British architect Norman Foster has transformed the 21st-century city with his massive-scale buildings. Will his new philanthropic organization cement his legacy?
By William Hanley
Photos by Mark Cocksedge
Video by Kwame Lestrade
October 30, 2017
Le Corbusier’s car is parked in Madrid. A 1926 Avion Voisin Lumineuse, built like a well-appointed airplane, the meticulously restored machine gleams with the promise of once-unprecedented speed. It anchors a gallery at the Norman Foster Foundation that is filled with the architect’s collection of personal obsessions: models of every plane he’s ever flown, a maquette of a geodesic dome he designed with Buckminster Fuller, a first-generation iPhone, and other homages to the marriage of humanity and technology. “I’ve always had a fascination with utopian visions, with the idea that you could use design and technology to create a better life,” Foster says. “Whether it’s robots or automation, those dreams—the things that as a youth were science fiction—are now a reality.”
Foster has spent the last 50 years creating that reality. His buildings flaunt their technological ambition in sharp lines and shimmering glass. Self-consciously rooted in 20th-century Modernism, they project a worldview of lightness, transparency, and progress. There are also a lot of them.
Leading his firm of some 1,300 people—the largest staff of any architecture firm based in the U.K.—with 20 offices on five continents, Foster has completed hundreds of projects and transformed entire cities. He has overseen the design of everything from towers, civic buildings, airports, and bridges, to furnishings, lighting fixtures, and acoustical panels—from aeries for the überwealthy to the handrails at City Hall. For his efforts, Foster and his work have won just about every prize that the architecture field has to offer—the Pritzker, the Praemium Imperiale, the Royal Gold Medal, the Stirling, the Aga Khan Award—and Great Britain has granted him the title Lord Foster of Thames Bank (he does not have voting rights in the House of Lords, as Switzerland is his primary residence). But in June, Foster did something unusual when he unveiled his private foundation.
Organizations like the Fondation Le Corbusier or the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation preserve the work of their eponyms and perpetuate their ideas, but it’s rare, even in a profession known for large egos, for architects to found an organization dedicated to their own worldview. Headquartered in Madrid—where Foster’s wife, Elena Ochoa Foster, runs Ivorypress, a publisher of small-edition artist books—the Norman Foster Foundation houses the architect’s archive (going back to a student drawing of Foster’s from 1947) in a 1912 house that once served as an embassy. Rooms have been turned into galleries telling the story of Foster’s work in a succession of stunningly crafted architectural models. The gallery showing Foster’s collection of art and ephemera situates his work among that of his heroes. The foundation’s aim, Foster says, is to gather luminaries from a range of disciplines to solve the world’s problems—starting with design, infrastructure, and urbanism—through hosting educational programs, symposia, and other activities. “If you’re trying to get buildings that work with nature, that consume less energy, that are more healthy, and more joyful, you need to go out to a younger generation, and try to anticipate the future,” Foster said with a contagious enthusiasm the day before the foundation opened. “So, the mission is education, to get the good word out.”
Foster began anticipating the future in the middle of the last century. “I’ve always been fascinated by science fiction,” he says. “It could be Dan Dare in a comic. It could be Flash Gordon at the cinema. It could be the writings of Jules Verne. It could be anybody who saw a brighter future.” He was, in his own description, an awkward kid growing up in Manchester. He developed an interest in architecture and engineering as a teenager before serving in the Royal Air Force, where he cultivated a lifelong passion for flying—he still pilots his own plane, though a heart attack several years ago left him unable to fly solo. Foster attended the University of Manchester School of Architecture and City Planning by working a succession of jobs, “anything to pay the fees,” including selling ice cream, working in a bakery, and moonlighting as a nightclub bouncer.
“I was bullied as a child, and I had to confront my demons, as it were, as a bouncer,” he says. “I once brought somebody down with a rugby tackle. The guy had beat up the manager.” He says with a laugh: “I never played rugby in my life!”
Foster completed a master’s degree at the Yale School of Architecture, and back in the U.K., founded the architecture firm Team 4 with Su Brumwell, Wendy Cheesman, Richard Rogers, and Cheesman’s sister Georgie Wolton. The firm completed several forward-looking houses—including Skybreak House in in Radlett, England, used as a set in the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange—before disbanding in 1967, though Brumwell eventually married (and later divorced) Rogers, and Foster married Cheesman. Together, Foster and Cheesman founded Foster Associates, and she remained a partner at the firm until her death, in 1989.
Shortly after they set up the new firm, Foster met revered inventor Buckminster Fuller at lunch with a mutual acquaintance, and they almost immediately began collaborating. “We shared an attitude, a way of thinking,” Foster says. “Bucky was about change, and in that sense, he upset some people, and he fired the imagination of others.” With Fuller, Foster honed many of the ideas that would define his work, including a dedication to ecologically attuned design and an unwavering faith in technology. “He showed me how a small change, like the rudder of an ocean liner, can completely transform an entire space, a whole city.” They went on to partner on designs for everything from a house to a theater.
Foster’s firm made its name bringing Fuller’s utopian language to large-scale buildings, particularly big-budget commercial projects. Its first large commission was the Willis Faber and Dumas headquarters in Ipswich, England, a three-story office building completed in 1975. Wrapped in a curtain of dark glass that turns into a transparent lantern at night, the now Grade 1–Listed building incorporated an open plan, a pool, and a green roof that presaged contemporary workplace design. The firm’s Hong Kong headquarters for HSBC, a 47-story tower completed a decade later at a cost approaching $1 billion in 1980s dollars, suspends blocks of office spaces within a visible structure in a gesture that could have come from Fuller’s drawings. “The challenge is to use design skills to provide something that is beyond the dreams of those who commissioned it,” Foster says. The firm followed it up with a glassier 1990s iteration, the 53-story Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt.
Foster’s signature structural move derives from the same minimum material, maximum space concepts as Fuller’s geodesic domes. His firm has taken a diagonal grid of steel covered in glass and crunched it into roof canopies or extruded it to wrap skyscrapers in many projects over the years. It gives 30 St. Mary Axe—“the Gherkin”—its bulging form and the corkscrew of atria that wind up its facade. When the building opened in 2004, its striking profile on the rising skyline came to embody 21st-century London.
Foster’s first tall building in the United States, the 46-story Hearst Tower in New York City, uses a similar system. A faceted glass stalk, the 2006 skyscraper bursts out of the stone facade of the company’s original 1928 Joseph Urban building. Hailed as the first ambitious tower design undertaken in New York after the September 11th attacks, it was greeted as a triumph of daring corporate architecture. Critic Paul Goldberger called Foster the “Mozart of Modernism” in a review of the project. “He knows how to convince chief executives that the avant-garde is in their interest,” he wrote, comparing Foster to “an artist with the savvy of a corporate consultant.”
Foster’s persuasive prowess has allowed him to marshal the political support necessary to win and pull off significant public projects as well. He cites his design for the dome in his 1999 renovation of the Reichstag in Berlin as a particular feat. The officials behind the project initially wanted a traditional stone cupola, but Foster and his team convinced them to accept a glass version with an observation deck that allows visitors to look down into the parliamentary chamber as they take in views of the city around them. “I was against the historic cupola, which was about the Kaiser,” he says. “I was for a democratic move, putting the people above the politicians.” The heroic blend of futurism and democratic transparency has proven equally attractive to companies and governments. Foster is adept at selling it to both.
“It’s not just communication, per se,” says Richard Burdett, a professor of urban studies at the London School of Economics and a trustee of the Foster Foundation. “Norman has a total immersion in what an initiative or project means.” The firm has planned numerous urban areas, including the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong and Masdar City, a complex in the Abu Dhabi desert designed to be radically energy efficient. “A conversation with Norman about a project will always start with an appetite for understanding how this project fits into the cultural DNA and the changing face of the city,” says Burdett, recalling the plan to turn over part of Trafalgar Square in London to pedestrians. “I remember him having total control of every detail in terms of the statistics of the number of white vans or motorbikes that went through Trafalgar Square at night or during the day.”
For all its triumphs, the firm’s work sometimes falls flat. Since visitors first ascended its helical stair in 2002, London’s City Hall has been the butt of jokes for its resemblance to a slightly smashed motorcycle helmet. Foster’s buildings in Astana, Kazakhstan—including the world’s largest tent, which encloses a shopping mall and an indoor beach—have been criticized as follies built for a dictator. Critics have called out how some of the firm’s stunning structures that glisten from afar break down at street level. “It can seem peevish and petty to question his work, but it is not beyond criticism,” wrote Rowan Moore in The Guardian in 2015. “If you look upwards in the Great Court he designed in the British Museum, you will see an impressive structure of steel and glass, but at your own level it becomes bland and sometimes clumsy. The Gherkin is a memorable presence on the London skyline, but awkward at pavement level. The Millennium Bridge, even with the modifications necessary to stop it wobbling, is confident and elegant except at its landing, where the overhang of its cantilever creates spaces that are plain nasty.” Despite these negative reviews, though, Foster’s vision remains highly in demand.
Walking into Foster’s London office, on the banks of the Thames in Battersea, you climb a broad stair past a café buzzing with colleagues grabbing coffee. Inside, a high-ceilinged space has a glass wall looking out on the river, the city, and the gray sky beyond. Models for projects new, old, and unrealized surround rows of desks in an impossibly quiet open work area. A mezzanine contains a succession of conference spaces, but the center of gravity is the round table in the far corner, where Foster presides. On a Tuesday morning in early September, he is sitting low on a chair as a team presents a proposal for a new concert hall at the Barbican. Foster makes notes with his left hand in a sketchbook before offering tidily composed feedback. After the meeting, Foster speaks with a boyish enthusiasm and a persuasive authority about everything from urban planning to drones, often bouncing between ideas while tracing the expansive scope of the firm’s mission.
Foster + Partners is divided into six design studios, each run by a senior partner. The structure allows the large firm to function like multiple smaller interdisciplinary offices, with each studio working on everything from art galleries and residences to laboratories and hospitals. “We have a gentle rivalry between us,” says Nigel Dancey, senior executive partner and the head of Studio Six, whose current projects include the Comcast Innovation and Technology Center in Philadelphia, as well as a mixed-use tower at Hudson Yards in New York and a massive new airport in Mexico City. “Norman is most fun to work with on a competition when you can see how totally absorbed he gets within the design process,” says Dancey, who joined the firm 27 years ago, when it had just 150 people. “He sketches and draws beautifully, and then photographs his sketches on his iPhone and sends them to you. His communication is incredible.”
Unlike a Frank Gehry or a Jean Nouvel, who have comparatively small organizations, Foster leads a large business. As with any company of its size, that has meant wrangling with questions of scale. The year after the Hearst Tower opened, with a global financial crisis looming, Foster + Partners sold a 40 percent stake in the company to private equity group 3i. The move ushered in a period of restructuring but also rapid growth in the United States and Asia. Foster + Partners bought back the stake in 2014 for £108 million (roughly $184 million at the time), with 3i reportedly nearly doubling its investment. The expansion saw the firm’s ownership structure change dramatically, going from a group of 80 partners holding shares in 2007 to all 140 at the time of the buyback, with Foster firmly at the helm. Worth approximately £170 million (roughly $225 million) according to the Sunday Times, Foster is personally as wealthy as some of his deep-pocketed clients.
The architect has found a kinship with the leaders of the companies he works with who have similarly visionary tendencies and who respond to his firm’s high-tech aesthetic. “No wonder corporate and political leaders seek out this stylish office,” wrote art critic Hal Foster about Foster + Partners in his 2011 book The Art-Architecture Complex. “There is a mirroring of self-images, at once technocratic and innovative, that suits client and firm alike.”
That affinity comes through when Foster speaks about working with Steve Jobs, Apple’s late cofounder and tech-world spiritual leader. “My first meeting with Steve started in a meeting room, consumed the entire day, and ended at his home with our families over pizza,” Foster says. The meeting of minds resulted in the architect collaborating with Jobs and Apple chief design officer Jony Ive on a plan for a $5 billion campus in Silicon Valley where employees began moving in earlier this year. Jobs helped define the main building’s ring-shaped plan by insisting on swaths of uninterrupted open space.
“The idea of the circle evolved quite painfully over a quite drawn-out process,” Foster says. “It started with Steve’s idea of a pod as a working unit, evolved into a deconstructed circle, and then it was finally resolved by how the geometry of the building can bring together a large number of people to create an environment that encourages creativity.” The project has been criticized for being an inward-looking campus at a time when most technology companies are looking to connect their headquarters to cities. Christopher Hawthorne at the Los Angeles Times called the design a “retrograde cocoon” when it was first unveiled. But Foster rebuffs the idea. “No two companies are alike,” he says. “Apple is Apple.”
Ive says that he and Foster found a common perspective from the start of the project. “The ways that we look at and perceive the work behind the built environment are shared,” he says. “Norman even remarked on the similarities between our studio spaces.”
Foster’s dedication to transforming cities has led him to work with financial-media mogul and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg on several projects and initiatives, including a new Bloomberg headquarters in the City of London that opened last month. The building’s most distinctive features are bronze fins that channel air into a natural ventilation system—Bucky would be proud. Bloomberg focused on the impression the complex makes in the city, speaking at the Foster Foundation’s inaugural symposium in June. “We are guests in that city, and we want to respect their traditions, so we didn’t build a big, strangely shaped, metal, America-in-your-face-style skyscraper,” he said. “We built a building where people are going to say, ‘Look at these people. They’re lucky to work there. I want to work there.’ Or ‘I want to deal with these people and their products. They’re trying new things.’”
With clients that include billionaires, global companies, governments, and large cultural institutions, Foster + Partners currently finds itself on the wrong side of a European and American political fracture—expressed at the polls as Brexit isolationism and Donald Trump’s populism on the right as well as the outcry over income inequality on the left—but that hasn’t slowed Foster down. The firm has dozens of projects in the works all over the world, and through the foundation, the architect hopes to find technology-driven solutions to the problems of humanity that transcend political conditions.
“Obviously, we need governments, but governments perhaps don’t move quickly enough,” he says. “A foundation that does not have a commercial imperative can find answers to some burning issues, such as providing power, clean water, or sanitation.” He cites his firm’s Droneport design, a prototype of which was shown in the 2016 Venice Biennale, as an example. Designed to be constructed in remote areas in need of aid, such as medical supplies, which can be flown in by drone, the ports would also serve as community and commercial centers. “The foundation should be something that will continue to inspire and present a vision for the future,” Foster says. “In the same way that some institutions that we now take for granted took on a life of their own beyond their founders.”
Foster envisions the organization in the model of a major private philanthropy, rather than an archive of architectural achievement, more Bloomberg than Le Corbusier. He responds sharply to the idea that it could cement a career-capping legacy. “I’ve never been busier in my life.”