Go, Modernity

Hal Foster

  • Catalogue: Foster and Partners edited by David Jenkins
    Prestel, 316 pp, £22.99, July 2005, ISBN 3 7913 3298 8
  • Norman Foster: Works 2 edited by David Jenkins
    Prestel, 548 pp, £60.00, January 2006, ISBN 3 7913 3017 9

Has any other contemporary designer ‘signed’ as many cityscapes as Norman Foster? Perhaps no architect since Christopher Wren has affected the London skyline so dramatically, from the Swiss Re ‘gherkin’ to the new Wembley Stadium arch. Foster has a right to be immodest, and the Catalogue of his work is punctuated with adjectives like ‘first’ and ‘largest’, and verbs like ‘reinvent’ and ‘redefine’. Yet the multi-volume Works (there will be six books in all) borders on overkill, as if Foster wanted to outdo the tomes produced for more notorious peers such as Frank Gehry and Rem Koolhaas, whose offices seem like cottage industries in comparison with his.

For Foster is also ‘Foster and Partners’, a practice of more than six hundred people with projects in fifty countries. There are six large design groups, each headed by two partners, with all kinds of graphic artists, model-makers and product designers on the side. The list of its ‘Complete Works’ runs for pages, and most have been realised: seven banks, nine bridges, eight civic designs (such as the transformation of Trafalgar Square), ten conference centres, 38 arts halls, 28 buildings for education and health, ten for government, 14 for industry, 12 for retail, 35 for leisure and sport, 30 for residences, 39 masterplans (from fairs to entire cities), 16 mixed-use developments, 75 offices (most recently, the Hearst Publications building in Manhattan), 28 product and furniture models, nine research complexes and 24 transport systems (from private yachts to train terminals, metro stations and airports). There are countries, let alone governments, that are smaller; like some of its clients, ‘Foster’ is global in reach. Yet for all its variety over the last forty years the practice’s work has remained coherent in style and consistent in quality: technologically advanced, spatially expansive and formally refined, its designs are abstractly rational to the point of cool objectivity, yet somehow distinctive, relatively easy to identify (Norman Foster, along with his former partner Richard Rogers, is English for Architecture). No wonder corporate and political leaders hire this stylish practice: there is a mirroring of self-images here, at once technocratic and innovative, that suits client and firm alike.

‘Foster’ offers an architecture of great panache, with sleek surfaces, usually of metal and glass, luminous spaces, often open in plan, and suave profiles that can also serve as media logos for a company or a state. As a result, high-tech and high-design corporations are drawn to the practice: recent commissions include a European headquarters in Chertsey for Electronic Arts, which devises computer games, and a centre in Woking for McLaren Technology, which develops Formula One racing cars; both buildings feature glass façades whose elegant curves stick in the mind. That ‘Foster’ is able to design efficient structures that are also media-friendly is proven: Renault uses its centre in Swindon (1980-82), with its yellow exoskeleton of piers, cables and canopies, as the backdrop for its UK adverts, and the Financial Times has adopted the Commerzbank Headquarters in Frankfurt (1991-97), a towering wedge in white and greys, as its emblem of the city.

In this business of architecture as brand, other famous designers have relied on idiosyncratic forms: Gehry uses neo-Baroque twists, Koolhaas Cubistic folds, and Zaha Hadid Futurist vectors to make buildings stand out. ‘Foster’, on the other hand, favours rather restrained geometries; its two colossal airports in China, for example, are little more than two arrows laid out point to point. Such structures read almost as Gestalts or given forms; their graphic simplicity is all about clarity of programme, and one can see how to get from taxi to plane from the plans alone. Even when ‘Foster’ employs irregular volumes – often ovoid and elliptical ones, such as the pinecone GLA City Hall in London (1998-2002) or the cocoon Sage Music Centre in Gateshead (1997-2004) – they are just odd enough to be distinctive, nothing more.

‘Foster’ also exudes a heady air of refined efficiency that almost any business or government would want to assume as its own. The Catalogue stresses the use of ecologically sensitive systems as much as the technologically advanced designs: clearly the practice wants to be seen as both green and clean, which, apart from the real benefits, is good public relations for all involved. A further attraction is that the copious glass in a typical ‘Foster’ design suggests a ‘transparency’ that might be associated with the political or administrative workings of the client. This is the gambit of the glass dome-cum-observation deck conceived for the refurbished Reichstag in Berlin (1992-99): it is thought meaningful that German citizens can gaze on their political representatives from on high. And yet, for all its image flair, the primary draw is that ‘Foster’ is able to offer a wide array of design services, apparently at any site or scale. A key term for Foster himself is ‘integration’, that is, the capacity to effect a total design, from an elegant door handle to a great high-rise, from a private residence for a Japanese art collector to a massive bridge in South-West France. ‘Design for me is all encompassing,’ he states, and we should take him at his word, for his practice comprehends entire disciplines (architecture, engineering, urbanism, landscape design, product modelling, materials research).

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