Biography of Norman Foster
The only child of Robert and Lillian, Norman Foster was born in Stockport, Manchester in the industrial north of England. The family soon moved to a small, inexpensive rented terrace house in nearby Levenshulme from where the young Norman would draw the surrounding architecture. His father managed a pawnbrokers while his mouther was a waitress, and he credits them with passing on their indefatigable work ethic, though at a cost: "My parents worked and worked [...] They worked so hard that I wasn't really able to get to know them" he later observed.
The Foster household was cramped and damped, and he had a bath just once a week in a zinc bathtub in the kitchen but some of Foster's earliest childhood memories were of the Second World War: "I remember bombers going over in the middle of the night with my mother. I remember talking rationally about what kind of bomber it might be and then just breaking down into a flood of tears [...] abjectly terrified". He was also bullied as a child, singled out by school friends for his sharp intelligence. There wasn't much literature in the Foster household, but he frequently visited Levenshulme's Free Library where he read about Le Corbusier. He also spent much of his spare time making model airplanes and trains, and he became absorbed in children's construction kits like Meccano.
His parents scrimped and saved and were able to send their son to Dymsdale School, a local private primary, which saw him pass his 11-plus exam. This early academic success secured his entry into Burnage High School where he excelled in math and fell in love with art and architecture. Despite his strong aptitude, Foster regarded himself as an outsider in lieu of the fact that he was the only child among his peer group whose father worked menially (though, paradoxically, he was the only pupil to have progressed from a private school). As a teenager he would cycle out to the countryside, making the 130-mile round trip to the Lake District, igniting his lifetime love for cycling. His bicycle also took him to local architectural wonders, including the Jodrell Bank observatory in Macclesfield.
In the industrial north of England, it was the norm for children to leave school and go into work at the age of 14. Foster bucked this trend by continuing with his studies; a decision that did not meet with the approval of his social circle. As biographer and architectural critic Deyan Sudjic wrote: "Foster would find himself buttonholed in the street by neighbors who regarded him as some kind of idler, still sponging off his parents".
At the age of 16 he was given a job at Manchester Town Hall, an uninspiring clerical role in the Treasurer's Department which he hated. However, it did give him a chance to study the architecture of Alfred Waterhouse, who designed the Town Hall, and the murals of Ford Madox Brown which were housed within its walls. Foster held the post for two years during which time he attended night school. He did not do as well as he had hoped, however, and on turning 18 he was compelled to undertake his national service with the Royal Air Force (RAF). He left the RAF in 1955, unsure of where his future might take him. Knowing he had to do something creative, he applied for a job at John Beardshaw, a local architect. Here he became "infatuated with design" and would stay late at the office so he could borrow and study from the drawings, slowly building up his own portfolio.
The following year Foster won a place on an architecture course at Manchester University. But he had to work hard to support himself, selling furniture, working in a bakery, and driving an ice-cream van. He later studied at Yale under Paul Rudolph who had been a student of Walter Gropius, the legendary founder of the Bauhaus. Yale was a "pressure cooker" and Rudolph was the man who taught Foster how to "draw like an architect". He also made Foster cry, telling him "You don't care enough" after he had been up all night working on a project. Despite this, Rudolph had spotted his pupil's potential and he pushed Foster more than his contemporaries. It was also at Yale that Foster met Richard Roberts and Carl Abbot, with whom he would move to London to form the short-lived collaboration Team Four. It was through Team Four that he met his first wife, the architect Wendy Cheeseman. One day while working together in 1964, they slipped off during a lunch break to tie the knot at a local registry office; celebrating with a picnic on Hampstead Heath straight after the ceremony. The following year Wendy gave birth to their first child, Ti, named after Jack Kerouac's family nickname. The family moved to Frognal, in North West London, where the couple became neighbors and friends of the sculptor Anthony Caro.
In 1966 Team Four designed the Reliance Controls building, a factory in Swindon which won them the Financial Times Industrial Architecture Award. But despite this success, the group had differences and it dissolved shortly after.
Soon after, Foster set up Foster Associates with Wendy, though in truth, Foster Associates was just a husband and wife team working from their Hampstead Hill Gardens studio. By this time Wendy was heavily pregnant with their second son, Cal, and their practice had evolved into Foster + Partners. The practice saw its first international breakthrough in 1979, when they won a competition to design the new Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation's (HSBC Bank) headquarters, their mission was to build "the best bank headquarters in the world". The building brought more critical acclaim and catapulted Foster + Partners onto the world stage. Lead by Foster, the practice went from strength-to-strength, putting its name to innovative buildings around the world, many of which have now become architectural landmarks.
In 1971 Foster formed a lifelong friendship and collaborative partnership with eccentric American architect and designer Buckminster Fuller. Foster credits him with bestowing on him a passion for the themes of shelter, energy and the environment, which Foster said "go to the heart of contemporary architecture", adding that, "For me, Bucky was the very essence of a moral conscience, forever warning about the fragility of the planet and man's responsibility to protect it".
In 1988 Foster suffered a terrible personal setback when Wendy was diagnosed with cancer. She refused conventional treatment and died a year later aged just 51; "It was a terrible time" Foster recalled (probably with a degree of understatement).
Three years later Foster married jewelry designer Sabiha Rumani Malik. Malik became director of Foster + Partners, but the couple divorced four years later. (She later auctioned off her wedding ring and other jewelry that Foster had designed for her to raise money for charity.) In 1999 Foster was made a life peer at the House of Lords, following the recommendation of Lord Weidenfield and Lord Sainsbury, taking the name of Baron Foster of Thames Bank. Soon after, in 1996, Foster married his third and current wife, professor and publisher Elena Ochoa.
Foster has written several books about architecture and has been outspoken about design. He criticized postmodern architecture for not being serious enough, complaining that it could be too "gimmicky". He has also spoken out against "snobbery in architecture", saying that instead of being seen as fine art "wrapped in mumbo-jumbo" it should be recognized as an "all-embracing discipline taking in science, art, math, engineering, climate, nature, politics [and] economics". In 2010, meanwhile, he entered into a row involving the Prince of Wales who had tried to prevent the redevelopment of the old Chelsea Barracks site in London, complaining about the Brutalist modernist designs. Foster signed a letter, along with Frank Gehry, Renzo Piano and Pierre de Meuron criticizing the Prince for "using his privileged position" to "skew" the democratic planning process.
Foster is known to be motivated and passionate. He runs marathons, cycles and takes on extreme cross country races. He once wore the wrong gloves on a cross-country event and ended up with frostbite that took him six months to recover from. Undeterred, he completed the event the following year, and the year after that. He still races now, in his eighties. In 2005 he was diagnosed with cancer. He said: "That was horrific. Probably the worst moment of my life. One of the worst. I remember struggling through the 48 hours when I was rushed to hospital. I was told I was fortunate because it could have been a heart attack. Little was I to know that two years later I would have a heart attack. The thing that really was important to me was at the end of that six months I would still be able to train for the cross country ski marathon. I was told by the doctor to forget it. But I did it to the day, in six months. So I think a state of denial can be helpful. Later I was told I had maximum three months to live. That was the worst moment ever". He received chemotherapy, which he described as "pretty horrid", and was inspired by reading about Lance Armstrong and enrolling in cycle marathons. He came through that health crisis and is still working hard today.
The Millau viaduct in Southern France cut out five-hour traffic jams, thus reducing CO2 emissions, and Fosters + Partners has pledged to make all its buildings carbon-neutral by 2030. Foster is currently engaged on his most ambitious projects yet; Masdar (meaning "Source" in Arabic), a self-sustaining city in Abu Dhabi. The settlement promises to be carbon neutral, built from recycled steel and one that recycles all its own waste. In the words of the critic Sudjic: "What makes Masdar different from what is around it - the airport compound next door, the golf course, or the Formula One track - is that this is an experimental laboratory for a world that is waking up to the fear that it might be making itself uninhabitable". He is also working on the Tulip, an "inevitably controversial" concrete shaft topped by glass viewing platforms complete with slides and rotating pods to be built next to the Gherkin in the heart of the City of London.
Foster + Partners is currently working with Frank Gehry (the two superstars of world architecture) to redevelop London's iconic Battersea Power Station on the bank of the River Thames. It is a bold move - "starchitects" such as these do not usually collaborate - but the pair have cemented their friendship over many years.
The Legacy of Norman Foster
Foster + Partners has become a multinational practice producing works of public infrastructure, airports, civic and cultural buildings, offices and workplaces as well as private houses and furniture design. In 1999 Foster was made the Laureate of the Pritzker Architecture Prize and the practice has also been awarded the Royal Institute of British Architects Stirling Prize three times - for the Bloomberg Building, London, 30 St Mary Axe and the Imperial War Museum, in Cambridgeshire. Foster's legacy can be seen in many of the major cities of the world; his striking designs transforming the skylines of London, Berlin, New York and Shanghai. In recent years he has received some criticism - the Millennium Bridge joining St. Paul's Cathedral and Tate Modern had to be strengthened shortly after it was unveiled as it swayed so much it caused nausea amongst pedestrian; the wrong stone was said to be used in the south facade of the Great Court of the British Museum; while the opening of the Reichstag in Berlin was beset with technical problems - But Foster's influence remains almost unparalleled. As critic Steve Rose said: "With his playboy lifestyle, his tough-guy looks and his aggressively can-do attitude, he is the nearest thing we have to an architectural superhero".
For many, however, Foster's most important legacy will be in his determination to address issues of sustainability; his aim is to make better use of energy and to limit environmental impact. He also set up the RIBA Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship for architecture students and Foster + Partners says it takes pride in nurturing young talent across its studios around the world, employing more than 1,300 individuals. In 2015 Foster said he was proud that the average age of employees at the company was 32 - the same age as when he started the business.
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
First published on 21 Apr 2020. Updated and modified regularly