Known for his contemporary and modern design balanced with simplistic and sophisticated architecture, Norman Foster is recognized as one of the world’s great architects. He founded Foster and Partners in London in 1967 and has offices in over twenty countries today. His signature design philosophy involves being ecologically mindful, advanced in technology, and economical in materiality. Norman Foster speaks to Marc-Christoph Wagner for the Louisiana Channel and gives us a peek into his prolific career and personal life. Throughout the interview, he reflects on his childhood, his work evolution, and his striving for simplicity.
Foster was born in the industrial city of Manchester in England, U.K., and received his architectural education from Manchester University and later Yale University in Connecticut, USA. Early in life, he developed a liking for machines and speed in locomotives, and he spent hours sketching and thinking about them. He left his school at the young age of sixteen to be conscripted into the National Service, and soon after, he discovered his love for architecture through books. He was very taken by the French-Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s book ‘Towards a New Architecture’ and copies of the publication ‘Architectural Review’. Growing up, he always felt like an outsider, but he was swept into his private world of dreaming and drawing in his solitude. He discovered that as an architect, he would never have to ‘work’; he could simply do what he enjoyed doing. In 1990, he was honored by a well-deserved knighthood for doing the things he loved best with zealous passion and determination.
The Big Picture
Foster talks about the importance of looking at an urban setting on a larger scale while designing a building. He believes that a city’s public infrastructure, art, and individual buildings are all linked together. The thought process of looking at the bigger picture came from his flying lessons, and he has flown over 75 different aircraft. In Foster’s design of the Reichstag, the New German Parliament, in Berlin, he emphasizes the building’s public aspect by providing a communal space on the roof. The building has the public and politicians enter together. The public realm continues into the roof restaurant, which provides the much-needed light and lightness to the structure, and into the central dome that contains ramps that lead to an observatory. This feature was not asked for in the brief, but he felt the need for this dematerialization in his quest for sustainable architecture. Foster deemed it essential to incorporate public spaces to emphasize that cities, infrastructure, architecture, and the people are all integral parts of the masterplan to a successful design.
Stories in Architecture
Foster believes that all buildings embody many stories. They tell stories about how they are made, their typology, who the building is serving, how it fits in the urban fabric of a city, etc. He says that these stories must be celebrated while planning the architecture of a building. He gives an example of the design process behind the Hong Kong Bank and Stansted Airport, London. Referred to as the HSBC Main Building, the Hong Kong Bank is a classic tower that was meant to be “the best bank building in the world”. It was designed by Foster to be very different from the typical tower typology. It was the first tower at the time to be built without a central core. He says that the lifts, staircases, and other services were taken out and are expressed on the sides in order to have a flexible central space.
Similarly, the Stansted Airport changed all preconceived rules of airport terminal design. Foster questioned the idea of a conventional terminal and turned the airport layout upside down by placing all of the services underground instead of on the rooftop. The building was energy efficient and showed enhanced user experience as movement through the building was straightforward and direct. “We have rethought, redesigned, reinvented. We have questioned and gone back to basics.”, is what he says.
Search for Simplicity
As an avid embracer of technology and gadgetry, Foster comprehends the need for simplicity, that contains complexity, in each of his plans. The airport exemplifies this philosophy. Airports, the world over, are challenging environments with their intimidating baggage handling areas, security arrangements, extensive signages, heating and ventilation systems, duct areas, etc. However, his airport design, while serving all these functions most effectively and efficiently, is made keeping the ultimate user in mind. The result is a comfortable and ergonomically designed space characterized by simplicity, which camouflages all the unfamiliar and complex elements from prominent sight, thus enhancing user experience. In this, he seems to have been subconsciously inspired by nature that used to offer him succor in his solitary bike rides amidst nature whenever he wished to spend time away from the city’s hustle and bustle – nature which, on a cursory glance, depicts simplicity but to a discerning eye reflects perfection in complexity.
His love for including green spaces in his designs is evident in the vast Apple headquarters and even in the Maggie’s Cancer Centre. The epic scale Apple headquarters is designed in the shape of a huge continuous ring encompassing verdant areas. This eliminates the need for transportation between several disjointed buildings and ensuring movement within one roof instead of a logistical nightmare.
Attention to detail emerging from his ability to be a great listener is evident in the Cancer Centre, with its hallmark being a reassuring environment amidst nature. His experience with hospitalization nurtured his desire to create such a welcoming and familiar space. He reiterates that for a project to be great, it does not have to be complex, time-consuming, or a huge drain on resources, as is obvious from some of the best architecture emerging from times of economic hardships. He uses the metaphor of a poem which lacks the verbosity of prose but yet beautifully and effectively distills the sentiment it chooses to evoke.
Future for Foster
Norman Foster is not one to sit on his laurels. In the future, he wishes his designs, like catalysts, to play key roles in arriving at broad-spectrum solutions to urban problems, compounded by population density. His vision for the redevelopment of Dharavi, an urban compaction in Mumbai, reveals his respect for the human psyche and the environment. He proposes the recycling of resources, wherever possible.
Without leveling the structures and replacing them with modern towers, he wishes to arrive at innovative solutions to real-world problems like sanitation, power supply, water supply, etc., without displacing the populace and while retaining the strong community feel of the space. Never one to feel intimidated by the double-edged sword of technology but instead embracing it and using it to advantage has been his forte. Through constantly keeping abreast with rapid developments in the field, reinventing his designs, and following up on his ideas with determination, conviction, and a relentless quest for quality, he wishes to make a difference in the world. He is never afraid to turn conventional thinking on its head or to go back to basics in his continuous endeavor for a better design and consequently a better way of life.
Norman Foster’s work is characterized by user-centricity, environmental consciousness, superior quality, economical use of resources, and predominantly, simplicity. These qualities, coupled with an adaptive approach, ensures that his work continues to enthrall viewers and users alike. His structures, particularly his public infrastructure ones, are like dog-eared and much-treasured books, read over and over again by millions, each reader leaving his mark on them, thus adding to their iconic stature. The tangible twin fields of art and architecture endure and resonate with the public long after their time. Each building in a skyline represents the culmination of the stories of journeys of several components, including people, brought together in a cohesive whole. These stories will always hold appeal, especially when they epitomize simplicity, quality, and integrity like the works of Sir Norman Foster.