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Important Art by Norman Foster
The building was commissioned by Sir Robert and Lady Sainsbury to hold their impressive collection of art. Attached to the concrete buildings of Denys Lasdun's University of East Anglia, Foster was told to create an unconventional gallery to suit the Sainsburys' belief that the study of art should be an informal, pleasurable experience, not bound by the traditional enclosure of object and viewer.
Influenced by Mies van der Rohe's Nationalgalerie in Berlin, Foster wanted to create a gleaming silver tube, that literally and figuratively turned its back on the concrete-heavy architecture of the past. The Foster + Partners practice had been exploring lightweight, flexible enclosures, and Foster built on this, providing a vast glass atrium which hid all the structural and service elements of the building in the double-layer walls and roof. (He was to be so committed to this vision that he even hid door locks in the floor, so as not to interrupt the sleek finish.) Inside the shell is a sequence of spaces that incorporates galleries displaying works by Picasso, Bacon and Degas, alongside a reception area, the Faculty of Fine Art, a common room and restaurant. At the end of the building, looking towards the lake, are full-height windows allowing visitors within to see the work of Anish Kapoor, Henry Moore and Antony Gormley in the sculpture park beyond.
Architecture critic Deyan Sudjic wrote: "The late 1970s were a particularly bleak time for contemporary architecture in Britain. The soured [post-war] utopias of concrete social housing triggered a crisis of confidence. The Sainsbury Centre changed all that. Confident, strikingly beautiful and radical in conception, it pointed to a new direction." When Foster showed his creation to his friend Buckminster Fuller, "Bucky" asked: "How much does your building weigh Norman?" Foster, not knowing the answer, was stunned into silence. He later found out it was in fact 5,328 tonnes, but in the course of the calculations, Foster made a discovery concerning a building's harmony and balance that was to inform the rest of his career: "I realised the disproportionate amount of weight in the least attractive part of the building. It was an interesting voyage of discovery".
Sudjic stated that: "If you were to put the Sainsbury Centre next to the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, you would see the difference between a glider and a jumbo jet [...] It is powerful and dynamic, where the Sainsbury Centre is calm and floating". The HSBC bank's chairman at the time, Michael Sandberg, said he wanted the best new bank building in the world. The tower was to act as a symbol of the bank's commitment to Hong Kong before the handover to China. As such, Foster had to be sensitive to cultural issues, as well as building a million square feet of office space in a relatively short timescale. Foster was fascinated with Feng Shui - Chinese geometry - and hired a geomancer to help with the project. The resulting tower saw him "reinventing the skyscraper". As Sudjic said: "It was the first time that anyone outside America made a skyscraper that looked like it was anything but a copy of an American."
The building relied on a suspension structure, with pairs of steel masts arranged in three bays. As a result, the building form is articulated in a stepped profile of three individual towers, respectively twenty-nine, thirty-six and forty-four stories high, which create floors of varying width and depth and allows for garden terraces. Inside is a ten-story atrium, providing workers with space and light from both sides of the flexible office space, as a vast mirrored "sunscoop" reflects sunlight down through the atrium to the floor of a public plaza below.
The HSBC bank saw Foster + Partners receive international critical acclaim, but it did not come without risk; the building was one of the most expensive made, required heavy borrowing and nearly bankrupting the architectural practice. The building has since become a landmark. As the Observer Magazine wrote: "In the congested centre of Hong Kong, the Bank unfurls from the sky, like a mechanised Jacob's Ladder, and touches the ground".
The Reichstag building in Berlin was another project that was loaded with cultural sensitivity. Commissioned by Otto Bismarck 20 years after the unification of Germany in 1871 to celebrate the founding of the Second Reich, the building was torched by Nazi Stormtroopers in 1933 and assaulted by the Red Army in 1945. This history was not to be erased, Foster said when he won the commission to reshape it in 1992. He wanted to preserve the battle scars and graffiti left by Red Army soldiers - in his words,"to erase history is to refuse to learn from it". As well as creating a "living museum", Foster aimed to produce a sustainable and accessible building that was a significant democratic forum. As such, public and politicians enter the building together and the public realm continues in the eating spaces and the new cupola, built of steel and glass, that has since become a landmark, allowing "people to ascend symbolically above the heads of their representatives in the chamber". As Foster said: "The Reichstag was very much about creating the democratic forum for a reunified Germany [and] has become not only the symbol of the city but the symbol of the nation".
The glass cupola that crowns the building and illuminates at night both heralds its presence, and brings daylight to the building's inhabitants. Symbolizing rebirth, at the center of the great dome is an architectural feature that reflects light back down into the building, producing a dazzling, natural light chamber. This is its one of its best achievements, says architectural critic Jonathan Glancey: "Daylight falls on stone floors, stone walls, a solid, generous, clear-cut architectural expression in which, to date, there is no clutter, no evident gimmickry and where every bit of potentially messy equipment - heating, ventilation, loudspeakers, sprinklers, alarms - has been tucked into graceful sculpted units that march quietly, if determinedly, through the building". For Glancey, the Reichstag was a building that started life as an "ugly duckling that suffered terribly as it grew up, was abandoned, bodged up and ended up almost a swan".