Norman Foster: A Life In Architecture by Deyan Sudjic


Foster simply can’t stop drawing. He makes drawing part of his conversational technique. Talk to him at lunch, and he picks up scraps of paper and starts drawing to illustrate a point. He draws to help him think and to make notes to himself; in the car that ferries him around London, there is permanently a pad of drawing paper and a row of freshly sharpened pencils, ready and waiting to pin down his fleeting thoughts. He has to write letters, of course, but prefers using drawing as his chosen method of communication. He draws for pleasure, and—as much later, facing cancer surgery, he meticulously recorded every detail he could see from his hospital bed—he draws to achieve peace of mind. 

I’d say that if I tried to make a simple generalization, I’m more interested in the potential for the ways that things can integrate. In other words, at some point someone say that there was an engine and a chassis, and somehow if you could dissolve the two together, so that they would work together. The way in which a building similarly integrates the different aspects rather than necessarily seeking to dramatize any one of those elements is what interests me. 

A mind that is attracted to discipline and tight control, and a personality that looks for expression in objects that may be hard to read.

Foster has pursued integration in his work. Rogers’ approach, on the other hand, believed in articulation. 

If you have enough curiosity in the production process, you soon discover that you can design your own curtain wall, or your own ceiling, and have it made in the same time as ordering an existing design for a catalogue. The chances are that you will end up with a better product, and the cost will probably not be that different. If you come up with a good design, the likelihood is that your product will appear in someone else’s catalogue for another architect to specify in a different context. 

The best approach to take when tendering for a job was to ask lots of questions before offering any answers of his own. ‘In presentations, our competitors would talk about how their building would look. We just asked questions, and listened. Then we would go away, and we would come back, and ask some more questions. We made sure we understood both the functional and the social aspects of what they wanted.’

It was not the aluminum itself that was the cause of the galloping sickness that threatened to destroy the entire building. The problem was at the points where the metal met the insulation layer concerned inside the skin. It started an unforeseen chemical reaction that aggressively attacked the metal. 

For the architect there needs to be a sense of narrative about why they are building, not just how. 

He saw design as a means of transforming his world and that of others. He saw himself as a practical strategist, a man who could ask the right questions of his clients to solve the equally practical requirements of the situation facing them. 

Foster’s character is marked by a continual restlessness, a constant sense that things could have been done differently, and a never-ending speculation about how things could be if only he had a chance to start over again. 

A bank needs a building that has the quality to suggest permanence, power and a certain degree of resources behind it, but this must be achieved without giving the impression that it is the product of an institution that is profligately spending its investors’ money on vainglorious. 

As he suggested in his presentation, ‘designing a building without the benefit of a working relationship is rather like a game of blind man’s bluff’. Foster’s strategy could be understood as an attempt to get the job not so much by dazzling his clients with the image of the perfect building that he could give them, but by convincing them that he was too smart and too sophisticated to do anything so unsubtle. Foster’s report was a deliberate attempt to show the bank that his team had analyzed in forensic detail not just the kind of building envisaged by the brief, but every other possibility too, and that they had come to understand the issue facing the bank as well as it understood them itself. 

On one level, Foster was offering a more intelligent solution to the questions posed by the bank than could be reasonably expected to emerge from a competition. He was offering to work with his client once he had secured the job, to make a more satisfactory building. But at the same time he was putting his cards on the table and showing what he was capable of in case they were not ready to wait for a more measured response. Phased regeneration was about keeping every option open, and allowing the bank to make critical decisions about its future shape even while the project was under way. 

A core, primary activity because anything in any part of the world that we inhabit has to be made. But before it is made it has to be designed. There are no exceptions, whether it is on the scale of a city, the infrastructure of its buildings, the equipments in them, the infrastructure of streets and public spaces, pavements, the paving slabs, the door handles and even the invisible digital electronic world — it all has to be designed. It is a human act because design is a response to the needs of people, whether they are spiritual or material. The quality of that design affects the quality of all of our lives. 

Architecture is an arm of statecraft, a means of representing national aspirations and a way to define power and territory. That is why architects with Foster’s blend of sophistication and toughness get hired. Their architecture is used to build a sense of shared national identify, and to mark and even to shape the course of historical events. To realize architecture on a public scale demands an engagement with the powerful. It is a relationship based on mutual dependence, but it is never the architect who is in command. The successful architect is the one who is most able to use his client to realize his architectural vision, without it becoming entirely subordinated to political calculation, or worse, to the megalomania of power. 

The fate of Stansted is a reminder of the tension between architecture and art, and the fulfillment that one can bring when measured against the other. Architecture engages with the real issues of everyday life, it directly touches millions of lives, and ye the architects connection with his work is eroded with time to almost nothing. When a building has been in use long enough, whether it works well or not, the architecture mostly becomes invisible. To create an artwork is a more contained, more controlled, more controllable process than building. And in the end, it focuses on the ego of the artist, in a way that architecture never can.