Lord of the Lines
He designs buildings for sustainability, transforms entire cities, and redefines skyscrapers and bridges. A visit with Lord Norman Foster, who may well be the most influential architect of our time. On
The mural extends more than fifteen meters in length and three in height. An old Sumatran technique was used to weave fourteen different shades of thread together. It shows British artist Grayson Perry’s own epic interpretation of William Shakespeare’s “Seven Ages of Man.” Seven stages in the life of a man were integrated into this single all-encompassing work of art. In front of the tapestry stand two
June 1935. Norman Foster is born in Stockport, England. He grows up in the working-class city of Manchester. As a child, he writes an essay that wins him a spot at a high school. The essay describes a racing duel on the Nürburgring. “I realized I was fascinated by race cars. Especially
For economic reasons, Foster leaves school at the age of sixteen, taking a job at a municipal agency. Books and magazines are the primary source of inspiration in his youth. The Eagle, a maverick weekly mixture of futurism, technology, and architecture, features Dan Dare on its cover. This comic-book hero is a pilot. Foster begins to dream of flying. His first adventure born of science and fiction will soon become reality.
Act two—Royal Air Force
Foster’s passion for airspace prompts him to do military service with the Royal Air Force. Although his everyday tasks at a radar station are on the ground, years later he earns his first pilot’s license. Aircraftsman Foster 2709757 continues to fly helicopters and jet planes to this day.
After his military training, he needs a job and there’s no way he wants to return to the joyless atmosphere of the municipal agency. He finds his next great inspiration in a library in Levenshulme, and treasures Le Corbusier’s book Vers une architecture to this day. “I was hypnotized by the designs,” he says. His application portfolio for the architecture program at the University of Manchester is accepted. A bold design for a windmill earns Foster an award when he’s only in his second semester. The design for a house with a motorboat docking almost in the living room is another example of how he stands out from his fellow students.
In 1961, Foster wins a fellowship at Yale. American architectural treatments of form and function have long since caught his attention. In the lead-up to the Second World War, many leading European thinkers had left the continent and were making their multi-story dreams come true on the other side of the Atlantic. They included greats such as Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Foster enjoys his time at Yale. Visionaries like Richard Buckminster Fuller and Paul Rudolph drive him to new heights of performance. Foster and fellow student Richard Rogers drive a VW Beetle across the USA, drawn as if by magic to buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright and Charles Eames. Structures based on modular systems leave a lasting impression. After completing his degree at Yale, Foster works for a few months in San Francisco. There he falls in love with the lines of the
Act four—Team 4
Foster, Richard Rogers, Foster’s future wife Wendy Cheesman, and her sister Georgie found the Team 4 architectural office in 1963. One of the first designs wins the RIBA Award from the Royal Institute of British Architects—and memorializes Foster’s passion for flying. One part of the award-winning Creek Vean house in Cornwall, England, evokes a cockpit partially submerged in the ground. With their mixtures of traditional and industrial materials the four architects stand out from the mainstream, and their work even finds its way into movie theaters. Film director Stanley Kubrick uses Skybreak House in the English town of Radlett in 1971 to shoot his blockbuster A Clockwork Orange.
Act five—Foster + Partners
Foster and his wife Wendy found the Foster Associates architectural office in 1967, which they later rename Foster + Partners. It becomes a source of visionary architectural art. With the help of new computer technology, Foster’s ideas morph even more intensively into his constructions. The smoky black glass front of the Willis Faber & Dumas building in Ipswich, England, causes a stir in the early 1970s. So too does the forty-four-story HSBC office tower in Hong Kong in 1986. Foster attracts worldwide attention by turning the entire building structure inside out. His first airport, London Stansted, follows in 1991. Along with Beijing Capital International Airport, Foster illuminates the inside of an airport terminal for the first time with natural light. His creativity seems both limitless and weightless. His architecture conquers the globe, winning an ever lengthening list of prizes and awards. Queen Elizabeth II confers a knighthood upon him in 1990. The Millennium Bridge, the high-rise dubbed the Gherkin, and Wembley Stadium form the modern face of London. In 1999, the queen makes him a life peer—he now has the title Baron Foster of Thames Bank and a seat in the House of Lords, the upper house of Parliament in the United Kingdom. “A solemn and humbling occasion” is how Foster describes the ceremony. “But far more important was the profound recognition of architecture for society.”
That same year he receives the globally renowned Pritzker Architecture Prize—in Berlin, where he wins the contract for restructuring the German Reichstag building. “This might be my most meaningful project,” he observes.
Foster takes a holistic approach to everything from the arrangement of the rows of seats to the design of a monumental eagle and the lines of the glass dome. “We modeled the dome at a scale of 1:20, lifted it with a crane onto the real Reichstag building, and went inside. We wanted to see how the interior would affect us.” The greatest degree of sensitivity is required in light of the political repercussions of architectural decisions. “Helmut Kohl was chancellor at the time, and I remember how he walked through the site with me and expressed his desire for certain colors—he definitely wanted something uplifting for a unified Germany.” Foster also convinces the chancellor to preserve the Cyrillic inscriptions left on the walls by Red Army soldiers in 1945.
For the design of the two-and-half-ton eagle that peers down onto the parliamentarians, Foster travels to Japan and spends days in the mountains studying wild birds of prey. But still, “the federal eagle is a compromise—I would have preferred a somewhat leaner look.”
“Hey Norman, this is Steve, I need your help.” This call resulted in what may well be the most spectacular office complex in the world—
Act seven—Chesa Futura and the 356
Some 250,000 hand-cut larch shingles make up the façade of this building. Viewed from the opposite side of the lake, it blends into the hues of the Swiss mountain landscape. Chesa futura means “house of the future” in Romansch, the original language of the canton of Grisons. Foster places his private residential complex in the middle of the Swiss ski resort of St. Moritz—where it resembles a spaceship on earth.
“Chesa Futura is very alive,” says its creator, “just like my
Lord Norman Foster, who counted his pence as a child in order to reach for the skies in his dreams with comic-book hero Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, and whose architectural daring then in fact made him a “pilot of the future,” is thankful. “I value these sports cars very much, like I do my life. It is a privilege to still be able to enjoy every drive.”
“Chesa Futura is very alive—just like the
Lord Norman Foster
By Bastian Fuhrmann
Photos by Gerhard Merzeder, Markus Bolsinger, Ian Lambot, Rudi Meisel, Steve Proehl