Recognized as one of the world's great architects, Norman Foster (born 1935) is known for his complementary yet ultra-modern redesigns of classic buildings and for his simple, streamlined new structures. Called the "hero of high-tech," his architectural signature is a design that opens a building up to the public, is mindful of the environment, and saves money by using modern materials and advanced technology.
Norman Foster was born on June 1, 1935 in Manchester, England. From 1956 to 1962 he studied architecture at Manchester University's School of Architecture and at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. In 1963, he founded the Team 4 architectural practice along with Richard and Sue Rogers and Wendy Cheeseman, whom he later married.
Foster and his wife founded Foster Associates in London in 1967. This innovative firm was noted for its dedication to architectural detail and craftsmanship. Use was often made of prefabricated off-site manufactured elements and special components were designed for particular projects. Foster Associates worked on transportation projects, large public structures, and modest houses. From 1968 to 1983, Foster collaborated with Richard Buckminster Fuller and others on the Climatroffice project. In 1969, he designed the administrative and leisure center for Fred Olsen, Ltd., in London.
In 1975, Foster designed the administrative headquarters for an insurance company, Willis, Faber and Dumas in Ipswich, England. For that building, Foster used modern materials and advanced technology to save money and energy. The curving building follows the irregular street patterns in the old market town. The exterior of the building is all glass. This creates the illusion that the open-plan offices extend out into the street. The roof is covered with grass, serving as insulation and creating a hanging garden. This building established Foster's reputation as an architect and won him the RIBA Trustees Medal in 1990. That same year he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, giving him the title of Sir Norman Foster.
In the 1970s, Foster designed the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England. Dennis Sharp, in Twentieth Century Architecture: A Visual History said: "The Sainsbury Art Centre … is described as a well-serviced metal-clad barn.… It is a highly tuned and well-engineered shed for art of considerable sophistication serving as a research institute with public access gallery. It was sponsored by private funds. The white walls and roofs take the form of continuous trusses and all services are housed within the 'outer wall zone'."
From 1979 to 1986, Foster worked on the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank. Michael Sandberg, the president of the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation invited seven architects to design "the most beautiful bank in the world." The banker sought a building that would make a statement about the bank's wealth, power, and probity. Foster won the competition; no other architect received a vote. The building Foster designed, a steel and glass structure, was the most expensive in the world at that time. It cost five billion Hong Kong dollars to build and has 47 stories and is 590 feet high. It stands in the middle of other skyscrapers on Hong Kong Island, on the site of the first branch office of the bank.
Foster began the work-his first skyscraper-when he was 44 years old. He carefully studied the site and the urban environment. An advocate of technology, Foster found the densely packed urban context very challenging. He closely examined all previous high-rise buildings to learn from their design and to help him optimize the economic performance of the structure. He designed it with built-in flexibility, energy-saving ideas, and an improved work environment. Foster made the maximum use of natural light, included open work areas, and a lot of open spaces. No standard elements were used in the building. To develop the details, many models were made, some full sized. This added to the high cost of constructing the building.
Foster made the plan rectangular with service towers at either end. The bank has a steel load-bearing structure. Eight masts made of four linked cylindrical members are tied together in three places by enormous girders. Each story hangs from this structure. This building method allowed open facades with views north and south. Because the site was small and surrounded by other buildings, many elements had to be prefabricated off-site, including the steel frame and the mechanical service modules. The only part of the construction that took place on site was the final assembly and installation.
When visitors enter the building, they are greeted in the main hall by two escalators that lead through a curved, clear glass "belly." A ten-story atrium rises above. This area is flooded with sunlight from a "sunscoop" on the outside of the building. The only remaining parts of the original structure that once occupied the space are two bronze lions outside the bank. Visitors touch the lions for good luck before entering. This building, known simply as "the bank" in Hong Kong, became famous for its daring use of cellular interior spaces and won Foster international acclaim. The building's picture even appeared on Hong Kong's banknotes.
In 1983, Foster designed the sales center for Renault UK Ltd. in Swindon, England. In the mid 1980s, he worked on the furniture system for Tecno in Milan, Italy. He designed the office building for Stanhope Securities in Stockley Park near London in 1989 and the broadcasting building for the British television channel ITN in London in 1990.
In 1991, Foster designed London's third airport, Stansted. His goal was to return a feeling of excitement to air travel and to harken back to the days when terminals were simple buildings. Foster, who pilots his own helicopter, wanted to build the terminal around what air travelers actually need. Stansted, which was built to handle eight million passengers a year, has shortened walking distances and simplified circulation patterns. Passengers walk straight from the entrance to the check-in desk, to customs, to the waiting area, to the airplane. The terminal is built on two levels. The public concourse has arrivals and departures side by side. Tree-like tubular steel columns in clusters of four, set 35 yards apart, hold up the lattice domed roof, giving the concourse an airy feel. Sunlight filters through the roof to the interior, without making the building hot or clammy. The lower level, which is underground, contains a train station, baggage handling area, and storage facility.
High-Tech Parliament Building
For five years, Foster worked on the redesign of the Reichstag, site of the German parliament in Berlin. He opened the interior space in order to fill the once gloomy structure with light. Foster's goal for the building was "to make democracy visible." This was achieved using huge expanses of glass. The roof is dome-like, with skylights inserted in it. The dome has an inverted conical core that sucks in light at the top and beams it out at the bottom, in order to light up the debating chamber. It contains a sunscreen that also helps regulate the building's temperature. The sunscreen moves to follow the path of the sun in the summer, preventing the chamber below from overheating. In the winter the screen is moved aside to allow the sun's warmth to penetrate. Fresh air enters the building through airshafts and is fed into the main chamber through the floor. As the air heats up and rises, it is drawn into a cone in the middle of the dome. An extractor finally expels it from the building.
Spiral walkways curve around the outside of the building from which visitors have an excellent view of the skyline and can see the Parliament at work. The debating chamber is enclosed in glass, allowing people to look in from the main lobby. Describing the building before its redesign Foster noted, "At the moment visitors are forced to sneak in guiltily through a side-entrance." The Reichstag gained back much of its nineteenth century grandeur in the redesign, but Foster added many high tech improvements. The dome structure saves electricity. Other energy savers include the use of underground water supplies, natural ventilation, and excess heat. In summer, cool water from a top reservoir underground circulates around the building through pipes in the floors and ceilings. This cools the building and warms the water. The water is then pumped into a lower reservoir that is very well insulated, thus retaining the heat. In winter the process is reversed. Hot water is pumped up to heat the building. The cooled water going into the top reservoir is ready to be used again the next summer. The Reichstag maintains its own power plant to drive the pumps. The plant is fueled by rapeseed oil, a totally renewable energy source with low carbon dioxide emissions.
Considered Foster's greatest achievement and the world's most ambitious engineering project, Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok, the largest airport in the world, opened in July 1998. The airport cost $20 billion to construct. The eight-story terminal is one of the largest enclosed areas on earth. The 45 acres of lightweight steel roof cover six million square feet of glass-enclosed space. The terminal is so big, it can be seen from space.
The airport building was designed as a celebration of the modern age of air travel, providing a sense of adventure to passengers. Jonathan Glancey, architecture critic for the Guardian described what most people feel about flying and what Foster was trying to achieve. "They just see boring office-like interiors, boring people being bored, buying useless bits of duty free. What Foster says is: 'Hey look, flight really is a magical thing.' His building allows you to see the aircraft as soon as you walk in. It enables you to feel you're up in the air with the aircraft too, it's about excitement, it's about passion."
Foster has designed many other noteworthy public buildings including a 92-story tower in London; the American Air Museum in the United Kingdom; a rapid transit viaduct in Rennes, France; art galleries at London's Royal Academy; the Commerzbank Tower in Frankfurt, Germany; the Joslyn Memorial and Pavilion in Omaha, Nebraska; a Scottish housing project; and a cultural center in Nimes, France.
Further Reading on Norman Foster
Thiel-Siling, Sabine, Icons of Architecture: The 20th Century, Prestel, 1998.
Economist, March 23, 1991; February 11, 1995.
World Press Review, October 1994.
BBC Online, http://news.bbc.co.uk (March 14, 1999).
Great Buildings Online, http://www.greatbuildings.com (March 14, 1999).