Veteran architect of modernism

Profile: Lord Norman Foster's work has changed the world of architecture. Now he is reshaping the UAE skyline.
Norman Foster's visions have redrawn the UAE skyline.
Norman Foster's visions have redrawn the UAE skyline.

One of the people reshaping the UAE's skyline believes in simplicity, the concept of architecture impressing but not overwhelming.

"Architecture is a marriage of the functional and the spiritual," Norman Foster said recently of his philosophy.

Lord Foster, or Baron Foster of Thames Bank, 76, is now at the point of his career when pundits are debating his legacy and style, and his lasting impact on design.

He has been called the "leading urban stylist of our age". His game-changers include the Swiss Re Building, universally known as the Gherkin, in London; and Frankfurt's Commerzbank Tower.

In the UAE, Lord Foster's firm, Foster + Partners, is the designer behind Masdar City, Abu Dhabi's Central Market and the Sheikh Zayed National Museum planned for Saadiyat Island.

But Lord Foster has drawn criticism for some of his cold, glass and steel structures - and his role in sparking a trend dominated by large firms snatching the world's most glamorous projects. He is now a brand - a business more than a revolution, critics charge.

Lord Foster doesn't run from the accusation. There's nothing wrong with design adding value, he insists.

"Good design is quantifiable - aesthetically and economically," he told a Hong Kong magazine last year.

One of a group of post-war architects who reshaped Europe, Lord Foster is something of a self-styled renaissance man - a pilot who flies jets and helicopters, a collector of classic sports cars, and a member of high society who entertains some of the world's great thinkers at his Swiss chateau.

To relax he cross-country skies and pilots gliders.

"I need the silence - not to escape, but to reflect, think through solutions," he once said.

Lord Foster took an unusual route to his royal standing. He was born in Manchester, in poor surroundings, the son of a shop manager.

After a stint in the RAF, he earned a fellowship to Yale University, in the US, where he met his future professional partner Richard Rogers, who now heads Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners, a rival global firm.

Lord Foster, his wife Wendy Cheeseman, and Mr Rogers and his wife Su Brumwell, formed Team 4 in London in 1963 at a time when cities around the world started to encourage and commission new architecture.

Lord Foster's breakthrough work was a headquarters building in Ipswich in 1974 for Willis Faber & Dumas, an insurance company. His design brought in open "democratic" spaces, a roof garden and swimming pool for employees.

Buckminster Fuller, the American futurist, philosopher and the inventor of the geodesic dome, was a friend, mentor and collaborator, giving Lord Foster's early work a distinctive style.

"I think we came together as kindred spirits with a passion for environmental issues which, at that time in the early 1970s, was not a fashionable topic," Lord Foster said this year.

Many modernist designs of the period were essentially glass boxes. But Lord Foster brought in geometeric shapes and flowing open spaces. One of his first big successes was the HSBC Main Building in Hong Kong, which featured an open-air pavilion on the ground floor.

"It was quite a revolution when it was introduced," says Yasser Elsheshtawy, an associate professor of architecture at UAE University.

The Sheikh Zayed National Museum captures the combination of local sensibility and environmental creativity found in many of Lord Foster's projects. The design's most distinctive feature will be a set of soaring glass facades inspired by falcon wings, which will add natural light to display rooms and help cool the structure by redirecting sea breezes.

"He has a very interesting take on modernism," Mr Elsheshtawy says. "He tries to take the simplicity of the structure and integrate it with high-tech components."

Lord Foster is often cited - with both respect and derision - for launching a new era in glass and steel designs with exposed structural elements. But he also developed as one of the industry's true environmentalists, researching new ways for buildings to work more efficiently.

In the HSBC building in Hong Kong, seawater is used as a coolant for the air-conditioning system and the design allows the entire building to be infused with natural light. In London, the bulbous Gherkin's elaborate diamond-pattern skin works to ventilate and cool the building.

He has often talked about the importance of human interaction and meeting spaces in buildings, incorporating the idea in ways often ignored by other modernists.

"There are links between the ecology of a building, which is measurable, and the more poetic dimensions," Lord Foster said last year. "The importance of views, friendliness or the pleasure we feel in a hot climate when moving into the shade - are more difficult to quantify."

Lord Foster set himself apart from his contemporaries by working on both modern, high-tech buildings and historical renovations. He has won competitions to work on the New York Public Library and the courtyard for the British Museum, displaying a knack for pushing the envelope while still maintaining reverence for the original.

Over the years Foster + Partners has become an architecture factory, working on everything from bridges to the design of the first private spaceport in New Mexico. Its best known work includes airport terminals in Hong Kong, Beijing and Stansted, just outside London, eschewing the usually cluttered, claustrophobic building design for modern, open, flowing spaces.

The firm has worked on more than 250 projects in 40 countries since it was founded as Foster Associates in 1967 after Lord Foster left Team 4.

In recent years, Lord Foster's work has become "sleeker and more predictable", says Nicolai Ouroussoff, The New York Times' architecture critic. However his creations "are always driven by an internal structural logic, and they treat their surroundings with a refreshing bluntness", says Mr Ouroussoff.

Lord Foster spends little time debating public reactions to his projects. One of his most famous quotes is that "great architecture should wear its message lightly".

His interests have moved into other areas; he survived cancer and now spends some of his time working with charities and scholarship programmes for architecture students - in addition to his role as one of the industry's most vocal supporters of environmentally sensitive designs.

And he is still happy pondering the development of his architectural philosophy: "I always prefer to look forward - to celebrate the next design challenge - rather than look back."

 

kbrass@thenational.ae

Published: August 12, 2011 04:00 AM

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