The following is an excerpt of the cover story of this month’s Surface magazine profiling the extraordinary career of British architect Norman Foster and the recent work of his firm, Foster + Partners. Written by the magazine’s executive editor, William Hanley, the story features quotes from Foster during his recent trips to Madrid and London.
Le Corbusier’s car is parked in Madrid. A 1926 Avion Voisin Lumineuse, built in the spirit of an airplane, the meticulously restored machine gleams with the promise of once-unprecedented speed. It anchors a gallery at the Norman Foster Foundation that is filled with the architect’s collection of personal obsessions: models of every plane he’s ever flown, a maquette of geodesic dome he designed with Buckminster Fuller, a first-generation iPhone, and other homages to the marriage of humanity and technology. “I’ve always had a fascination with utopian visions, with the idea that you could use design and technology to create a better life,” Foster says. “Whether it’s robots or automation, those dreams—the things that as a youth were science fiction—are now a reality.”
Foster has spent the last 50 years creating that reality. His buildings flaunt their technological ambition in sharp lines and shimmering glass. Self-consciously rooted in 20th-century Modernism, they project a worldview of lightness, transparency, and progress. There are also a lot of them.
Leading his firm of some 1,300 people—the largest staff at an architecture firm based in the U.K.—with 10 offices on three continents, Foster has completed hundreds of projects and transformed entire cities. He has overseen the design of everything from towers, civic buildings, airports, and bridges, to furnishings, lighting fixtures, and acoustical panels—from aeries for the uber wealthy to the handrails at City Hall. For his efforts, Foster and his work have won just about every prize that the architecture field has to offer—the Pritzker, the Praemium Imperiale, the Royal Gold Medal, the Stirling, the Aga Khan Award—and Great Britain has granted him the title Baron Foster of Thames Bank (he does not have voting rights in the House of Lords, as he claims Switzerland as his primary residence). But in June, Foster did something unusual when he unveiled his private foundation.
Organizations like the Fondation Le Corbusier or the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation preserve the work of their eponyms and perpetuate their ideas, but it’s rare, even in a profession known for large egos, for architects to found an organization dedicated to their own worldview. Headquartered in Madrid—where Foster’s wife, Elena Ochoa Foster, runs Ivorypress, a publisher of small-edition artist books—the Norman Foster Foundation houses the firm’s archive (going back to a student drawing of Foster’s from 1947) in the basement of a 1912 house that once served as an embassy. Upstairs, rooms have been turned into galleries telling the story of Foster + Partners in a succession of stunningly crafted architectural models. The gallery showing Foster’s collection of art and ephemera situates his work among that of his heroes. The foundation’s aim, Foster says, is to gather luminaries from a range of disciplines to solve the world’s problems—starting with design, infrastructure, and urbanism—through hosting educational programs, symposia, and other activities. “If you’re trying to get buildings that work with nature, that consume less energy, that are more healthy, and more joyful, you need to go out to a younger generation, and try to anticipate the future,” he said with a contagious enthusiasm the day before the foundation opened. “So, the mission is education, to get the good word out.”
Foster began anticipating the future in the middle of the past century. “I’ve always been fascinated by science fiction,” he says. “It could be Dan Dare in a comic. It could be Flash Gordon at the cinema. It could be the writings of Jules Verne. It could be anybody who saw a brighter future.” He was, in his own description, an awkward kid growing up in Manchester. He developed an interest in architecture and engineering as a teenager before serving in the Royal Air Force, where he cultivated a lifelong passion for flying—he still pilots his own plane, though a heart attack several years ago left him unable to fly solo. Foster attended the University of Manchester School of Architecture and City Planning by working a succession of jobs, “anything to pay the fees,” including selling ice cream, working in a bakery, and moonlighting as a nightclub bouncer.
“I was bullied as a child, and I had to confront my demons, as it were, as a bouncer,” he says. “I once brought somebody down with a rugby tackle. The guy had beat up the manager.” He says with a laugh: “I never played rugby in my life!”
Foster completed a master’s degree at the Yale School of Architecture, and back in the U.K., founded the architecture firm Team 4 with Su Brumwell, Wendy Cheesman, and Richard Rogers. The firm completed several forward-looking houses—including Skybreak House in in Radlett, England, used as a set in the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange—before disbanding in 1967, though Brumwell eventually married (and later divorced) Rogers, and Foster married Cheesman. Together, Foster and Cheesman founded Foster Associates, and she remained his partner until her death, in 1989.
As they were setting up the new firm, Foster met revered inventor Buckminster Fuller at lunch with a mutual acquaintance, and they almost immediately began collaborating. “We shared an attitude, a way of thinking,” Foster says. “Bucky was about change, and in that sense, he upset some people, and he fired the imagination of others.” With Fuller, Foster honed many of the ideas that would define his work, including a dedication to ecologically attuned design and an unwavering faith in technology. “He showed me how a small change, like the rudder of an ocean liner, can completely transform and entire space, a whole city.” They went on to partner on designs for everything from industrial buildings to a theater.
Foster’s firm made its name bringing Fuller’s utopian language to large-scale buildings, particularly big-budget commercial projects. Its first large commission was the Willis Faber and Dumas headquarters in Ipswich, England, a three-story office building completed in 1975. Wrapped in a curtain of nearly black glass that turns into a transparent lantern at night, the now Grade I–Listed building incorporated an open plan, a pool, and a green roof that presaged contemporary workplace design. The firm’s Hong Kong headquarters for HSBC, a 47-story tower completed a decade later at a cost of $1 billion in 1980s dollars, suspends massive volumes within a comparatively light structure with a gesture that could have come from Fuller’s drawings. “The challenge is to use design skills to provide something that is beyond the dreams of those who commissioned it,” Foster says. The firm followed it up with a glassier 1990s iteration, the 56-story Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt.
Foster’s signature structural move derives from the same minimum material, maximum space concepts as Fuller’s geodesic domes. His firm has taken a diagonal grid of steel covered in glass and crunched it into roof canopies or extruded it to wrap skyscrapers in many projects over the years. It gives 30 St. Mary’s Axe—“The Gherkin”—its bulging form and the corkscrew of atria that wind up its facade. When the building opened in 2003, its striking profile on the rising skyline came to embody 21st-century London. Foster’s first tall building in the United States, the 46-story Hearst Tower in New York City, uses a similar system. A faceted glass stalk, the 2006 skyscraper bursts out of the stone facade of the company’s original 1928 Joseph Urban building. Hailed as the first ambitious tower design undertaken in New York after the September 11th attacks, it was greeted as a triumph of daring corporate architecture. Critic Paul Goldberger called Foster the “Mozart of Modernism” in a review of the project. “He knows how to convince chief executives that the avant-garde is in their interest,” he wrote, comparing Foster to “an artist with the savvy of a corporate consultant.”
Foster’s persuasive prowess has allowed him to marshal the political support necessary to win and pull off significant public projects as well. He cites his design for the dome in his 1999 renovation of the Reichstag as a particular feat. The officials behind the project initially wanted a traditional stone cupola, but Foster and his team convinced them to accept a glass version with an observation deck that allows visitors to look down into the parliamentary chamber as they take in views of the city around them. “I was against the historic cupola, which was about the Kaiser,” he says. “I was for a democratic move, putting the people above the politicians.” The heroic blend of futurism and democratic transparency has proven equally attractive to companies and governments. Foster is adept at selling it to both.
To read the rest of the article, head over to Surface Magazine’s website, here, or purchase a copy of the November Issue, which also includes a studio visit with graphic design legend and Pentagram partner Paula Scher; the 10 commandments of furniture designer and strategist Jeffrey Bernett; a story on real estate developer Stephen M. Ross and his Hudson Yards mega-project; and more.