As a youngster, Norman, the son of a working class family from Manchester, took an interest in machines and airplanes, dreamed of a science fiction future, and discovered the world through his readings in the public library. After two years working for the city council, he secured a job as an administrative assistant in an architect’s studio. Meanwhile, by night, he copied the office drawings to build a portfolio that would enable him to get into the School of Architecture where his skills with a pencil earned him awards in several drawing competitions. He put the proceeds toward travelling through Europe and visiting the buildings he had only seen in photographs. He familiarised himself not only with the those designed by Le Corbusier, and with those of Danish architects Kay Fisker, Arne Jacobsen and Jørn Utzon, but also with the classical architecture of Palladio, the public spaces of historical cities such as Siena, and vernacular buildings. A scholarship led him to complete his training at Yale University under the guidance of professors such as Paul Rudolph, Serge Chermayeff and Vincent Scully, and also to gain familiarity with architecture in the United States through extensive travels there. It was in the United States where he struck up a friendship with Richard Rogers, also British, with whom he was to establish his first studio under the name ‘Team 4’ upon their return to the United Kingdom. Their wives Su Rogers and Wendy Cheesman were also partners.
TEAM 4 IN THE ’60S
Though ‘Team 4’ was short lived, from 1963 to 1967, it left three landmark works for posterity. The ‘Cockpit’(The retreat), a small shelter for sail boating excursionists on the estuary of a river was designed for Su’s parents. Standing partially below ground level amidst trees and capped off with a glass dome similar to the cockpit of a plane, thus explaining Foster’s nickname, it planted a good seed for part of his mature work. ‘Skybreak’, a house staggered onto different levels with natural ceiling light, nestled into the landscape hidden from its neighbours, was erected with conventional stone masonry. Stanley Kubrick was to make it famous when choosing it to film A Clockwork Orange. Reliance Controls, designed and built in ten months with a modular assemblage system combining the slabs with a metal structure and a corrugated roof decking. This ‘degree zero’ architecture was inspired by the California of the Eames, Raphael Soriano and Pierre Koenig. Once independently established in a studio of his own, carrying on in the tradition of Reliance in competitions such as Newport, Foster developed his ‘umbrella buildings’. He worked with his admired mentor Buckminster Fuller on designs that were never to be built. On the London docks, the service building he erected for the Norwegian shipper Fred Olsen was not only a technical achievement due to its boldness and exquisite glass façade, but also a social landmark as it generated leisure areas and space for restaurants shared by administrative workers and manual labourers alike.
THE ’70S: FROM GREAT BRITAIN TO HONG KONG
Olsen’s building, no longer in existence, stood in its time as a benchmark for those who were to be the firm’s major clients during the 1970s. For IBM, Foster built a large glass box amidst the Hampshire landscape blending the Reliance’s laconic structure with the unique Newport roof and Olsen’s reflecting façade. For Willis Faber, Foster erected a new headquarters in Ipswich where the refined undulating glass skin is as important as the gardened roof and the landscaped offices enhancing the quality of the workspace and making it adaptable to change. The Sainsburys, also visited Olsen before commissioning him with the art centre bearing their name at the University of East Anglia. This large, double-skinned container with an expressive structure stands as a hangar and temple at the same time as it aims, just as the Pompidou Centre designed by Renzo Piano and his former partner Richard Rogers did in Paris, to redefine the role and image of museums. At the close of the decade, the studio obtained a colossal commission affording it unique visibility and making it world renown: the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank skyscraper promoted once the British colony’s return to China had been agreed. Just as the Sainsbury building aimed to reinvent museums, the skyscraper purported to be a breakthrough with a new concept. The idea was to shift the technical core over to the perimeter to make way for diaphanous floors and spectacular free space in the centre. An elegant, sophisticated structure was used and contributed to making the building extraordinarily popular, perhaps the best-known auteur architecture and one of the key works of the 20th century.
THE ’80S: INFRASTRUCTURE AND HERITAGE
During the 1980s, the revision of architectural typologies continued with what came to be the most influential of all. While Sainsbury and Hong Kong were exemplary works, they did not transform museums or skyscrapers in the same way that Stansted transformed airports. London’s third airport is an exquisite metal wood lifting its slender structural trees to sustain a light, bright roof. This was only achieved because the architect moved the HVAC equipment to the basement. This was to become a must in all subsequent airport designs, from then on opened up to natural brightness with light roofs providing sky-lighting. Stansted culminates a delving into technical, geometric and aesthetic aspects that goes back to the Reliance the first work of its kind. However, the Carré d’Art in Nîmes began a new family of urban works, tested in the never to be built design for the BBC in London. Using even more streamlined language, it aimed to face off to the city’s complexity and dialogue with the heritage from the past. Accounting for the Roman temple, much of the building had to be set below ground level so as not to dominate the historical building. The decade closed in any event with Spanish commissions that enabled Foster to express his interest in infrastructure. Atop Collserola facing Barcelona, he rethought communications towers through his slender needle design, while in Bilbao for the metro, he rethought railroad tunnels through is design with precision caverns and transparent canopies. Both of these works were to become icons in their respective cities.
THE ’90S: FROM BERLIN TO LONDON
The last decade of the 20th century, which saw Foster’s firm build colossal designs like the Commerzbank in Frankfurt, the tallest skyscraper in Europe, and the Chek Lap Kok airport set on an artificial island facing Hong Kong, the largest work in the world, also witnessed ground-breaking interventions in both civic and symbolic terms: the Reichstag in Berlin and the British Museum in London. To house the new German Parliament after the country’s reunification and the re-location of its capital from Bonn to Berlin, Norman Foster remodelled a building associated with that nation’s most ominous monument. A dome-overlook capped off the building, placing citizens above their representatives in what was a model for ecological construction. Meanwhile, in London, the moving of the British Library paved the way for a new headquarters involving the central courtyard of the British Museum, transformed into a public space protected by a glass roof boasting sophisticated geometry. This intervention in the heart of the city was added to the pedestrianisation project in Trafalgar Square and the exquisite Millennium Bridge over the Thames linking Saint Paul’s cathedral and the new Tate Gallery to configure a constellation of designs that use technically elegant contemporary language to make Britain’s capital kinder and more geographically balanced.
FOSTER IN THE 21ST CENTURY
In the 21st century, Norman Foster continues to forge ahead into new terrain, taking on almost unimaginable challenges in his work while, through the Foundation bearing his name, he tackles major humanitarian problems and attempts to stay one step ahead of our future. The city of Masdar in Abu Dabi, aiming for ecological self-sufficiency, couples the wisdom of traditional building in hot climates with the most refined technology. Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino lends shape in Silicon Valley to the terse precision conjured up by the digital revolution while paying tribute to the mythical designs of Steve Jobs, a client as stimulating as Fred Olsen or the Sainsburys were in their day. The designs for cabin-compartments on the moon for the European Space Agency and on Mars for NASA include the use of regolith from these celestial bodies to build by using covered robots inspired on meteor-resistant cellular structures. And in the face of that galaxy of visionary designs, the Norman Foster Foundation, headquartered in Madrid, protects and disseminates its archives while combining timeless knowledge with cutting edge technology in designs such as Droneport, a miniscule airport for drones built with vernacular techniques aiming to serve as communications infrastructure in far-flung corners of the globe, and while bringing together researchers and students from all continents around the globe to anticipate the challenges of the future.