NORMAN FOSTER (1935- is an architectural phenomenon; responsible for a dozen or more of the key buildings of the last 30 years, but also as the founder of perhaps the most financially successful architectural practice of modern times.
Under his driven leadership, what is now called Foster + Partners has grown to an international firm with approaching 1000 employees, building across the world. He is responsible for the design of Beijing’s new airport, one of the world’s largest, for the Rossiya tower in Moscow, in contention to be the tallest skyscraper in Europe, for one of the towers at Ground Zero in Manhattan, and for a crop of new towers in London.
To build all these and many more projects, from opera houses and art galleries, to a commercial space port, viaducts, and entire cities, Foster has transformed the nature of architectural practice, constructing a highly motivated machine that can produce work of the highest technical quality on a global scale.
First knighted, then elevated to the House of Lords, Foster has earned every conceivable honour and distinction, including the Order of Merit from the Queen, the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture, and the Pritzker and Stirling prizes. His new university in Malaysia won the Aga Kahn Award in 2007, and he was a recipient of the Japanese Prix Imperium.
Foster was born in 1935 in Stockport to a working class family with no tradition of higher education. After leaving school, he did his national service in the air force and then worked in the treasurer’s department at Manchester town hall, before studying architecture in his home town. He subsequently won a scholarship to Yale, where he met Richard Rogers, and studied with, among others, James Stirling. Foster and Rogers established their first architectural practice, Team Four, on their return to England in 1963, along with Foster’s first wife, the architect Wendy Cheeseman, and Su Brumwell. Team Four built an outstanding house for Brumwell’s parents in Cornwall and an impressive factory for Reliance Controls in Swindon, before Foster started his own practice in 1967.
Foster was enormously influenced by his American experiences. He returned to Britain with a powerful interest in the work of Charles and Ray Eames, and even more with the utopian visions of Buckminster Fuller, with whom he was later to collaborate on a couple of unrealised projects. The Reliance factory, now demolished, with its elegant exposed steel structure with diagonal bracing clearly showed that American influence.
After establishing his own practice, Foster in the course of a decade was able to realise three buildings of remarkable sophistication, and power that served to transform perceptions of the nature of architecture in Britain in the course of the 1970s. In Ipswich, he built a headquarters office for the insurance company Willis Faber Dumas that occupied the whole of an irregular island site on the edge of the town’s historic centre. Foster gave the building a rippling black glass skin, that gently reflected the city around it, and which seemed to recall one of Mies van der Rohe’s pioneering designs from the early modern period. Its internal organisation, planned around an atrium serviced by banks of escalators, with a lawned garden on the roof, and a staff swimming pool that doubled as a heat sink, demonstrated Foster’s abiding concern for the social aspects of architecture, and for energy performance.
Willis Faber was followed by his Sainsbury Arts Centre, on the campus of the University of East Anglia, on the outskirts of Norwich. This was a building that could be understood as a symmetrical classical temple in a utopian natural landscape, but also as a perfect demonstration of the potential of mechanical analogy for architecture. Foster accommodated museum and gallery space, as well as teaching rooms and a café into a single structure, in which structure and services were all contained in a thick zone that integrated walls and roof, with the two ends of the building fully glazed, and the rest an elegantly detailed aluminium skin. It was like a space ship, or an aircraft hanger temporarily grounded on the lawns of Norfolk.
There were complaints from some academics that the architects’ concern for the visual purity of the interior reduced them to fiddling on the floor to unlock their offices, so determined was the architect to avoid any visual compromises. The lightweight screen system designed to show the centre’s important collection of art was not always regarded as appropriate. The building’s skin then suffered a technical failure, and required replacement. But these are minor issues when set against the power of the completed building and its hugely powerful reassertion of modernist architecture at a time, 1977, when the whole idea appeared to be in decline.
Foster’s next building was to move him decisively from a purely British to an international stage. He won a competition to design the new headquarters for Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong. If the Sainsbury Centre reinvented the art gallery, the bank was an even bolder project. If you set aside the Pirelli and Velesca towers in Milan, which hardly qualify on the grounds of their restricted height, it was perhaps the first really convincing skyscraper to have been built outside North America. Foster reinterpreted the skyscraper as a type, abolishing the central lift core, working with an exoskeleton structure that suspended huge floors in tiers from bridge structures.
Foster’s practice from this point expanded in scale and ambition. His work at Stansted, London’s third airport, was as influential as the Hong Kong tower in shaping new thinking about airport types. But his work in Nimes for the Mediatheque and the creation of the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy in London also demonstrated an assured approach to addressing a historic architectural context.
Foster’s approach was always to suppress extraneous detail. Rather than express a structure Foster preferred a less-is-more approach. He built up a vocabulary of detail that resolved joints and junctions by keeping different materials apart. It was an approach that he brought to bear on industrial design as well with a series of furniture designs. His scope then broadened into urban planning and master plans.
Foster’s success working with a team of long term collaborators, in particular Spencer de Gray and David Nelson, served to eliminate what had previously been the gulf in British architecture between what was seen as commercial architecture, the main stream that built the majority of pragmatic office and industrial architecture, and the ‘art’ architects who designed museums, universities, and theatres. Foster’s growing office did both. When Foster started his practice, a large office would have employed 25 people. As Foster grew to more than 100 employees, the nature of practice changed radically. It meant that the office took on a much wider range of work, and also that very young architects could build under the Foster name much earlier in their careers than they could have done on their own.
As the office continued to grow, the question that began to be raised was that while the huge expansion in numbers had created a powerful force for raising the general standard of architecture, it made it more difficult for Foster to realise more works of such individual genius as the Sainsbury Centre, or Willis Faber. With such a large office to service, projects that could never offer the same chance to achieve something remarkable had of necessity to be accepted.
But while there have certainly been a number of Foster projects that have been no more than competent in recent years, Foster continues to confound his critics with such achievements as the sublime Pont Millau bridge in France, and the well regarded Hearst tower in Manhattan – a building that so impressed the New Yorker’s architecture critic Paul Goldberger that he described Foster as the Mozart of Modernism.