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).

At the same time, ‘Foster’ doesn’t want to be dismissed as too corporate, with decisions made by committee, or too technocratic, with designs pumped out by computer, and so its self-presentation highlights the artistry of Foster the man. Almost every project in the Catalogue begins with a sketch or two in his hand, which purports to be the original vision for each scheme. (Foster’s sketch for Stansted airport is above; another, for the Reichstag, is over the page.) It’s a funny twist: while most advanced artists no longer appeal to the inspired drawing, many architects insist on it; they have all too gladly taken up the old myth, which still circulates in the culture, of the artist as visionary image-maker.

Certainly, in his introduction to the Catalogue, Foster underscores a developmental logic that we usually associate with artistic practice. ‘A number of themes and concerns … have guided us consistently over the years,’ he writes, as if momentarily free of context and client alike, and then goes on to trace a pattern of internal ‘reinvention’ of building types. His breakthrough came more than thirty years ago with an office in Ipswich for the insurance company Willis Faber & Dumas (now Grade One listed). Here, three banks of escalators rise from the ground floor, through an open plan, to a restaurant and a garden on the roof, with all elements (including a pool) intended to ‘democratise’ the workplace. Yet the signature of the building is its pristine wall of dark glass, reflective by day and transparent at night, which curves with the street line: this early interest in spectacular effects (which is maybe not so democratic) has persisted. According to Foster, Willis Faber ‘reinvented’ the office building, and he sees the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank (1979-86), the Commerzbank and the Swiss Re building as successive elaborations of this type at the scale of the high-rise. Services and circulation systems are pushed to the perimeter, so that office floors remain relatively open, making possible lofty atria trimmed with greenery. ‘What was once avant-garde,’ we are told, ‘has entered the mainstream.’ (Well, the second part is certainly right: such floral atria are now commonplace, but they more often have the appearance of power moves, with plants on steroids, than of ‘gardens in the sky’.)

Sometimes a ‘reinvention’ moves from one building type to another. The Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich (1974-78), another early design, also features a ‘single unified space’, something the practice has ‘re-explored’ in other cultural centres. For Foster, however, the most significant expression of such space is in his three airports, Stansted (1981-91), Hong Kong (1992-98) and Beijing (2003-). All are open in plan, laid out clearly on a primary level, whose modular canopy guides passengers readily to planes – a model, Foster underscores, since taken up by airports worldwide. (Incidentally, a measure of the technical capacity of the office is that the Beijing airport will measure more than a million square metres, handle as many as sixty million passengers per year and be completed in time for the 2008 Olympics.) ‘With Stansted,’ Foster writes, ‘we took the accepted concept of the airport and literally turned it upside-down.’ That is, service systems were placed underground, where train transport is also found, not overhead, which left the roof free to be a light canopy – another signature device, and one not restricted to a single building type.

In fact, unified spaces and light ceilings (most often in glass) abound in ‘Foster’ designs. In renovations of historic buildings, another speciality of the practice, they are used to enclose the extant structure; this is the case, for example, at the Reichstag, the Great Court at the British Museum (1994-2000), and another large courtyard project for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington (2004-). The basic strategy of these designs is to reinstate selected features of the original structure, add circulation systems and the like, then cover the whole with a dramatic glass top. By these means, Foster argues, ‘new architecture can be the catalyst for the revitalisation of old buildings’: ‘The Reichstag has become a “living museum” of German history,’ he claims, and ‘the Great Court is a new kind of civic space – a cultural plaza – that has pioneered patterns of social use hitherto unknown within this or any other museum.’

Yet for all the reanimation, real or apparent, of either place, the original structure is also treated as a museological object: it is literally put under glass as if it were a polished-up artefact. This combination of historical building and contemporary attraction can tend toward spectacle: political assembly as spectator sport at the Reichstag, distinguished museum as its own marvellous display at the British Museum. It all ‘works’, as we often say today; ‘Foster’ pulls it off. But isn’t there more to architecture than performance? ‘Foster’ might be more effective when its juxtapositions of old and new are more abrupt, as with the Carré d’Art, a discrete structure opposite the preserved Roman temple in Nîmes (1984-93), or the new wing of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha (1992-94), which doubles the Art Deco original nicely. Perhaps the best of this lot are the Sackler Galleries at the Royal Academy of Arts (1985-91); the new spaces are carved right into the old museum, and they enliven it. But this kind of collision has its limits, too. In the Hearst building in Manhattan, ‘Foster’ plunges a diamond-gridded glass tower of 42 storeys into the original, a low Art Deco stone block on 57th Street and 8th, and, far from ‘floating weightlessly’, it looks as if a space-station has crash-landed. Here, rather than ‘the Mozart of Modernism’ (as Paul Goldberger of the New Yorker dubbed Foster when writing about this project), he is more like its Spielberg.

Like history, nature is also sometimes put under glass, literally so in the National Botanic Garden of Wales (1995-2000), ‘the largest single-span glasshouse in the world’. As we might expect, the technology is superb: an immaculate glazing system allows the glass roof to curve in two directions at once, with panes that open and close automatically as the climate demands. But what does such a project convey about the status of nature in the ‘Foster’ universe? The office contains a Sustainability Forum that investigates new ‘green’ materials, products and techniques, and implements them when appropriate: 90 per cent of the steel in the Hearst tower is recycled, for example, and the renovated Reichstag building produces an energy surplus. This concern with ‘sustainability’ is altogether praiseworthy in a world where buildings consume far more energy, and emit far more carbon dioxide, than either transport or industry. So, too, the practice has long advocated the progressive mixing of post-industrial industries, green areas and residential developments, as in its plan for the German city of Duisburg. There are ‘no technological barriers to sustainable development’, Foster concludes, ‘only ones of political will’.

This assertion, and its bravado, are telling. On the one hand, Foster’s practice is capable of Promethean interventions in the landscape: for its Hong Kong airport a 100-metre peak was flattened and 200 million cubic metres of rock moved. On the other hand, nature is abstracted in the ‘Foster’ universe; it has become ‘ecology’, ‘sustainability’, a set of synthetic materials and energy protocols – that is, a fully acculturated category. ‘Foster’ frames this acculturation in benign (sometimes Zen) terms, and insists, rightly, on ‘holistic thinking’ when it comes to ‘sustainable strategies’. But when does the ‘holistic’ slip into the totalistic? Certainly, the dialectic of modernity has shown that the prospect of a nature humanised can easily flip into a world technologised, and there are intimations of this present-future within the ‘Foster’ oeuvre. For example, in 1989 a Japanese corporation asked the office to imagine a satellite extension of Tokyo (this topos of visionary architecture runs back at least to the 1960s), and its scheme is very sci-fi. The ‘Millennium Tower’, a diamond-gridded cone of 170 storeys set two kilometres out in Tokyo Bay, recalls, all at once, the Eiffel Tower, the utopian projects of Russian Constructivism, the dark Deco city of Metropolis and the gigantic geodesic dome that Buckminster Fuller once proposed for midtown Manhattan. That is, Millennium Tower conjures up a total world designed by a brilliant technocrat.

In such ‘Foster’ designs, then, both ‘history’ and ‘nature’ seem somehow abstracted and sublimated, and the same might be said of ‘industry’. In the background of these projects one often senses the crown jewel of industrial structures, the Crystal Palace (names like Great Glasshouse and Great Court point to this precedent too). With its efficient construction in industrial iron and glass, its bold reformulation of architecture through engineering, its technological rationalism and social optimism, the Crystal Palace is an architectural meme for ‘Foster’: again and again its transparent structure, unified spaces and undecorated surfaces show through ‘Foster’ designs. (‘Foster’ has had little to do with postmodern architecture’s scenographic preoccupations with surface and symbol.) The Crystal Palace was the confident projection of an industrial Britain still on the rise; against the historical odds, Foster attempts a similar projection for a post-industrial Britain, and this might be one reason he is embraced (as Lord Foster of Thames Bank no less).

Foster’s practice also excels in other building types of the industrial era – the bridge, tower, train station, underground, airport, department store, office high-rise and so on. With the application of advanced materials and techniques, they too appear heightened and lightened – again, sublimated – and this holds for the values that accompany them as well. Functionality, rationality, efficiency, flexibility, transparency: they are pushed to a new level, and altered in the process. Take ‘transparency’. ‘Foster’ suggests an analogy between architectural and political openness, not only at the Reichstag but also at City Hall. (‘It expresses the transparency and accessibility of the democratic process,’ we are told; ‘Londoners see the Assembly at work.’) But the analogy is shaky from the start, and, when applied to the Singapore Supreme Court it borders on the absurd. Besides, such transparency is subject to different accounts: open office spaces might appear ‘non-hierarchical’ and democratic to the architect or even to the boss, but panoptical and oppressive to the employees. Then, too, what once seemed ‘transparent’ can now appear ‘spectacular’. ‘Foster’ favoured dramatic effects as early as its glass curtain wall for Willis Faber, and this fascination continues in the Reichstag, whose cupola serves as an observation deck by day and a ‘beacon’ by night. So, too, the popular Millennium Bridge in London is described as a ‘ribbon of steel by day’ and a ‘blade of light at night’: both a place for viewing and a view of its own, the pedestrian way is a platform for 24-hour spectator people. In this manner an exhibitionist streak runs through ‘Foster’ (and other practices: Herzog and de Meuron, architects of Tate Modern, comes to mind). A spectacle society invites it, of course, and architects can hardly be blamed for that society, but must they comply so brilliantly with its demands? Must they be so damned good at it? At times ‘Foster’ plays with the idea that our society is on the threshold between the industrial and the post-industrial: at the Sage Gateshead, for example, the bulge of the music hall, representative of an entertainment economy, echoes the arc of the old suspension bridge nearby, emblem of another economy altogether, but this echo also smoothes over whatever tension might exist between the two.

The issue here is the ideological dimension of contemporary architecture. Consider how architecture of the early 20th century – the white, abstract, rectilinear variety of Adolf Loos and Le Corbusier – captured the look of the modern. Such architecture still appears modern when nothing else of the period does – not the cars, the clothes or the people. (Is this sort of representation a special capacity of architecture no matter what the epoch?) ‘Foster’ approximates a similar feat for the look of modernity today: perhaps more persuasively than any other office, it delivers an architectural image of a present-future that wishes to appear advanced. Of course, the very attempt is underwritten by the new-economy clients that the practice attracts – high-tech companies, mega-corporations, banks from Europe to Asia, governments of many sorts – but they are attracted for this reason too. This look of the modern is not merely a look; it is an affirmation of an ethos: if Le Corbusier imaged modernity as clean functionality, with architecture as a ‘machine for living in’, ‘Foster’ updates this image with sophisticated materials, sustainable systems and inspired schemes. In doing this the office looks back not only to the 1920s but also to the 1960s: that is, to its own point of origin, the late Modernism associated with powerhouse firms such as Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, architects such as Minoru Yamasaki (of World Trade Center fame) and designers such as Buckminster Fuller. Of course, like the 1920s, the 1960s were a moment of technological transformation that generated many visionary proposals – proposals for sleek megastructures among them, most of which could not be executed at the time. Today, however, these projections are no longer so outlandish; in fact ‘Foster’ has realised its own versions of some of them.

The look of the modern today is condensed in the signature element of the ‘Foster’ practice – its diamond grids of glazed glass, ‘the diagrid’. Although other architects, such as Koolhaas, have used it, the diagrid is like the ‘Foster’ DNA: once you look for it in the work, you can see it everywhere. It is a structural unit, of course, but it also serves as an ideological form, one that signals above all else technocratic optimism. At times in ‘Foster’ this optimism takes on a tinge of faith. This is literally the case in its most emphatic use of the diagrid, its design for a Palace of Peace (2004-) in Kazakhstan. A pyramid, clad in stone, the apex of which is made up of stained-glass diagrids, this palace is the planned venue for the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions. In prior affirmations of modernity, too, there was sometimes a ‘theological’ dimension; think of how Hart Crane and Joseph Stella celebrated the Brooklyn Bridge as a kind of cathedral (the Rockefeller Center wants to be seen as one as well). Koolhaas once suggested that the architectural modernity of Manhattan was driven by a passionate dialectic of two forms that often appeared in its World Fairs, the pylon and the sphere, the first of which attracts us with its height, the second of which welcomes us in with its breadth. In a sense the ‘Foster’ diagrid is the little grandchild of this pair: it can be used in towers, for it, too, can rise up on high, as well as in centres and halls, for it can also curve and enclose. Yet it is not a surefire device, for it produces problems of its own, especially ones of scale. The diagrid can be expanded in size, and threaten to go on for ever, as it nearly does in the ‘Foster’ scheme for the World Trade Center, in which two towers of extended diagrids would have topped out at 500 metres. (Many expected the office to win the Ground Zero commission, and in the latest plan it has been assigned an office building.)

This scheme is telling. As much as any other candidate for the site, ‘Foster’ appeared to be in sync with the popular – the imperial – call to build the towers ‘higher than before’. Such is its faith in modernity that perhaps ‘Foster’ didn’t feel too knocked back by 9/11. Indeed, for all its sensitivity to ecology, it doesn’t seem touched by any disaster, natural or man-made, of the postwar period; history is indeed abstracted in its work. In the post-9/11 world this unshakeable confidence is welcomed by the shaky powers that be, and, like Santiago Calatrava and a few others, ‘Foster’ delivers it, and more: the office offers moral uplift in beautiful forms on a grand scale. Go, new millennium, ‘Foster’ seems to proclaim with each new project. Go, modernity.