Architecture for 21st Century – Foster, Mozart of Modernism


Norman FosterAt home and abroad on scale large and small, architectural firms are competing for the right to help invent the modern age.

On the international scale is Norman Robert Foster (1935- ) a man larger than life, for who the culture and climate of the place will always be important.

The Right Honourable Lord Foster of Thames Bank OM was granted a life peerage in 1999 and is one of Britain’s most awarded, recognized and accomplished architects of his generation.

This extraordinary photogenic, confident, fresh, successful, designer constantly gives himself challenges he has to finish; cross country ski marathons, buildings to the sky – his biggest alien concept was becoming ill.

This happened when he was diagnosed with cancer at the turn of the 21st century.

He believes now that a state of denial is sometimes helpful … and, from having three months to live, picked himself up and started again.

Lord Norman Foster

Nicknamed the “Mozart of Modernism”, Norman Foster is an artist collaborating with other artists; his team. He’s a true innovator, leader, visionary both internationally renowned and acclaimed.

Life is certainly about attitude and despite defining knock backs in life, Norman Foster has so eloquently proved in interviews, that having a positive attitude and looking forward, while being respectful of the past, is a key to everything.

Norman’s conquest’s both today and in the years gone by have become the stuff of modern legend.

With a life in architectural pursuits this passionate artist, self-motivated innovator, teacher and visionary has imagined and completed so many awe-inspiring works. They have today changed the way we think about architecture and he will surely go down in the annals of design history as a master.

Recently he commented that he believes as a people we have to learn to adjust and to change faster. Incredible urbanization is changing the world we live in rapidly. We have to adapt more quickly, embrace change and respond to new environments, especially if we are to have peace and fulfillment in our lives.

St Mary Axe 1

30 St Mary Axe – The Gherkin, London – Design Foster+Partners

To make the point in the west the great industrial revolution happened gradually over two centuries.

In China, pundits predict for the Chinese aided by technology, this process will happen within a decade!

Winning the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the highest accolade an architect can receive was a defining moment for Norman Foster, a pinnacle in life reached in 1999.

One of his most recognizable buildings visually would be the controversial giant glass pencil like structure within the city of London built 2001 – 2003 at 30 St Mary Axe, the street from which the tower takes its name.

An energy efficient structure, it has become an iconic symbol of modern London, moving the spirit, attacking the senses and entering that spiritual dimension which is unmeasurable, although it moves your spirit so that you feel it.

The half-glass full boy from Manchester, whose visionary dreams of what lay beyond the arched railway bridge that separated the poorer area of Crescent Grove in Levenshulme he grew up in, from the tree lined posh suburb on the other side, had helped to urge him on.

Born in 1935 Norman Foster is as talented as he is dedicated.

His passion for synergy between space, painting, sculpture and furniture and the way they all come together is a personal pursuit that has no end…it’s about eternity.

British Museum Great Court

The Great Court at The British Museum by Foster+Partners, is at the heart of the Museum, providing pedestrian access to the British Library, Covent Garden, the River Thames and South Bank it is all about connecting people with their past, present and future.

Foster rose gradually and with great dash from working-class beginnings with parents who always told him what he could achieve if he tried. How encouraging they must have been.

He relied on their wisdom, his abilities and his own huge capacity for learning and along the way discovered how he could meaningfully contribute to the art of architecture in our age.

British Museum 2

Great Court The British Museum, Foster+Partners

Manchester was Norman Foster’s very own ‘workshop on the world’. He studied commercial law, completed national service in the air force all the while developing his love of architecture. He entered Manchester University and at 21, won his fellowship to Yale University in America.

He discovered how humans had been mindful of how we intervened in nature in the ancient past, but in between we had basically lost the plot.

Now in the modern world thankfully it has become urgent we take notice of nature once again and respect those traditions, although there are a lot of architects still around who need to catch up.

Foster gained a commercial pilot’s license, enjoying the whole experience, especially the idea of looking down on the world and its layout…

… seeing just how nature perfected its part, which humans are integral to.

For Norman Foster architecture came alive … or unwound at Yale School of Architecture.

He and his fellow English students were urged to drive across America just ‘looking at architecture’ first.

Wise advice although I would extend it and say students wanting to work in architecture should put a pack on their back and travel the world looking at works both ancient and modern before they settle into practice.

Art & Architecture, Yale

Sure it delays the process, but the old Latin tag il festina lente, make haste slowly, is another traditional saying based on truth and especially helpful if you are seeking a career for life.

Norman Foster and his fellow students at Yale in 1961 school of architecture were obviously blessed with teachers they respected such as Vincent Scully and Paul Rudolph, both are an integral part of its legend.

Vincent Scully (1920- ) was Yale’s most famous teacher and he did not retire until he was 89. He used to receive standing ovations for his lectures.

Paul Marvin Rudolph (19118-1997) helped bring out the best of every student. His Art and Architecture Building now known as Rudolph Hall, which today houses the Yale School of Architecture, was one of his best-known works.

As a student Foster was able to take part in the project’s drawing details.

Team 4, Hi Tech

Norman Foster opened his first firm together with best friends from Yale including Wendy Cheeseman, Richard Foster and Georgie Wolton.

They called it Team 4. It may have been short lived however in its three years, they constructed the first British high tech building ever the Reliance Controls Factory at Swindon.

The experience as interesting and as well achieved as it was provoked them all to split and follow different directions after it was done.

Norman Foster’s strong work ethic paid off and in 1967 with Wendy Cheeseman becoming Wendy Foster, together they formed the first phase of what would be the landmark aspect of his journey, Foster Associates.

For some time it had no work and no associates. However they retained the courage of convictions, commitment and persistence to getting the job done and it paid off.

Foster and Associates gradually gained the first work that would become its landmark project. The socially aspirational amenities block for the Fred Olson Shipping Company 1968-1970 Norman Foster remembers as a ‘socially Utopian project’, turning a ‘shed’ into a highly succesfull recreational building on the docks.

It was to combine technology and comfort, and with its completion Foster’s whole world changed and the work began to flood in.

Foster took a radical approach to all his projects, glamour with sustainability Atrium, plants, swimming pool, colour, shiny surfaces…. green ceilings.

His hallmark specialty became about providing more with less.

Sainsbury Centre Visual Arts

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, UK – Foster + Partners

Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts 1978 was a refined machine like a Greek temple sitting in a Greek landscape – it is all about harmony, just like its ancient counterparts.

Foster believes the dialogue between the architect and client creatively – is all about meticulously nit picking, because it ensures the best result.

Apple Campus II

Apple Campus II Project, approved by Cupertino Council, photo by Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group

Renamed Foster + Partners today the firm has some 140 partners, employing staff with an average age of 30, all of whom are enthusiastically working on projects including the new Apple Campus II in Cupertino California.

Commissioned by the late Apple CEO Steve Jobs, phase one is expected to be completed in 2016. Parkland will surround it and be integral to its heart.

During his career Foster has ensured that his firms buildings are the strongest possible using the least amount of materials. He defined his own profession as an engineer, architect and ecologist combined and today the firm has become much like the the personification of the organised and the ordered, which he so admires. Its contribution to modern business practice also means it runs 24 hours and 7 days a week.

Reichstag reinvention

At the Reichstag in German Norman Foster reinvented the ‘dome’ in architecture, so that everyone can process ever upward to its summit, reflecting on the world that gave it birth as they climb

Reconstruction of the Reichstag in Germany, Hitler’s old headquarters by an English architect was a true sign of democracy in action.

His first design was rejected as too ambitious and they wanted something simpler although recreating the dome that had been lost… which was for him a problem….

So he designed a cupola that worked with the ecology of the building… providing a processional for those visiting its summit

He kept damaged aspects of the building as part of its history, believing they should remain as symbols of what was wrong with Hitler’s ambitions.

Masdar city in Abu Dhabi is a carbon neutral city currently being constructed combining homes with jobs, maximising sustainability.


Podcar at the Personal Rapid Transit Station, Masdar City by Foster+Partners

Electric vehicles will move around above the ground on a bridge, while pedestrians walk on a deck above, separating people from technology.

The idea is zero waste, zero carbon but is it achievable… It struck problems with the devestating GFC in 2010, its end date pushed back to the future.

But it is a beginning, not an end.

For Norman Foster it is inexplicable only one such city is currently being built…we will all have to ‘wake up’ soon he cautioned in an interview in the excellent documentary How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster?

Foster sees it as urgent that our survival as a species is a focus for future architectural interventions.

Smithsonian Foster

Smithsonian Institution Courtyard, Foster + Partner, 2007

Innovative and unique today Foster + Partners works on what I would call a Robert Adam Scale, designing each project, from the conception of the whole down to the minute detail of a door handle.

Fosters Office 3

Foster + Partners Office layout, London

Process is a journey that everyone in his London based headquarters understands. He has a belief in optimism and the energy of youth and wants to encourage youth who are thrown into the deep end to learn.

Models he has noted fascinate him, crafting and observing them as part of his practice. They are the tangible step in making something become a reality and today the practice produces amazing models for clients to engage with.

Model Making Foster+Partgners

Model Making at Foster+Partners

They have reinvented the relationship between the old and new keeping the best of its identity from the past and reimagining it for the future.

Hearst Tower

Foster today age 79 has joined his mentors in passing on his knowledge and experience to modern day architectural students and supporting the staff of the firm that bears his name Foster + Partners, as it reimagines the future.

In New York in 2006 this Mozart of Modernism built a small building compared to all the others around it, although powerfully it asserted its position well then and still continues to do so.

Hearst Tower is elegant, effortless, easy to absorb, it seems as if it is dancing through the air.

Its triangles are inherently stronger and it is both green and sustainable.

To complete it Foster + Partners de-constructed what a skyscraper was before they designed it.

It’s a truly remarkable building, innovative, brilliantly spacious and imaginative, functional and practical but always challenging all those who work within its walls.

It has a presence, its scale is different to size….

…it bears a relationship to the body on one hand and to the imagination on the other.

It honours tradition and is a building for the future.

Norman Foster and Foster + Partner’s story is ongoing…

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015


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