Behind Norman Foster's towering domination of British architecture, lies a man ill at ease with human reality. His buildings clad the establishment in slick modernist clothes, serving power not peopleby Rowan Moore / March 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Norman Foster’s Reichstag dome, as seen from inside. Photo: Malte Ruhnke
Norman Foster is the single most successful British architect in history, whether success is measured by the size of his office, fame, honours, global reach or number of projects. His is an heroic life story, which has taken him from working-class Manchester to the House of Lords. He has achieved a near-monopoly of the monuments of millennial London-enough to constitute a city in themselves-designing such essential urban objects as the city hall, two skyscrapers, the bridge, the football stadium, the town square, the train station and the headquarters of a supermarket chain (as well as hectares of office space and flats). And this is to say nothing of the icons and airports he has bestowed on Hong Kong, Berlin, Barcelona, Nîmes, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Singapore, Glasgow, Cambridge and Omaha, Nebraska. Few if any living Britons have the international stature in their fields that Foster has in his.
He has achieved this as a modernist architect in a notoriously conservative country, a mere decade after the traditionalism of Prince Charles seemed all-conquering and as an outsider in this allegedly class-ridden land. How? The short answer is talent and determination. Yet these alone cannot explain his appeal to institutions as diverse as the British Museum, Wembley Stadium, Sainsbury’s, the Royal Academy and the mayoralty of London. It would be nice to believe that they have all suddenly converted to beautiful and radical architecture; nice but, alas, not plausible.
There’s a second mystery, which is Foster’s ability to be supremely skilful in some aspects of architecture, and club-footed in others. Despite its wobble, the Millennium Bridge is a structure of grace and precision, as are the roofs of Hong Kong and Stansted airports. His Reichstag pulls off the fraught symbolic task of representing the new Germany. In Bilbao, after the adrenalin rush of Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim, spirits are soothed by the calmer perfection of the fosteritos-glass, hooded entrances designed for the city’s metro.
At the same time, though, he is capable of the ponderous and malfunctioning faculty of law in Cambridge, where hard surfaces and an aversion to inserting partitions meant that readers in the library were distracted by the clatter of drinks machines and conversation from communal areas. When a committee from London arrived with the intention of giving the building an award, a 30-minute tirade from the head of the…