that comes from the blend of tall buildings and nature.

Hong Kong has this special topography, that blend of water and greenery and buildings. It could be a wonderful experience living here. Actually Hong Kong, Sydney, Vancouver, Cape Town, Singapore, these are all cities with that great topography of the water and the lush green and urban buildup.

But the pedestrian experience in Hong Kong has not improved. It is what needs to be focused on. We need to grow out of the need to be in air-conditioned interiors. We need more pleasant outdoor experiences. There are too many air-conditioned spaces.

It is also very hard to have a random experience, because we always take the same path. The mark of a good city is when you walk from A to B, the journey is full of surprises. So you are learning from these experiences everyday. Asia can do that. It can make unique experiences out of walking. Just to get lost in the city should be a great experience.


After traveling around the world on a fistful of dollars, Zoe returns to Hong Kong, where she grew up, to discover and write about all the inspiring stuff that happens here on a daily basis.

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