Few contemporary architects could be described as household names, but then few architects have had such long and prolific careers, or have put their name to so many high-profile building projects, as Norman Foster.
Norman Robert Foster was born in Manchester in June 1935, and grew up in the working class neighbourhood of Levenshulme. He was naturally gifted and performed well at school. At the same time he took an interest in architecture, particularly in the works of Frank Lloyd Wright (1867 - 1959) and the Modernist master Le Corbusier1. He considered a career in architecture from an early age, but National Service and a number of rather mundane day jobs intervened. While working in the contracts department of a small Manchester-based firm of architects (John Beardshaw & Partners), however, his sketching talents were spotted, and he soon moved into the drawing department.
Foster did not need much more encouragement than that. At 21 years of age he began his architectural studies at Manchester University. Lacking in neither the attitude nor the aptitude to succeed, he won practically every prize and scholarship available. A number of these enabled him to visit Europe and take in its architecture, including the works of Jørn Utzon (the Danish-born architect and designer of the Sydney Opera House) and Le Corbusier.
Foster's academic successes at Manchester won him a Henry Fellowship to pursue graduate studies at Yale University, USA. There he met Richard Rogers and they began a life-long friendship. After graduating from Yale, Foster travelled throughout the United States for a year, and returned to England in 1962.
He began professional practice, forming Team 4 with Richard Rogers and Wendy and Georgie Cheesman, two sisters who were also Yale alumni. Richard Rogers' first wife Su was also a member of the team. Wendy Cheesman later became Foster's first wife2.
Team 4's output began with a number of small and ecologically concerned residential projects, but it was the 30,000 sq ft Reliance Controls factory (Swindon, UK, 1965-66) which made their name. This was essentially just a large steel shell containing a vast amount of flexible space. Yet it was a turning-point: the earliest example of the use of lightweight construction and industrial components, the so-called 'High Tech Architecture' which would form the basis of both Foster's and Rogers' work, and that of a great many of their peers, over the coming decades.
In 1967 the members of Team 4 went their separate ways. Richard Rogers went on to collaborate with Renzo Piano on the Centre Pompidou in Paris, and Norman and Wendy formed Foster Associates, now known as Foster & Partners. 1968 saw the beginning of a long period of collaboration with the American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, which continued until Fuller's death in 1983. Foster and Fuller worked together on the Samuel Beckett Theatre project, and on a number of theoretical designs aimed at developing environmentally friendly offices and houses. While these designs remain unrealised, this period of collaboration continues to inform Foster's architecture to this day, and provided inspiration for the office tower at 30 St Mary Axe in the City of London, the UK's first-ever ecological skyscraper.
Breaking New Ground
An important early breakthrough for Foster's own practice was the Willis Faber & Dumas headquarters in Ipswich, UK. This was a pioneering piece of social architecture completed in 1974. The client was an insurance company, originally a family firm, which wanted to restore a sense of community to the workplace. Foster responded by creating open-plan office floors long before open-plan became the norm. In a town not over-endowed with public facilities, the roof gardens, Olympic-sized swimming pool and gymnasium greatly enhance the quality of life of the company's 1,200 employees. All this is wrapped in a full-height glass façade which moulds itself to the medieval street plan and contributes real drama, subtly shifting from opaque, reflective black to a glowing backlit transparency as the sun sets.
Foster remains proud of the building to this day, not only because it has won as many awards for energy conservation as it has for architecture, but also because he sees this as the project where all his aspirations came together: the concept of the building in relation 'to history, to a social dimension, to energy usage, and to the appropriate usage of technology'3. The building is now Grade One Listed4.
A Major Talent
Foster was able to bring fresh creativity and innovation to a building type long thought to have been fully investigated by other architects. This was proof positive that a major talent had arrived, and led to further commissions.
Among these was the 50-storey Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank headquarters (Hong Kong, 1979-86), at the time rumoured to be the most expensive building ever constructed. The building was innovative in that whereas a traditional skyscraper would be built outwards from a central solid core, Foster placed the load-bearing masts and struts on the exterior of the building. This allows the central space to serve as a vertical daylit atrium, providing natural light and considerable drama to each office floor. The concept was so successful that Foster re-used elements of it in the designs for the Commerzbank headquarters in Frankfurt, the earthquake-proof Century Tower in Tokyo, and the hypothetical Millennium Tower once proposed for the site of the bombed Baltic Exchange in the City of London.
The City of London
The Millennium Tower remained little more than a pipe-dream - 400-metre towers simply do not get built in the City - yet Foster's impact on the skyline and cityscape of London is considerable.
The Baltic Exchange site was used for the 180-metre Swiss Re Insurance headquarters at 30 St Mary Axe. This is Foster's second-tallest building in London after the 200-metre HSBC tower at Canary Wharf. Foster & Partners have also put their name to mid-rise office developments at One London Wall, 100 Wood Street, and 50 Finsbury Square. They designed City Hall - the Mayor of London's new offices - along with a further office development directly adjacent to Tower Bridge. They co-designed the London Millennium Bridge with engineer Chris Wise and the eminent sculptor Sir Anthony Caro, and are currently working on the Wembley Stadium redevelopment in collaboration with HOK Sport.
The Reichstag, Berlin
Foster's work has by no means been confined to the British Isles. Perhaps the most prestigious commission completed to date was the rebuilding of the Reichstag - the German parliament building in Berlin. This was part conservation project, part new build, and an inherently emotive and sensitive challenge.
The original building dates from 1884. It had been ravaged by fire and by war, and remained forlorn and neglected until the decision was made to relocate the German parliament from Bonn to Berlin during the 1990s. Foster rose to the challenge in style, successfully preserving the original exterior, the 19th Century frescoes and the Soviet-era paintings, while creating an entirely new interior suitable for housing the parliament of a nation far into the 21st Century.
True to Foster's ongoing dedication to 'green' architecture, the finished building is entirely energy self-sufficient, burning only renewable fuels such as rapeseed oil to provide both heating and electricity, and storing excess heat deep below ground in summer, ready for use in winter. The new parliament is crowned with an enormous glass dome, which simultaneously makes historical reference to the building's original 76-metre dome, and acts as an evocative symbol of democracy. The dome is accessible to the public, and the German people are welcome to enter and to gaze out across their city or down from the helical access ramps into the main chamber, to watch their parliament in session. This is the embodiment of symbolic transparency, accessibility and democracy - identical principles to those underlying Foster & Partners' work at City Hall in London.
The Present Day
Today Foster & Partners are one of the very largest architectural practices in the world, employing roughly 500 people. They maintain offices in Hong Kong and Berlin, along with their headquarters on the South Bank of the Thames next to Battersea Park - the studio itself being a Foster creation. The firm's output is phenomenal and shows no sign of abating.
As quickly as the buildings roll out, the honours and awards roll in. Foster was knighted in 1990, and in 1993 was awarded the prestigious Royal Gold Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects. In 1998 his American Air Museum building at Duxford, UK, was awarded the Stirling Prize, while in 1999 he became both a Pritzker Laureate and a Life Peer, assuming the title of Lord Foster of Thames Bank.
Of course, in a practice with such a prolific turnover of projects, it would be unrealistic to expect one man to design each and every building the firm creates. Despite his talents, Norman Foster is no exception, and these days is content to oversee the work of his team and his senior partners5.
Foster ceaselessly travels the world, frequently in aircraft piloted by himself, casting a watchful eye over the numerous projects which the practice has on the go at any one time. His influences, his ambition to reduce energy consumption, and his determination to utilise cutting-edge technology in order to create the finest buildings possible, continue to inform every piece of work the practice completes.