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Norman Foster

British Architect

Born: June 1, 1935 - Manchester, UK
"I guess what I'm doing is I'm tracing a lineage, which is about structure, which is about the expression of structure, and perhaps rediscovering something from the past. And not just the American past, but our own past"
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Norman Foster Signature
"As an architect you design for the present, with an awareness of the past for a future which is essentially unknown"
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"Every time I've flown an aircraft, or visited a steelworks, or watched a panel-beater at work, I've learned something new that can be applied to buildings"
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"Since Stonehenge, architects have always been at the cutting edge of technology. And you can't separate technology from the humanistic and spiritual content of a building."
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"I was so highly motivated that, when I got into architecture school, nobody was going to stop me. The opportunity to study architecture was the most incredible privilege"
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"A debate about design is, for me, a debate about values, because I sincerely believe that there is a moral imperative for good design; to do it well and responsibly"
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"As a team we've reinvented the genre. We've reinvented the airport, we've reinvented the nature of the high-rise building, reinvented the relationship of the old and new in terms of how you create a new life cycle for a historic building."
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Summary of Norman Foster

Foster is arguably the world's most influential (and most honored) living architect. Something of a buccaneering figure whose spirit for personal adventure has spilled over into his professional life, he is guided by a strong sense of responsibility towards sustainability and the environment. Recognized chiefly for his jewel-like modern designs of steel and glass, and for a flair for smooth exterior contours and open, naturally-lit interiors, his designs stand out as landmarks in many of the world's greatest cities, including London, Berlin, New York, Hong Kong and Shanghai. The scope and vision of his ambition is evident in his involvement with an ongoing project in Masdar, a self-sustaining city in Abu Dhabi, while he is currently working in collaboration with the second superstar of world architecture, Frank Gehry, on a project to redevelop the site of London's famous Battersea Power Station (in which its four iconic chimneys will be left to stand).


  • Foster came to prominence at a dour time for British architecture. Turning his back on the concrete "utopias" of the post war years Foster managed to "shake up" the architectural landscape with unconventional, "lightweight" and "calm", designs formed of silver tubes and glass that allowed visitors to the building(s) to be at one with their immediate surroundings.
  • Foster has been credited with reinventing the skyscraper and for pointing the way forward for future designers. By featuring spiraling geometric domes (in London), triangulated shapes (in New York) and tiered suspension structures (in Hong Kong) his skyscrapers stand as exemplars of the possibilities of how to invigorate uniform and congested city skylines.
  • Blending old and new (though opposed to postmodernism for its lack of seriousness) Foster's interiors hark back to the "old" modern spirit of the Bauhaus's Walter Gropius in their detestation of "clutter". Indeed, celebrated within architectural circles as much for his pure and harmonious interiors as his exteriors, Foster's structures, including The Reichstag building in Berlin, conceal from plain sight every piece of internal plumbing and equipment.
  • Having reinvented the skyscraper, Foster is credited with doing the same for the airport, first at Stanstead (UK), and then Beijing (China). Seeing the airport as a "reviled building type", Foster sought to create a space that celebrates the "poetry of flight". His terminals are filled with natural light and expansive views of the air traffic that encourages the traveler to enjoy an almost meditative pre-flight experience.

Biography of Norman Foster

Norman Foster Life and Legacy

Foster reimmagined the classical, 19th century Reichstag building in Berlin, filling this dome in glass and open air views. This is just one, although very popular, example of the amazing projects Foster has brought to fruition.

Important Art by Norman Foster

Progression of Art
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (1978)

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

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".

Norwich, UK

Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters (1986)

Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters

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".


Reichstag, New German Parliament (1999)

Reichstag, New German Parliament

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".

Berlin, Germany

30 St Mary Axe (2004)

30 St Mary Axe

Affectionately known as the "Gherkin" (a small cucumber, usually pickled), 30 St Mary Axe has now become one of London's best-loved landmarks. Inspired by Buckminster Fuller's geometric domes, the building was commissioned by insurance company Swiss Re. Built on the site of the Baltic Exchange, which was destroyed by an IRA bomb in 1992, it has been described as "the most conspicuous eruption on London's skyline in a quarter of a century". In line with Foster's strict green agenda, the Gherkin is considered London's first ecological tall building, one that relies on a new rapport between nature and the workplace. The curved profile reduces wind deflection, helping to maintain a comfortable environment at ground level, and creates external pressure differentials which help drive a unique system of natural ventilation. Inside, the building has "lungs", social areas that draw in air and distribute it throughout the workspace. This, among other measures, means the Gherkin consumes half as much energy as a conventional office building. It's modernity however is matched by its nod to the classical; as art critic Jonathan Jones said: "Its expansiveness culminates in a dome that rhymes with that of St Paul's. Far from being a stranger on the London skyline, this is a shape that Wren, or Michelangelo, or any of the architects of the European great tradition would have recognised, admired and envied". The building was a critical success and won the RIBA Sterling Prize in 2004.

The tower's beauty, in the shape of its spiraling form and geometric dazzle, highlights the unattractiveness of the surrounding older buildings. Jones added: "It instantly exposes the banal ugliness of the NatWest tower or Canary Wharf. Because it has no British rivals, you have to go to New York to see how original Foster's tower is. It is comparable with the Chrysler building, the glorious art deco skyscraper built in Manhattan in the 1920s". Indeed, when it was first built, the Gherkin was a strange addition to a conventional skyline. But it has paved the way for quirky new designs, including the skyscrapers affectionately dubbed "the Walkie Talkie" building and "the Cheesegrater", along with ambitious new projects in planning. Jones added: "It is a masterpiece that opens new possibilities for world architecture".

London, UK

Hearst Headquarters (2006)

Hearst Headquarters

Two years after The Gherkin, Foster produced the Hearst Tower in New York. It was a challenge for Foster + Partners. He said: "It's Manhattan, New York, the city of Towers. You think of skyscrapers. The good news is that we have a tower in New York. The bad news is that it is a very, very small tower amongst the most extraordinary collection of mega towers. How do you make this tower have a presence when its physically so small?". He was limited by the existing six-story structure that publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst had built in the 1920s, and which was to provide the base for a soaring tower that was never built. As with the Reichstag, Foster had to design a building that joined the old and the new.

He came up with a design that saw a new skyscraper emerge from the Art Deco base like a work of sculpture. It's triangulated structure, with indented corners, used 20 per cent less metal than a conventional tower, reducing its environmental impact, and is made from 80% recycled steel. The new geometry was a hit with the public and artistic minds alike, and it won praise from artists Anish Kapoor, Richard Serra, Anthony Caro and Richard Long, the latter being commissioned to produce an enormous mural - which he realized in part by mixing mud from the River Avon in England and the Hudson River - for the building's interior.

Architectural critic Paul Goldberger was not always a fan of Foster's work. But on seeing the Hearst Tower, he said it was the most beautiful high-rise to be built in Manhattan since 1967. He wrote: "When the Hearst Building was finished, I called Norman 'the Mozart of Modernism' because I thought that conveyed the way his work seemed lyrical, elegant and effortless. And just as we know with Mozart, we know that there was a huge effort behind that but part of his genius was to produce this piece of music that didn't show the effort [...] Foster buildings tend to do that. They don't show the effort." New York magazine described the Hearst Tower meanwhile as "The best work of corporate architecture to grace New York in decades".

New York, USA

Beijing Airport (2008)

Beijing Airport

Foster has loved flight since he was a small child and he even held a commercial pilot's license. This passion culminated in his attempts to redesign air travel, beginning with London's Stansted Airport, in which he characteristically turned the terminal upside down, burying all the machinery underground, leaving light and airy atria through which people could walk unimpeded, and, in Sudjic's words "liberate travelers from the claustrophobic labyrinth of the traditional departure lounge". Foster continued this theme with Beijing Airport - which is now thought to be the largest building on the planet.

He said: "We are trying to reinvent concepts like the airport in such a way that the experience of an airport will be uplifting, where really an airport has got to a point in terms of crowds and security and so on that it is a kind of reviled building type". As such he included gently undulating roofs, high ceilings, natural light and long lines of vision that provide a relaxing, almost meditative experience for the traveler. The architectural language of Beijing Airport is both contemporary and rooted in Chinese culture. As Foster + Partners stated: "It is also a symbol of place, its soaring aerodynamic roof and dragon-like form celebrating the thrill and poetry of flight and evoking traditional Chinese colours and symbols". In Chinese fashion, from the outside it looks modest and unassuming, but inside the curved roofs soar, drawing in light and space. Artist Cai Guo-Qiang said: "When I go through, I look up and natural light fills the space and I find that often times there is no need for artificial light. It is an enclosed building but it is very soft and comfortable [...] It is the best I have ever seen".

Sudjic added: "The airport is a symbolic national front door, reflecting the aspirations of a culture, but negotiating the terminal is a stressful anxious experience for most passengers [...] A good airport celebrates travel, rather than makes the journey an ordeal. If you can see an airplane, a runway or the sky beyond, you have a natural orientation." It was another international hit. As the New Yorker said: "Foster has achieved what no other architect has been able to: he has rethought the airport from scratch and made it work".



The Masdar Initiative

Begun in 2014, the Foster + Partner Masdar City project remains ongoing and is being constructed in stages. The aim is to combine state-of-the-art technologies with the planning principles of traditional Arab settlements. Foster said of the project: "The environmental ambitions of the Masdar Initiative - zero carbon and waste free - are a world first. They [the Abu Dhabi government] have provided us with a challenging design brief that promises to question conventional urban wisdom at a fundamental level. Masdar promises to set new benchmarks for the sustainable city of the future".

The project is a specific response to the city's location and climate. The 640-hectare desert community is a key component of the Masdar Initiative and was launched by the Abu Dhabi government "to advance the development of renewable energy and clean-technology solutions for a life beyond oil". As seems fitting, the project has become home to the headquarters the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Masdar is linked to the adjoining Abu Dhabi communities and transport infrastructure though the city itself is the first community in the world to operate without fossil-fuelled transport. Never more than 200 meters from the nearest transport links, the estimated 50,000 denizens of Masdar will be encouraged to move about the city on foot while the shaded city streets and public spaces offer community hubs sheltered from the extremes of the desert heat. Divided into two sectors, the walled city is designed in a way that will avoid the "sprawl" that effects most urban areas. But the area surrounding the inner city - "the suburbs" for want of a better term - will contain wind and photovoltaic farms, research fields and plantations, enabling Masdar to become totally energy self-sufficient. Though designed specificly in mind to the city's geo-location, Masdar is intended to function as blueprint for self-sustained cities anywhere in the world. Now in his 86th year, Foster's boundless ambition shows no sign of abating as he has turned his thoughts now to the problem of revitalizing slum housing.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Norman Foster
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
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    Architectural Modernism
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Norman Foster Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 21 Apr 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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