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 faculty persuaded them otherwise.
The Foster office has also designed leaden office blocks, like the proposed redevelopment of Spitalfields Market in London. The common objection to his architecture is that it is grey, cold and boring but he gets into worse trouble when he tries too hard to be sensuous and interesting. Arbitrary lumps and bumps appear, at odds with the lucid rationality that is Foster’s most famous strength. The nearly completed hovering egg of his Greater London Authority lacks relevance either to London or to its political role.
Sometimes strength and weakness appear in the same Foster building, as in the British Museum’s Great Court. Look up and you see a virtuoso structure, glass and steel breathed upwards in a complex bubble. But look around, and you see beige, respectable stone arranged with deadening symmetry. A pompous double stair rises to almost nowhere amid a shapeless plenitude of space. Stone is cut and polished with such precision as to look like plastic (though, ironically, it was a supplier’s imprecise definition of Portland stone which led to the row about the south portico). Never, as Will Self said, has a finished building looked so much like its computer visualisation.
There is a pattern here. Brilliance and invention are applied to aerial things, to the abstract rules of structural engineering, to places beyond inhabitation. At ground level, in the zone of complex human activity, the design resorts to generalities and platitudes. So here’s a hypothesis: Foster is popular because he supplies the look of innovation without the pain of actually changing anything; the establishment likes him because he lets it feel daring at minimal emotional expense; he is the purveyor of radical architecture for people who want no such thing.
The critic Martin Pawley writes of “the surrender of the English establishment to his vision.” Yet it seems charmingly fanciful to imagine that a beast as cunning and invincible as the establishment would roll over so easily before a mere architect. It’s more likely that the establishment has adopted Foster in order to effect that mutation of external form it needs to survive. To evade challenge, the pillars of English life need to appear as if they are changing. Where Prince Charles failed to win the country over to conservative architecture, Foster has succeeded by giving it a different cladding. The external evidence-Foster’s peerage, his Order of Merit, the nature of his clients-seems to bear out this theory. The great critic Reyner Banham touched on it 20 years ago, when Foster exhibited a full-scale section of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank in the Royal Academy: “Rule-book Marxist explication would say it is a bourgeois institution [the RA] acknowledging the power of its true masters, the great international banks.”
Norman Foster is happiest when not in contact with the ground. He flies gliders and jets and lives in a penthouse over the Thames. He was once asked by the BBC to name his favourite building, and chose a Boeing 747. As a child, he spent solitary hours at the controls of imaginary aircraft; as an adult, he described his vision of a future London for the television cameras, while looking down on it from a helicopter. His very first building, designed with Richard Rogers, was the Cockpit, a tiny study in a Cornwall garden whose basic principle-glassy above, solid below-would be replicated at vast scale in projects like Hong Kong airport. Airports, and the American Air Museum in Duxford, are among his most eloquent buildings.
His buildings want to take off, too. His hero is Buckminster Fuller, the American who invented the geodesic dome, an ultra-light structure which (so the fantasy went) could be shipped by helicopter to provide instant shelter. Fuller’s other fantasy was that giant domes could cover much of Manhattan, creating immense, climate-controlled zones. Foster took up the idea. “Vast areas will be enclosed with lightweight, space-frame structures or inflatable plastic membranes,” he said in 1969. “Full climatic control is feasible; the polar regions can be tropicalised and desert areas cooled.”
Foster repeatedly reworked the idea of the big roof sitting lightly on the ground, the British Museum’s Great Court being the latest variation. “How much does it weigh?” Buckminster Fuller would ask of architects’ designs, the correct answer being “as little as possible.” Foster responded with steel and aluminium structures which, if you overlook the heavy waste material created in the production of these metals, are very light. Recently, Foster has taken to wrapping Fuller-esque triangulated structures around seemingly unsuitable building types, like his City skyscraper for the insurance company, Swiss Re.
In the British Museum, the Reichstag and the Royal Academy’s Sackler Galleries, light, crisp modernity is juxtaposed with crumbly, heavy antiquity. Old and new are meticulously kept apart with what are known as “negative details”-gaps or recesses that underplay the junction. The 180-metre tower of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank is lifted off the ground, and is entered via escalators that touch the pavement with the lightest of contacts. Unexpectedly, Foster buildings can involve a lot of digging, but the object of this underground construction seems to be more to neutralise the subterranean than to engage with it. When Foster uses materials of the earth, like stone and concrete, he makes them smooth and pale.
He treats human material in a similar way, talking of “flexible” space, in which all things are possible, coupled with the ideal of the democratic workplace. In his dock buildings for Fred Olsen Line Ltd, and the Reliance Control factory in Swindon, an effort was made to give the same quality of space to blue and white collar workers, to dockers and clerks. In Foster’s own office by the Thames, everyone works in the same space, from junior staff to Foster himself, even if the boss has a location rather more equal than others. As the pilot, he sits at the end of the oblong fuselage, in which the staff sit like passengers in parallel rows.
These ideals of equality and freedom are admirable, if they are actually applied to specific human activity. The presence of people in Foster’s plans is often represented as myriad dots gathering at critical points like iron filings round a magnet. Or else they merge into arrows denoting movement, identical to the arrows denoting air flows in Foster’s diagrams of ventilation systems. “The one thing you can say about human beings is that they’re not perfect,” Foster once told me.
There are dreams here of escape, of purity and of control. They are beautiful dreams with a sinister potential. As a boy Foster was an awkward loner, who could not ride a bike until he was 13. Once he learned, he would flee the dull streets of Levenshulme for the Lake District. Flying is the next step. To fly is to be raised above a troubling world and is (if, like Foster, you are the pilot) a supreme form of control. “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to separate the spiritual uplift of the experience of flight from the satisfaction of delicately balancing the physical forces involved in the process.”
Those things Foster can control completely, like a roof, he makes perfect. Those things he cannot, like the messy ground level, he seeks to neutralise. There is a fear of friction, an aversion to touch and the sense which dominates is the distancing one of sight. Architecture is chiefly a visual medium, but Foster’s work relies to an extreme degree on the power of the look.
“I know I’m ugly,” barked Foster at Foundation magazine’s art director, “but if you publish these photographs I’ll never talk to Stuart Lipton again.” Lipton is a property developer and a client of Foster’s; Foundation was a magazine paid for by Lipton’s company. I was its editor. During its three-issue life we ran a polite article about Foster, with portraits by the photographer Nigel Parry, whose style is frank. Under the conventions of such publishing, Foster had sight of the photos, and a gentler, blander Norman appeared in print.
The incident was about the imperfection of the human. It was also about control, the control of look, which is something Foster seeks in all aspects of his business. There is, for example, a typeface, designed by Foster’s friend the late Otl Aicher, which is used not only for the signage in Foster’s buildings, and in his company literature, but also for books written about Foster; even publishers like Thames & Hudson or Weidenfeld & Nicolson are coralled into his corporate identity.
He exerts an extraordinary influence over British architectural critics, even the most acute of whom will give him an easy ride. When the Great Court opened, it was left to the non-specialist writers to make the sharp remarks, while the specialists (myself included) blathered about soaring roofs. It’s not only because there is kudos to be had from curating Foster exhibitions, or editing his books, or because newspapers seek exclusives on the next big project. Nor is it just that the critics and Foster have been through the hard times together, when Britain seemed set against modern architecture. It is because he wants their support, more even than most architects, and the power of the Foster will is not to be underestimated.
Critics flit between whichever explanation of his work-practical or aesthetic-will serve best to praise him. In Norman Foster: A Global Architecture, Martin Pawley admires the high-tech functionalism of Foster’s Glasgow conference centre, an ultra-cheap building made possible by ingenious design. Yet, when he discusses the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, which was the most expensive office building in the world, Pawley shifts into art-historian mode, noting the “elegance” and “clarity” of a structure which he nevertheless concedes is “perverse.” Here, he’s not concerned with how the building works, but how it looks.
Repeatedly with Foster, look triumphs. The Sainsbury Centre in East Anglia University, a graceful silvery hangar, appears logical but is not. The big shed creates a space too vast for the delicate exhibits, and causes problems in the acoustic separation of exhibiting, teaching and eating. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank also looks logical but its engineer, Frank Newby, said it was designed “upside down.” The Reichstag and GLA buildings are said to be “democratic” because their glass-walled debating chambers allow the public to see their representatives; but it would be hearing, not seeing, that might really expose them to scrutiny. A recurring Foster feature is the zone of perfection that is seen but not entered, and the portico that has no door. One is reminded of Foster’s childhood home, described in a book by Malcolm Quantrill, where the immaculately clean front step, and the front room, were purely for show.
The words “elegant” and “spectacular”-abstract, vis-ual, empty words-are often used about his work. Also the random metaphor, whether in praise or criticism: the Millennium Bridge is a “blade of light,” the Swiss Re tower is a “gherkin,” the GLA a “searchlight” or giant “eye.” Why a blade? Why a searchlight? There is no reason: what counts is the purity of the interaction between object and eye; the intellect need not trouble itself by getting involved.
We expect architects to make buildings look nice, to raise our spirits through their appearance. All architecture is a composite of myth and fact. Foster himself insists that “if the spaces we create do not move the heart and mind then they are surely only addressing one part of their function.” But myth may be a tool of deception. If a conservative building is said to be radical because it is made of industrial materials, or an exclusive building is said to be accessible because it is made of glass, then the fiction obscures the fact. In high architecture, which is commonly paid for by the rich and powerful in order to glamorise themselves, there is a slipperiness between enlightenment and deception, a slipperiness that increases when its look is as free-floating as it is in Foster’s work.
Norman foster grew up in a working-class area. His father was the manager of a furniture and pawn shop, then worked nightshifts in an aircraft factory during the war. His mother also worked and much of the time he was on his own. When Foster surmounted his background and got a place at architecture school, he had to pay his way by working as, among other things, a bouncer. He also financed himself with scholarships, one of which got him to Yale, where he met the man who became his friend and only serious British rival, Richard Rogers.
Foster would later speak of discovering an “American world in which everything was possible if you were willing to try hard enough.” In America he shook off his English loneliness. Back in London, he set up Team 4, a partnership with Richard Rogers, Rogers’ first wife Su, and Wendy Cheesman, who would marry Norman. The idea was to put the American can-do attitude into practice and they did. Despite mishaps, they built Reliance Controls, an electronics factory in Swindon, which brought them widespread attention.
Team 4 split in 1967, when Foster was 32. Through the 1970s, in partnership with Wendy, he built his reputation with buildings for Fred Olsen in London’s docks, for IBM in Hampshire and Middlesex and for the insurance company Willis Faber Dumas in Ipswich. This was a weary time for British industry and British architecture, but Foster lit up both worlds. For Olsen, he didn’t just design a building; he rearranged his client’s operation. For Willis Faber Dumas, he created a dark, piano-shaped, glass building with a grass roof. In this humdrum market town, its implausible logic still takes the breath away. His works were taut with clarity and intensity. He was a poet in the unpoetic Britain of business parks and metal sheds.
In 1974, he was called to the Smith Square house of Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury, to discuss a museum they wanted to build. He was impressed by their collection of avant-garde art, and a lifetime friendship was formed. The building that resulted, the silver shed of the Sainsbury Centre, was a variation on his industrial themes, but it was Foster’s entrée into the world of cultural buildings. Elegant though it was, it was also Foster’s first irrational structure. The illogical museum or establishment building is a type that would recur.
In the 1980s came the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, a skyscraper in a faraway place by a practice that had never designed anything higher than three storeys. It required a prodigious effort from Foster and his colleagues, and veterans speak of this time as the most intense and exhilarating of their lives. The building gleams with this effort, its details dense with energy. It is serene, but with compressed restlessness.
Foster’s reputation was sealed, though he had still built nothing in central London, and would not until, aged 55, he completed his own offices in Battersea. Two other projects gave the cautious British public an unthreatening introduction to his architecture: Stansted airport (modernism being acceptable for transport buildings), and the Royal Academy’s Sackler Galleries, where the new architecture was polite.
He still faced adversity. In 1989 Wendy died of cancer, a few months after they adopted a son. Foster then had a relationship with the newsreader Anna Ford, introduced to him by Richard Rogers’s second wife Ruth, before marrying Sabiha, also introduced by Ruth. Sabiha was formerly the wife of the publisher, Andrew Knight. Strong-willed and assertive, she intervened in the running of the practice more than the practice might have liked. She was not an architect, but when buildings were published in magazines, her name would appear in the credit lists, alongside loyal Foster lieutenants who had been with him for 20 years. Sabiha is believed to have been an inspiration for the demanding wife of the high-tech architect in Gridiron, Philip Kerr’s novel about a skyscraper. The marriage did not last, and in 1996 Foster married Elena Ochoa, a Spanish television psychotherapist, 25 years his junior.
During the Sabiha period, the practice hit a rocky patch. Recession hit and staff were laid off. Ever since, there has been a hunger to acquire more and more commissions. Foster now employs over 600 people and is a rich man. “He wants to tell me,” writes Malcolm Quantrill, “that no obstacle past, present or future can impede the further rise and progress of the Foster studio.” The architect himself has said: “all the things I thought were barriers turned out to be incentives.”
So foster, the awkward loner, finds himself as the architect that the establishment most wants on its side. According to someone who observed Foster’s dealings with the British Museum at close quarters, “it was as if Foster was the client, and the museum his consultant.” And the boy who experienced the rough underside of industrial society, grew up to design steel and glass buildings that are shining, benign versions of the industrial.
They are seen as images of the future, though their primary inspirations were the Crystal Palace and 19th-century railway stations, and the illustrations of machines that appeared in Eagle comics when Foster was young. After the meeting with the Sainsburys, many commissions were concerned with the past, which is to say museums. The building that defined his career, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, was commissioned by a commercial institution of a colonial power that knew its years were numbered. Its purpose was to declare faith in the future of Hong Kong. It is a magnificent building, but hardly radical in purpose.
Some of Foster’s buildings are radical, more are conservative, but all get grouped under the broad term “innovative” which, as the world of architecture moves on, becomes harder to sustain. Increasingly, in Foster’s work, innovation is represented by bizarre shapes, rather than technical invention. On some projects there are praiseworthy environmental measures, like the generators fuelled on vegetable oil in the Reichstag, or the use of ground water to cool the GLA. But they are tangential to the main business of the building. It is a way of sub-contracting the social conscience of the architecture to the services engineers.
In some ways Foster doesn’t seem to quite get real life, and beneath his fixity of purpose he can be uncertain and impressionable. His politics shift under the influence of his friends. As a self-made man he was a natural Thatcherite, and expressed support for her in the 1980s-but cautiously, for his friends were mostly critics. Wendy, passionate about alternative medicine, converted hard-headed Norman to the cause. When he was with Anna Ford, he moved sharply to the left. In 1999, the architecture critic Jonathan Glancey presented Foster’s “dynamic, modern world view” as an inspiration for Blair’s New Britain.
But what is disconcerting is the way genuinely pioneering works get grouped under the same rhetoric as conventional ones. In the early projects no one should doubt the sincerity of his desire to better the conditions of workers. The Reichstag does not rethink the German body politic but is streets ahead of most of the smug monuments of new Germany. Its strategy is simple-to insert Fosteresque glassy lightness into the shell of an historically haunted powerhouse, and let the public walk on the roof.
Yet the same architect can produce the GLA headquarters, which was procured by the government in a deal that allowed for no public discussion about what this public institution should be like (a private developer, CIT Group, led the deal). It will sit in an urban office park of the Canary Wharf type. The site’s developers will use the GLA as an “anchor tenant” to pull in others. It means that so-called public space around the building will be managed by a private security company. If people demonstrating against the GLA annoy other tenants, they can be ejected. There is a public space, Potters Fields, to one side, but the new building turns a blank cheek to it.
The old chestnut that transparency equals democracy is offered, even though the GLA’s convex form means that the glass reflects the sky, making it opaque. Its bulbous shape is deflective rather than inviting, and is lifted, in Foster style, off the ground. Little thought has been given to interaction between the public, their representatives and the press. Rather than engage with the building’s purpose, and its complex site, the architecture is dictated by its look and low-energy design. Foster is thinking global (about CO2 emissions) but not deigning to act local.
Perhaps the seemingly random metaphors that stick to Foster’s buildings are not so random after all. The “giant eye” or “blade of light” are images of control and aggression, as are the eulogies “stunning” and “striking” which Foster attracts. In the 1980s the trusses of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank were compared to Sylvester Stallone’s rippling pectorals. Foster works for people with power, who prefer not to declare it, though it slips out in inadvertent imagery.
Foster is himself ruthless in pursuit of a job. He beat Santiago Calatrava to the Reichstag commission with a beautiful but impractical plan to build a giant oversailing roof. What he actually built, to Calatrava’s anger, was a dome rather similar to the one Calatrava had proposed. And when the burghers of Cardiff were plotting to oust Zaha Hadid from the job of designing their opera house they asked Foster to present an alternative scheme-despite Richard Rogers’s plea that this was unfair on Hadid. Foster sent in designs just the same. He talks of teamwork, but he plays to win.
Reyner Banham was right. “Bourgeois institutions” and “the great international banks” are the people whose interests Foster serves. I am not a Marxist, so I am not arguing that working for these people is intrinsically bad (buildings are paid for with money and with money comes power). Nor am I arguing that Foster, on top of being a man of great ability in a specialist field, should also be a political sophisticate; nor that the romance of flight is not a beautiful thing. Yet there is a flaw in his approach to architecture which makes it open to abuse, and it lies in the overpowering desire to be airborne, which directs creativity away from the ground-level complexities of a given project. The real issue of the British Museum Great Court was how to put a lot of retail into a venerable museum. To which the answer was: spectacular glass roof. The real issue of the GLA building is the representation of civic democracy in a privatised environment. To which the answer supplied is: funny shape plus view and a smart cooling system.
This helps the British Museum to get away with not thinking too deeply about its cultural purpose. It helps the Government Office for London to palm off a tokenistic democracy on London. A more engaged, challenging architecture would make this harder, but a more challenging architect would not get the jobs. It is tempting to see the mishaps of some of Foster’s projects-the wobbly bridge, the wrong limestone in the British Museum-as the revenge of the actual (of statics and geology) over abstraction; tempting but libellous, except at the level of metaphor, as the blame for these events is far from clear cut.
For all his striving for simplicity, Foster is a complex and contradictory man. For all his aggressive business attitude, he has artistic aspirations. He calls his huge business the “Foster studio” and when he describes his early attraction to architecture it is as an art. His failure lies in an inability to take complexities and contradictions to the source of his own art.