Progression of Art
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".
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
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".
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".
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
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.