Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) International Conference: In Review

With the conclusion of the recent Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH) International Conference, Turner & Townsend alinea Director, Steve Watts shares his review and reflections on a highly successful event.


The week leading up to the conference was a whirlwind of activity, starting with a full day of preparations in a cold air-conditioned room at Marina Bay Sands in Singapore. Alongside CTBUH’s President, CEO, and soon-to-be Chairman, we put the final touches on the conference arrangements. As the event kicked-off the following day, what followed was an intense, busy, and emotionally fulfilling week, characteristic of a classic CTBUH annual conference. Additionally, it marked the momentous occasion of me passing on my chairman’s gavel to the very capable Shonn Mills.


Reflecting on my personal involvement throughout the week, I am reminded of the experiences shared by CTBUH leaders and delegates. Noteworthy highlights include:


  • Attending the Leaders Meeting, where we learned about the remarkable progress we have made this year and our ambitious plans for the future. We were privileged to hear a captivating presentation by Mun Summ Wong of WOHA, a revered figure in Singapore’s architectural community.
  • The Leaders’ Reception at Pan Pacific Orchard, a tall and green hotel designed by WOHA, stands out as one of the highlights of my career. I was deeply moved by a video showcasing my time as Chairman, heartfelt testimonials from colleagues and friends, and the presentation of gifts, including a print of my cherished ‘second home’ Chicago and an inscribed cricket ball. Witnessed by my wife and two children, it was a truly memorable moment.
  • The engaging Board of Trustees meeting featured a comprehensive review of CTBUH’s purpose, marking the beginning of a new era in the context of a rapidly evolving world.
  • At the ‘Legal Dynamics of Future Dense Cities’ workshop, I had the opportunity to present on 22 Bishopsgate, recounting the story of how the tallest building in the City of London came to be.
  • The VIP reception at Capita Spring was a chance to introduce Sharon Teo, Capital Land’s MD of Workspace, and Sean Chiao, Surbana Jurong’s Group CEO, and the evening’s sponsor. Their warm welcome to the guests in their remarkable tall, green, and amenity-filled tower, which received a CTBUH award, left a lasting impression.
  • Delivering my final address as CTBUH Chairman to open the conference, I reflected on my six-year journey, starting with a reminder of how the world looked in 2017 and concluding with the realisation that we can no longer consider people, buildings, and cities in isolation.
  • It was an honour to chair the opening plenary panel debate on ‘Humanising Density,’ joined by esteemed experts Carol Willis from The Skyscraper Museum, Siew Fun Leng from URA Singapore, and Robert Greenwood from Snohetta.
  • Serving on the Best Tall Buildings jury for two days was a privilege as I listened to the creators of this year’s outstanding tall buildings and faced the challenge of selecting winners in each height category, including the prestigious Best Tall Building in the World award.
  • The Gala Dinner marked the conclusion of the Singapore conference, where we announced the winners of all the awards. The recognition of Quay Quarter Tower as the Best Tall Building in the World was thoroughly deserved for its astonishing reinvention of an existing tower. Well done to all involved.
  • The follow-on programme in Kuala Lumpur, which among other things, provided further insights into the contrasting yet equally fascinating nature of the two global cities.
  • Sitting in the second row as the esteemed Dr. Ken Yeang, who some call the Godfather of Green, reminded us of the importance of ‘saving the planet by design.’
  • A personal tour of the awe-inspiring Merdeka 118, the second tallest building in the world, alongside the owners and designer was a memorable experience.
  • The culmination of the tour came with an extraordinary visit to the Petronas Towers, where the gracious owner shared their passion and pride for this iconic structure, which will celebrate its silver jubilee next year.


Reflecting on my thoughts a couple of weeks after returning, I am filled with gratitude for the incredible engagement of the 1,100 attendees at the conference, representing a diverse range of real estate and construction professionals. The rich program covered a wide spectrum of topics, from macroeconomics to technical presentations. It reinforced the notion that we are in a period of reset, where fundamental changes are required in how we design, procure, build, and operate towers to address the existential challenges facing our buildings and cities. While these challenges may seem daunting, they also present incredible opportunities for the CTBUH community to engage in meaningful discussions, listen and debate, and drive best practices forward. As I emphasised in my opening address, we are redefining quality, harnessing technology, and recognising that progress depends on human connections and the integration of art and science.


I eagerly anticipate the 2024 annual conference in London and Paris, where it will address the timely theme of ‘new or renew?’. Exciting times ahead.