Norman Foster: A Life in Architecture, by Deyan Sudjic, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, RRP£20, 352 pages
It’s hard to believe that only 20 years ago Norman Foster felt unappreciated in his adopted home city of London. Along with his one-time partner Richard Rogers, he had reimagined modernism as a high-tech, sci-fi utopia, a future of vast airports and crystalline offices conceived transparently as machines for making money. He had already completed the self-proclaimed most expensive building in the world, the Hong Kong headquarters of banking giant HSBC, but he was struggling to find more work.
Today, from a vantage point on his now non-wobbly Millennium Bridge above the Thames, Foster is impossible to avoid. Swiss Re’s “Gherkin” redefined the skyscraper for a new millennium as an organic, frankly phallic gesture, while his Willis HQ wraps around the City’s clustered towers. On the South Bank, City Hall, HQ of the Greater London Authority, has rolled to a stop by the glass cliffs of his huge More London development. If you were standing in the Gherkin’s attenuated glass dome you could look down on the undulating roof of the Great Court of the British Museum, the redesigned triumphal piazza of Trafalgar Square and glimpse, on the horizon to the west, the tilting white arch of the new Wembley Stadium. No architect since Sir Christopher Wren has exerted this kind of influence.
London, though, is just an outpost of Foster’s glassy empire. There’s Beijing’s new airport terminal, the biggest building in the world; the Millau Viaduct in France, the tallest bridge in the world; and Berlin’s Reichstag, perhaps the most historically charged building in the world. So how did Lord Foster of Thames Bank become the richest and most successful architect in the world? Deyan Sudjic himself does not seem entirely certain. Instead he faithfully plots Foster’s trajectory from the dingy backstreets of Manchester to Yale, from a front-room office in Hampstead to the drawings factory in Battersea from which Foster took his noble title.
In many ways the diametric opposite of Britain’s other architect lord, Richard Rogers, with his background of cosmopolitan privilege, Foster came up the hard way. Rogers is political, using his position to attempt to influence legislation; his office canteen became the River Café, the home of champagne socialism, and his company introduced a famously fair profit distribution system. In contrast, Foster is ruthlessly apolitical and his office is notorious for its 24-hour shifts. He became hugely wealthy when he sold a share in the practice to private equity company 3i and is now a tax exile in Switzerland – a fact that Sudjic, Foster’s long-time friend, politely omits.
Authorised and mildly hagiographic, this biography shows Foster as he would like to be seen – driven, pushing himself and his staff to be the best, international, competitive and sleekly functional. He is looking beyond the building to build at a city scale: Masdar in Abu Dhabi is taking shape as the world’s first zero-carbon metropolis. Here is an architect who, according to Sudjic, still feeds off his early infatuation with Dan Dare and the fantasies of future worlds, who pilots himself and designs superyachts.
A less kind interpretation would be that Foster’s work is simply about being bigger, taller, newer, more slender, more transparent. Nearly every one of his most famous buildings eschews its context: think of the Gherkin or Wembley or the GLA. These are buildings that stand apart, that fail to communicate with their neighbours; they are self-sufficient and they stand alone. Sure, this is an architect who aspires to design at the city scale but not to design in cities, with their messy complexity and surprising juxtapositions of texture and time; instead to conceive entirely new cities, sci-fi utopias, Foster-worlds.
His best buildings are airports, themselves metropolises manqués, places where history and context are erased and everything hinges on the next flight, the future, the destination, on getting somewhere else. It is no surprise that Foster is building the world’s first spaceport, in the New Mexico desert. Sudjic glosses over (although doesn’t entirely ignore) Foster’s ghastliest works, at the zenith of which is the Pyramid of Peace in Kazakhstan.
But that cynical version wouldn’t quite be the truth either. Foster at his best is superb. His exquisite Carré d’Art in Nîmes stands up well beside that most demanding of neighbours, a Roman temple; Stansted Airport suggested an ethereal alternative to the dim boxes that airports had become; his own offices are perhaps the only beautiful buildings along the sorry sight of the modern Thames. Canary Wharf Underground Station and Bilbao’s metro system transform daily life in the city with Foster’s characteristic blend of elegance and efficiency.
There are no great revelations here, no major insights. Foster emerges as cool, shrewd and clever. He is consistently voted the architect most admired by other architects. I suspect that is less because they want to design like him and more because they want to live like him.
This book will tell you how to do neither, but it is an extraordinary story of a truly self-made man who seems a kickback to the great Victorians, the engineers and industrialists who made the Manchester he came from and conquered the world with their machines.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic