Award-winning architect and his buildings
LONDON — Sir Norman Foster, winner of the Pritzker Architecture Prize for 1999, is currently completing the new German Parliament in the historic Reichstag in Berlin. He designed and opened the world's largest airport in Hong Kong; and he is working on a master plan to reclaim Trafalgar Square and Parliament Square in the heart of London for pedestrians.
The Pritzker Prize, which is to architecture what the Nobel is to literature, will be presented to Mr. Foster June 7 in Berlin.
Today, his early work, giving one site multiple functions, has become a trademark. The Hong Kong Airport, the largest in the world, is described as a $20 billion "horizontal cathedral."
As he explained, "Hong Kong Airport is less than four hours flying time from more than half of the world's population. In this vast building, one could physically include all four terminals of London's Heathrow Airport, plus 40 percent more. The infrastructure is there for it to expand by 2040 into an airport the size of London's Heathrow and New York's Kennedy combined."
Foster says his work and friendship with Buckminster Fuller, the father of the geodesic dome, was a turning point. "Although he was in his 80s when we worked together, I always regarded him as the youngest person I knew. He was so full of positive enthusiasm. I felt he was a visionary."
Foster's design of the new German Parliament features a glass dome, a prominent structure rising out of the historic shell of the Reichstag. "The structure works ecologically, reflecting natural light deep into the heart of the chamber. There is a spiral ramp which allows the public to walk to a viewing platform and look down on the Parliament.
"The dome is also part of the natural ventilation for the building and is powered by renewable sources of energy. At night, the whole thing works in reverse, rather like a lighthouse beacon, to signal the process of democracy at work," he says.
Germans regard it as an important symbol - the power of the public above the politicians who are answerable to them.
Foster was amazed that an English architect would receive this important commission. "It was democracy in action," he says.
Foster and Partners has studios in London, Berlin, and Hong Kong, employing some 500 people. Yet the main office in London is one large room, with each employee having a bench, drawing board, or desk. Perhaps, it was his blue-collar beginnings that make him love to integrate. In the first factory he designed, he broke through boundaries between the employees and the management to create a democratic pavilion rather than twin structures that divided blue collar and white collar.
Talking in the south of France, Foster says, "Word that I had won the Pritzker came out of the blue. I was at my office in London sitting on a bench in front of a drawing board, with a dozen associates surrounding me discussing a problem, when my secretary advised, 'You must take this call.' "
It was Bill Lacy, executive director for the Pritzker Prize, phoning from New York. "He informed me of the honor and then said it must be kept secret until the announcement a month away. I couldn't shout for joy, even though I had an overwhelming desire to do so."
In the early '70s, Foster designed a pilot head office for IBM, in Cosham, England, which was described as revolutionary. Up until that time, there was always a "sacred building" for the computers, completely divorced from the life of the main offices. He anticipated the effect of the information revolution and united computers and personnel in one workplace.
Another office building, the Willis Faber & Dumas Headquarters, further elevated the workplace.
"The building was an unusual curved glass faade that followed the natural contour of the site. It featured three open floors, a central atrium, a rooftop restaurant, a garden, and a swimming pool. This was 25 years ago," he says.
Foster's "romance with skyscrapers" follows his desire to make one design serve many purposes. He designed the tallest building in Europe, the Commerzbank in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany, which also is the world's first ecological high-rise with nine four-level-high greenhouse gardens spiraling around the building.
Also the Hong Kong/Shanghai Banking Corporation, 50 stories above the plaza level, is a cloud toucher.
"Think of the possibilities of building high. With multi-uses these buildings could be communities. They'd be self-sustaining, generate and harvest their own energy, process their own waste, and eliminate a lot of commuting, energy consumption, car pollution, and urban sprawl.
"In high-density areas, like Hong Kong, you can see a pattern emerging. Buildings are connected horizontally by walkways, which are air-conditioned, so you can move around the whole city without actually stepping down into the polluted streetscapes," he says.
In the United States, Foster designed the new wing for the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb., and mapped out the nearly complete 214,000 square foot Center for Clinical Sciences Research at Stanford University in California.
He has also received acclaim for the Carr d'Arte in Nmes, France - a multiple-use cultural center whose glass faade reflects the beauty of a Roman temple, circa 500 BC, across the square.
In 1990, Foster received a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II and, in 1997, he was awarded the Order of Merit.
His is a unique success story that rivals one of Horatio Alger's heroes. "I come from a working-class neighborhood in Manchester," he explains. "In Britain, the idea one could go from blue-collar beginnings to the university, was so far out, it was quite unthinkable."
Foster describes himself as a "late starter." His interest in architecture began as a teenager when he read a history of design by Frederick Gibberd. His first job, in the Treasury Department of Manchester Town Hall, introduced him to this Victorian structure and its technical workings. National Service in the Royal Air Force trained him in electronics and aviation.
Out of the service, he worked at an architectural firm in Manchester, John Beardshaw & Partners.
"I was in the contracts department. It was only after I talked with a young architect apprentice and I mentioned Frank Lloyd Wright's name, and he asked if that was another apprentice at the firm, I got the courage to show my drawings to a partner and was moved up to the drawing office."
Foster was 21 when he finally enrolled at Manchester University. His goal, which flowered into a passion, was to be an architect. "I took a variety of jobs to pay for tuition - from ice-cream salesman to night-club bouncer. Whatever earned the most money in the least time."
A student project to design a weekend cottage and boathouse drew attention to the young collegiate. He was the only member of the class to turn in a sketch of a single building that would accommodate both uses.
It was apparent to his professors that this "late starter" had a future. His enthusiasm and hard work were rewarded with scholarships that included summer travel on the Continent. The Henry Fellowship took him to the US and Yale University.
From a working-class youth who worked his way through university to receiving his master of architecture degree, to a pilot of planes and helicopters, to a world-class architect, he has come a long way. Foster's philosophy: "It's never too late. If you have a dream, one you really believe in, are motivated by, and become passionate about, then it's possible."