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25 June 2023

The inventions of Norman Foster

From museums and airports to bridges and a pissoir, for 60 years the architect has left his stamp on the world.

By Michael Prodger

Has there ever been an architect who has left such a mark on the built environment as Norman Foster? There is no corner of the globe that does not carry one of his buildings. Among the postwar “superstar architects” who have attained a true international reach – Renzo Piano, IM Pei, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Richard Rogers, James Stirling, Tadao Ando, Rem Koolhas, Jean Nouvel et al – none have the geographical range, the weight of numbers and the staggering variety of buildings that Foster can claim.

The globalisation of architecture is a relatively new phenomenon. Even the greatest names of the pre-modern era were, by default, essentially parochial. Donato Bramante, Francesco Borromini and Gian Lorenzo Bernini designed, above all, for Rome; the bulk of Andrea Palladio’s work was for the Veneto; Christopher Wren and Louis Le Vau’s was for London and the Ile de France; Robert Adam’s for Georgian Britain and Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s for Germany. Different times and a more centred world, certainly, but while their ideas and styles crossed borders, the detailed designs that left their drawing boards rarely did.

Even in the 20th century this was slow to change: of the 425 buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, only ten are outside the United States. As with the other arts, modernism altered things; it was the result of – and resulted in – greater internationalism. The Mies Van Der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Alvar Aalto and Walter Gropius generation spread their message beyond their European homelands; Le Corbusier, for example, created a master plan for Chandigarh in India, while Gropius designed the University of Baghdad.

Among his global-span contemporaries, however, Foster still stands out. All have benefited from the need for aspirant cities to have a statement building, but during a 60-year career Foster has designed for everywhere from Hong Kong and China, America (both coasts) and Russia, Thailand and Singapore, London and Berlin, Buenos Aires and Norwich. The highlights of his work include innumerable signature buildings: airports and museums, a parliament and office towers, Wembley stadium and rail and metro stations, city plans and corporate headquarters such as Apple’s Cupertino base, and, spectacularly, the Millau Viaduct – the tallest bridge in the world. But there are numerous smaller and quirkier structures too, such as an elephant house for Copenhagen Zoo, a Maggie’s centre for cancer sufferers in Manchester, eco tourist homes for the tiny Canary Island of Gomera, a winery for Château Margaux, a pissoir and a bus shelter.

The current practice, Foster + Partners, founded in 1967, now has six architectural studios and 16 offices around the world, with 100 projects currently under construction and innumerable others in gestation. Future plans include a scheme for the rebuilding of the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv after the Russians have gone; 200 Greenwich Street in New York – a building to replace Tower 2 of the World Trade Center; and designs for adobe habitation pods on the Moon and Mars.

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It was in 1963 that Foster founded his first practice, Team 4, with Richard Rogers, Wendy Cheesman (whom he would marry the following year) and Su Brumwell, and his work over the ensuing six decades is currently being celebrated in an exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris. The show resembles a Foster Wunderkammer, stuffed with sketchbooks and plans, models of buildings and components, visualisations and some of the artworks and product designs that have influenced him – futuristic cars, sleek aeroplane propellors and works by the early 20th-century sculptors Constantin Brâncuși and Umberto Boccioni.

The two shared traits that emerge most forcefully from the plethora of his projects are his use of technology and the light footprint of his structures. An 18th-century wit once composed a faux epitaph for the Baroque architect John Vanbrugh: “Lie heavy on him, Earth! for he laid many heavy loads on thee!” For all the epic tonnage of his buildings, no such charge could ever be levelled at Foster.

He aspires to buildings that are “joyous” and “exciting” – no small task when an airport, say, covers multiple hectares – as well as functional. For Foster: “The tree is the metaphor for the ideal building. It breathes and responds to the changing seasons… As a self-sustaining ecosystem, it harvests water and solar energy, recycles waste and absorbs carbon dioxide.” These green ideals are now architectural staples, but Foster has been applying them since the 1960s.

Sir Norman Foster, architect, at the head quarters of Foster + Partners in Battersea, London 20th October 2005. Photo by Martin Godwin/Getty Images

Another aspect of his aesthetic is buildings that capture rather than displace space, what he calls “maximum volume with the minimum external wall”. To this end, new technology has been a vital part of his practice. He and his former partner Rogers were called “high-tech architects” for their embrace of new possibilities. But when, as a graduate student at the Yale School of Architecture in 1961 (where he met Rogers), he asked to collaborate with an engineer, it was seen as “heresy” and an affront to the “maestro” model. Now, again, it is standard.

America was important to Foster. It was at Yale that he met the futurist architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller and Louis Kahn, whose National Assembly Building in Dhaka, Bangladesh – a series of carved, concrete monolithic shapes – is one of the most important buildings of the 20th century. Their influence can be felt in Foster’s work: the triangular coffered ceiling of Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery (1953) and Fuller’s experiments with geodesic domes (a spherical polyhedron comprised of triangles) are familiar motifs.

A post-Yale research year spent touring the US made him familiar with the new vernacular of glass and steel, epitomised by the Case Study Houses – the ineffably glamorous transparent box homes in the hills above Los Angeles, seemingly built less as residential spaces than as backdrops for Hollywood pool parties. Foster says the Eames House – a three-dimensional Mondrian painting with slim pillars, a thin skin, and sliding doors and windows, built by the architect-designers Charles and Ray Eames in 1949 – “changed the way generations of architects and designers would think and look”, not least himself. For a boy who grew up in a family of meagre means in industrial Lancashire and who trained in late 1950s Manchester, the possibilities offered by American architecture were both endless and revelatory.

[See also: The British Museum should give the Elgin Marbles back to Greece]

In his childhood, Foster had been fascinated by the illustrations in Eagle magazine showing cut-outs of spacecraft and aeroplanes. The hold these intimations of the workings of structures and objects has on him – as a student he won a Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA) award for a measured drawing of Bourn Windmill in Cambridgeshire – has never lessened.

Foster frequently talks about “systems” in his architecture, meaning the different elements of a structure – environmental services, external cladding, internal surfaces – and how their configuration defines a building. So, in 1974, when Robert and Lisa Sainsbury personally selected him to design a new museum to house their art collection at the University of East Anglia at Norwich, he devised a huge hanger structure with one end finished by a massive glass window – the largest in the world when it was installed – that allowed the interior to be an endlessly flexible open space. To achieve this, he hid the building’s workings, all the cables, plant, toilets and maintenance access, within the double-layer walls and roof. The aim, Foster says, was for a “healthy and breathing” building where “the structure is designed for the environmental performance, as well as the structural performance”.

When in 1981 he won the commission to design the new Stansted Airport, the building that confirmed his reputation, he decided to turn “the model of an airport terminal at the time upside down”. Instead of siting services and plant on the roof, with big ducts moving air, “We put all that heavy stuff under the floor and liberated the roof for sunlight and to save energy – to make the terminal a more exciting and beautiful experience.” It is not his fault the ascent of low-cost airlines has turned that experience from beautiful to hellish. Stansted was the first of nine airports he has designed.

Elsewhere, this shift in orthodox thinking meant that for the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters (1979-86), Foster looked again at the traditional office building. Rather than have a sandwich of work floors based around a central core containing elevators and services, he hollowed out the middle of the building and pushed offices and desk spaces to the edges around a floor-to-roof void, giving flexible spaces and see-through views.

Meanwhile, at the centre of Apple Park, which opened in 2017, is a low-rise ring 1.6km in diameter where three of the seven storeys, access roads and parking, are underground. The building houses 12,000 Apple employees who look out in either direction on trees and foliage: green space accounts for 80 per cent of the site and the middle of the circular building is itself a 30-acre park.

[See also: Museums like the Wellcome Collection miss the middle ground in the culture wars]

“Systems” apply in a different way to his buildings that respond to historic settings too. With the Great Court of the British Museum (1994-2000), his Carré d’Art at Nimes (1984-93) or his Hearst Tower, New York (2000-2006) Foster had either to integrate a new building with an old one or, in Nimes, reflect a hallowed structure – in this case the Maison Carrée, an immaculate columned Roman temple situated 100 yards away across a square. In these cases, the historic buildings are another element of a broader design, which is itself more than the sum of its parts.

So for the British Museum he created a glazed mushroom roof that seems to grow from the stump of the old Round Reading Room; in Nimes, his new art centre is a barely-there assemblage of toothpick-thin columns, glass and louvres that aims for the same floating, weightless quality the Roman builders wanted; while in New York he repurposed the original 1928 stone building as a plinth for a 46-storey tower with a triangular steel grid. This last, it must be said, is not the most aesthetically comfortable of hybrids even if it does affirm both his conviction that “as an architect you design for the present, with an awareness of the past, for a future which is essentially unknown” and that “recycling an existing building… is far more sustainable than building afresh”.

The impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir claimed that, “The modern architect is, generally speaking, art’s greatest enemy.” Foster’s career gives that the lie. He claims that beneath such concerns as function, sustainability, permanence and technical possibility is something intrinsic to much art – a quest for “spiritual comfort”. But he wants something else from his designs too: surprise. “If the architect is not doing this, then the architect is not acting as an architect.” And Foster has always demonstrably acted as an architect.

“Norman Foster” runs at the Pompidou Centre, Paris until 7 August

[See also: The anti-capitalist Crab Museum is on a mission to change politics]

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This article appears in the 12 Jul 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Tabloid Nation