RA Magazine Autumn 2007
Issue Number: 96
A book on Norman Foster RA’s greatest hits proves that after four decades the architect is still going strong, writes Charles Jencks
The Millau Viaduct, Tarn Valley, France. Built 2004, by Foster + Partners
Like Tony Blair looking back over his successful career, Foster 40 presents the conviction-politician speaking his beliefs. The architect Norman Foster RA in several ways is the more ambitious, talented and successful of the two.
Now, after 40 years of practice and turning 72 this year, he is taking stock in a two-volume book that is something of a retrospective. This massive tome, presenting 40 years, 40 projects and 40 themes, is designed and captioned by the architect himself and restates the passions of his career; it is not a place for doubt or a new message but rather a summing up.
Here are all the oft-repeated themes, of Modernism and the functional tradition, Buckminster Fuller and sustainability. The most interesting categories that cut across projects are history, pleasures and curves (complex, computer-assisted ones), while the old interests of aerodynamics, shade and windmills are also cross-indexed.
After working with Richard Rogers RA for a short time, Foster came to prominence in the 1970s, with a series of minimalist and sleek commissions that captured the centre ground of progressive capitalism. Termed ‘high-tech’, a label Rogers and Foster have always abjured, these buildings set the pace for corporate, elegant effi ciency. Offices for Fred Olsen, IBM and Willis Faber were the ultimate in slick-tech innovation.
To prove they could also carry out Fuller’s agenda of ‘doing more with less’, Foster designed a beautiful inflatable office for a crowded London site: it was blown up in 55 minutes. Ever since, his claim to be radically new and effi cient, or today innovative and ecological, has provided the mission statement. Sometimes the results contradict this line (the Hong Kong Bank was the most expensive headquarters of the mid-1980s).
And his claims to have designed the most sustainable tall buildings in the world, like other assertions that seem aimed at the Guinness Book of Records, might be challenged by historians.
Yet ‘Fosters’, to give it the brand, is the top large firm around. It trumps American competition such as SOM, KPF and HOK with ease. It is more versatile than Richard Meier and Rafael Viñoly, more elegant than Jean Nouvel and Richard Rogers and more adept at iconic building than Renzo Piano. Foster may not have reached the sculptural virtuosity of Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid and Daniel Libeskind, but then he doesn’t intend to. The impressive fact of his career is the combination of output and quality, his high batting average over many seasons. If he makes this look easy with 900 employees in the UK and 500 good structures to show for it, that just illustrates he has the consummate sprezzatura of a Renaissance prince, an effortless grace that conceals hard work.
With projects in more than 50 countries, Foster shuttles between his six design groups. Each team is led by two partners and responds to a carefully coordinated product coming from engineers, graphic artists, modelmakers and product designers.
The Foster Product recalls the Bauhaus slogan of total design, a common approach encompassing everything from the door handle to the city. So there is an all-over style, even if more than one, a controlled brand of supercompetence, a totalising look tailored for today, for Capitalism with a Green Face.
By general consent Foster scores well in these stakes and by my reckoning Foster 40 covers the highest marks of the large firm: three A’s (Willis Faber, Hong Kong Bank and the Swiss Re building known as the Gherkin). There is one A-plus, the Millau Viaduct (above), which he questionably characterises as a ‘minimum intervention’ in a beautiful valley. In fact, it is the grandest celebration of man’s presence in nature, dancing with it like a series of hovering ballerinas in lace-like cables whirling their skirts over the dramatic Gorges du Tarn. No wonder Nicolas Sarkozy campaigned for the French election in front of the Foster bridge.
There are four or five A-minus grades, such as the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, the Carré d’Art in Nîmes, the Reichstag, and possibly the McLaren Technology Centre and the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy.
The 30 projects left in his retrospective tome are B’s of varying degrees (failures such as Milton Keynes housing scheme were axed).
Even if other critics disagree, mine are customary evaluations of the ‘top 40’ and they form a more impressive report card than many of Foster’s big competitors.
Missing from this book are all the personal struggles, gossip, insults and tragedies that Foster has endured, and much of the excitement and passion. The press speculation about his selling a minority stake in Foster + Partners to the private equity investor 3i led him to a rare email to clients, saying ‘relax, I’m still in charge’. Many interpreted the sale as a prelude to retirement, but it could provide just the leverage he needs to take on the global behemoths, ‘cash for expansion’ as The Guardian has speculated.
If Foster has this Promethean ambition, to be the biggest and the best, then we can look forward to another shift of gears.
- Foster 40, edited by David Jenkins (Prestel, £100)
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