He's transformed the London skyline, conceived the form of the world's largest building and his design for Ground Zero is wowing New York. So why have so few people heard of him?
Look west from London's Tower Bridge and you'll see a skyline undergoing its most dramatic transformation in a generation. To the left, on the south bank of the river, a slew of curved-glass offices are rising beside the extraordinary, ovoid City Hall – itself completed just last year. To the right, just behind the Tower of London, a vast groundscraper called Tower Place is nearing completion; soaring behind that is the iconic Swiss Re tower.

All these buildings are the brainchild of just one person. Norman Foster? No – although they are all products of the Foster office, and Foster himself is popularly credited with each. In fact, the man responsible for changing the face of London is Foster's right-hand man, Ken Shuttleworth.

Shuttleworth is regarded by his contemporaries as the nicest bloke in the industry and one of the most talented and influential designers of our time – and yet few people have heard of him. "He is very much the unsung hero," says Peter Rogers, director at developer Stanhope. "But he's incredibly modest. Norman overshadows everybody in that practice, rather unfairly."

The shy, unassuming 50-year-old also designed the new Wembley Stadium and countless other projects around the country, but his influence extends way beyond the UK. One of four partners at Foster's 600-strong practice, Shuttleworth has pen-sketched the form of some of the world's most notable recent buildings, including Barcelona's Collserola communications tower, Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport – the largest building on the planet – and Europe's tallest skyscraper, Frankfurt's Commerzbank.

Shuttleworth is also deeply involved in what has to be the greatest architectural project of the early 21st century: the replacement for New York's World Trade Centre. Just before Christmas, his spectacular "kissing towers" proposal for Ground Zero was unveiled. By far the most popular of the seven submissions for the site, the design has topped all public opinion polls.

Yet, despite all this, Shuttleworth has never been interviewed – until now. As New Yorkers debate the seven proposals in anticipation of a decision at the end of this month, he spoke to Building about designing against terrorism, working with Foster – and growing beans.

Chris Wise, the engineer who designed the Millennium Bridge, said he's never met anybody who draws as well, or as fast, as you.
Really? I suppose he's right in a way. I find sketching and designing quite easy; it's something that comes quite naturally.

He said your nickname is "Ken the Pen".
Yes, when I was studying at Leicester poly [now De Montfort University], people called me that. I used to do twice as many drawings as anybody else so they used to say I had water-cooled pens, because I drew very fast.

How did you first become interested in architecture?
I always wanted to be an architect, right from childhood. I was always fascinated by it. I used to draw houses and castles and that sort of thing from the age of five or six.

My dad was an accountant so architecture doesn't come from family connections. He hated being an accountant. He told me, whatever you do you, you should really enjoy doing it. At school I was really good at art, geometry, geography. I was brought up in Birmingham, then went to college in Leicester, and came to London in 1974 to join Foster. I've been here 28 years, more than half my life.

What is your role in the practice?
Since the completion of Hong Kong airport I've tended not to travel so much; I look after the London and UK work. That's largely because I have young children and I want to be here for them. It's worked out fine because over the past seven or eight years, about 80% of our work has been in London. So my projects have been Swiss Re, City Hall, Wembley …

Did you design all those buildings?
Everything comes from the office. We work together; we'll all be toying with ideas with Norman and the others. You won't get what you get at some offices – mentioning no names – where each partner produces a completely different type of architecture.

We want to make sure there's a consistency across the board.

Having said that, a lot of the sketches and the initial ideas have come from me. Swiss Re, for example. I don't know where they come from really; I sketch them out and they get worked up.

Which is your favourite?
I'm proud of most of them. Swiss Re's looking terrific; City Hall looks great.

City Hall had a rough ride in the press; a lot of people thought it was ugly.
I think it's brilliant! I love the circulation; the spiralling ramp. I was very keen to make it so you could go all the way up in a wheelchair. You couldn't do something normal in that location – next to Tower Bridge and opposite the Tower of London. Imagine the controversy then! You had to do something special. I feel we did that. I think the building sits really well on the river.

As for the controversy, I'd rather that than produce a dull, boring building that nobody comments on. I'd rather be out there doing something outrageous in a way, that people either love or hate.

Does it bother you that your role in all these projects is rarely acknowledged?
No, not at all. I've never sought publicity. I'm happy when Norman takes the credit. That's fine. He owns the company, he's the chairman. He had the guts to set the company up in the first place; he put his reputation on the line.

I’d rather have controversy than produce a dull building that nobody comments on. I’d rather be out there doing something outrageous, that people either love or hate

Architects are trained to be individuals, with a one-man-and-a-dog practice; they're trained to be artists. But in reality you can't do it on your own. It has to be as part of a team. The biggest impact I can have is working on projects like Hong Kong airport, the Reichstag, Commerzbank – some of the most important projects in the world. And we have some of the best people in the world working here. I'm just glad to be part of it. I've got no desire to do anything else really.
I'm very happy.

You're sometimes called "Dr Shuttleworth".
I got an honorary doctorate from De Montfort University in 1994 for my contribution to architecture. I was very flattered. I don't use it much; nobody knows about it really.

What's it like working with Norman Foster?
Norman is fantastic. He's very, very good at presenting things, going to the essence of things; he's very good at holding the office together. He's a very personable guy, very friendly. He's very shy, actually. He works on gut reaction a lot; he just goes for what he thinks is right. Which is really good, because you have to really believe in things to sell them and push them.

You've worked on some very important projects – but the Ground Zero competition must dwarf them all.
I don't think you can say it's more important but it's very loaded. The expectation is incredibly high for the site. It has lots of overtones. It was the most dreadful event … The families [of the 9/11 victims] have been given a room where they can pin up images of those who got killed. There are teddy bears around the floor and it's unbelievably moving. When you go into that room you realise why you're doing it. We have to do something that's breathtaking, to put something back.

How did you approach the project?
It was my project; I was really keen that we did it. I thought it was really important. We owe it to the families to do something really good. When you see Ground Zero, it's a 16-acre hole. It's enormous. With all the buildings, it's 30 acres in total. To get it in context, Trafalgar Square is five acres. It deserves something fantastic. Our scheme is very respectful, it keeps the footprints [of the Twin Towers] and creates a park of nearly 20 acres. Our idea is really a masterplan into which you can put buildings by other architects.

The "kissing towers" would be the tallest in the world if built.
I was really keen to include a tower element: they wanted something back on the skyline. If you look at lower Manhattan, the skyline is actually really dismal without the twin towers; and then we went through many, many versions of the towers and ended up with twin towers that kissed together.

What was it like to present the scheme?
It was one of those great events. The presentation to the client was a huge logistical exercise. We had to take a lot of models out on aircraft seats; we had to fly people out beforehand to set up the exhibition; we had model makers going out there; it was a huge investment actually. It went really well. Then the press launch was the following week, which Norman did.

Do you think you can win the competition?
I hope we're in with a chance of doing something. It would be great to be able to carry on with it and make sure the right thing gets done. But we're the only non-American entry, so the odds are stacked against us. There's bound to be a big push to ensure the architects are American. I don't know for sure but there's bound to be pressure.

Your scheme was ahead in the opinion polls right after the launch.
Mmm, still is. In every poll. It's amazing, isn't it? We've had some incredible feedback from people; 99% of it is really positive.

But [competition organiser] the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation doesn't own the site; it can't actually decide what happens there. Developer Larry Silverstein owns the lease on the original World Trade Centre and the Port Authority owns the freehold. There's also an obligation to satisfy the families. So there are lots of people involved.

I'm not sure how the final decisions are going to be made. It won't be a straightforward commission to one architect; I think it will end up being a series of buildings by different architects. How it will be determined, nobody knows.

How did the design of the towers evolve? Did you design them?
Well yes, but again it came out of a series of model studies. We had a single tower, a twin tower and a triple tower; we made models and we were playing around with them, photographing them and trying different things. We were working through them all in parallel. It was in the last couple of weeks that we decided the twin towers were the right solution so we ditched the others and went for that. But I wouldn't say it was necessarily just me; there were a lot of people involved.

It was a surprising design because many of your recent buildings have been soft and curvaceous.
There's not a tradition of curved buildings in New York. Everything's very boxy and angular. I just felt that to do something softer like Swiss Re didn't feel right for New York.

Could you explain the design concept?
It comes from the idea of building for defence. It's like a castle. In the middle of each tower there's a keep, a central concrete core, containing lifts and staircases. Then there's a perimeter of eight cores around the edge. So you've already got two layers of structure. Then by having a triangulated form and twisting it you can really give strength to the whole thing. You make it by twisting a cube into a tetrahedron, which is incredibly strong. It's probably the strongest building ever designed.

Externally, it's a series of stacked tetrahedrons, so you get this repeating element. All the glass is the same – whereas on Swiss Re, it's different from floor to floor. So we're trying to move it on. It's a big building; it's the tallest building in the world. We felt we should get total repetition into the cladding.

The thing about the office is we’re always asking questions; always moving on. We never repeat what we’ve already done

Several of the submissions, including yours, feature gardens within the towers.
Yes, but we're the only people to have done that in built projects: Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, Commerzbank and Swiss Re. We took the client through that; we said you can have a box, like we did at the HSBC tower at Canary Wharf; you can have something like the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank [in Hong Kong] where the structure's expressed on the outside; or you can have a Commerzbank or Swiss Re, which takes that a stage further with spiralling gardens.

So I would argue that this takes tower design to the next step; taller and stronger while retaining the gardens. And the two towers "kiss" or touch each other, so if there's a fire in one you can move into the other.

That's something else several of the submissions featured: towers linked at high levels. Is this a future trend for tall buildings?
That's why we quite liked the triple tower idea; we felt there was more strength, plus you had an option to get out.

Our scheme has got stairs in the corners that track down the diagonals, and stairs in the core. So seven stairs per tower, 14 stairs in total, whereas the World Trade Centre towers only had three each. At the moment you're only required to have two staircases in a tower, but I think that will change.

You'd been doing work on making tall buildings safe from terrorist attacks before your involvement in Ground Zero.
Yes, and in the end we put all that into the new design: having more stairs, the idea of being able to cross from one stair to another, ideas of having areas where you can catch falling cladding; all that's been built into it.

It catches falling cladding? How does that work?
Each floor has been done in such a way that you could catch cladding falling down to the ground; at some levels you could have things that spring out.

On 11 September, people were jumping off the building and falling all the way to the ground. So some of the studies we did involved putting nets at various levels. All that's still to play for; we haven't gone into that in great detail yet.

Is it really worth all the effort and expense of protecting buildings against aeroplane attacks when there are probably 100 other ways terrorists could attack?
That guy in Milan flew straight into the Pirelli tower, trying to do a 9/11; there was a guy the other week who tried to fly into the Commerzbank in Frankfurt. But it's a good point. I think it's unlikely they'll do exactly the same thing again; it's probably going to be some bio thing or computer thing.

But I think in terms of that site, there's definitely a requirement to think about what would happen if it did get hit again. I think we need to be conscious of that. It's already feeding into tower design; Skidmore Owings & Merrill are on site with a building to the north of Ground Zero; they've got more staircases and a lot more resilience in the structure.

Apart from Ground Zero, what are the themes exercising your mind right now?
We're totally dedicated to low-energy buildings; most of the projects we do have a low-energy slant. We try by all sorts of means to make our buildings as efficient as possible. To save the planet, basically; we really believe in that.

Also, I think buildings should have a public element. All the office projects we do around London, we try not to fill the site with offices; we try to give something back to the public. So it's not just a rent-slab.

Those kinds of ideas were considered radical only a few years ago but are becoming mainstream now.
Everybody will catch up, so we need to move onto the next thing. The constant thing about the office is we're always asking questions; always moving on. We never repeat what we've already done. We're always searching for new solutions.

So what's on the horizon?
I think the way cities develop will change. There's going to be more mixed-use buildings so you don't have to travel into work every day; you can live, work and shop on the site.

Also I think there's going to be a shift towards building on major infrastructure. We can't keep relying on the car, so we'll put projects over huge infrastructure such as railways and airports and develop hubs around them. I think there will be more and more pressure to get people out of their cars in cities, and with that more money will have to be spent on infrastructure. I think bus routes and tube routes will improve. And I think we'll go taller, because there'll be pressure on land.

A lot of these issues are highly political, yet Foster and Partners has always kept out of politics.
We're completely apolitical in this office. Richard Rogers has always been Labour; we've always been neutral. I think it's important we're not seen to take sides. We're just trying to push forward a good-quality built environment.

Personal effects

Where do you live? Belsize Park in London. We also have a house in Wiltshire, which I designed [Crescent House, shortlisted for the Stirling Prize in 2000]. I have two children; a boy of 12 and a girl who’s nine. They both draw! My wife has now gone back to university to do art. She’s doing painting and sculpture. What hours do you work? I used to work 20 hours a day when I was younger. Yeah, really. But the last 10 years I’ve done fewer hours to make sure I see my kids. Now I tend to arrive about 8.30 and leave about 6.30. I don’t want to be one of these fathers who never sees their children until they’re grown up. When they decide they don’t want to see me so much, I’ll do more work. But you never switch off designing. I’m always sketching at home. What do you do to unwind? The only relaxation I have is gardening and painting. I’ve taken up abstract painting, which I hadn’t ever done before. I’ve been on a few summer courses and I’ve done quite a lot of paintings. Are you any good? I dunno really! It’s very difficult. It’s more difficult that designing buildings. I find sketching really easy, but using a paintbrush is different. What about the gardening? I’ve been planting loads of trees in our garden down in Wiltshire. And I won second prize for my beans at the Cherhill village fete last year! It was my first year of growing beans.
I’ll try and do better next year.

The word on Ken

Peter Rogers, director, Stanhope
“Ken worked with us on the [1990] ITN building, which was a seminal building. Until then, there was always a tendency to think of a Foster building as very expensive and bespoke. I think Ken broke the mould and proved they could do very cost-effective, efficient commercial buildings. It was Ken that pulled that off at ITN. “People trust Ken. He develops a good relationship with the planners; he’s very good at showing the development of a solution and that goes down well with the planners. He’s happy to be criticised. He has none of the typical architectural arrogance. He’s incredibly modest and he’s a hell of a nice person.”

Chris Wise, director, Arup
“Ken’s a brilliant man. He’s extremely talented and very underrated. The reason you’ve heard so little about him is he’s fiercely loyal to the practice. The most important thing to him is the project. “He’s the best person I’ve ever come across to look at a complex brief and come up with a simple answer that works. It’s intuition. I’ve learned an awful lot from him. He’s a very good teacher. “People are in awe at what he does, so the Ken sketch often gets built unedited. He’s terrible at presentations; he’s terribly shy. But he pioneered the storyboard method – explaining a concept through a series of drawings. “He draws faster than anybody else. He turns up at a meeting with 50 blank sheets of paper; when someone has an idea, Ken sketches it. “On the Millennium Bridge, Ken gave Norman confidence. Norman was always asking Ken for his opinion. I nominated him for a Royal Society of Arts award – but the panel thought Norman had done all the work so they turned him down.”

Peter Rees, chief planner, City of London
“The guy’s just so nice it’s untrue. Rather than being a prima-donna architect who sees planners as the enemy, Ken will come in and regard us as part of the team. He’ll say, this is what we’ve come up with, what do you think? He’s prepared to listen and change a design in response. He’s always welcome.”