Norman Foster’s new world

A spaceport, a new solar-powered city, and how to save a slum: J.M. Ledgard meets a towering figure in architecture and finds him poised halfway from the Victorians to the space age

J.M. Ledgard | November/December 2012

It is night and I am taking a taxi back through the desert from Norman Foster's carbon-neutral Masdar City. We are lost, idling on a back road on Yas Island, behind Ferrari World, a racetrack and what claims to be the largest indoor amusement park in the world. My taxi driver, a Syrian, calls for directions to the hotel. I step out of the car. The only sound is the rustling of the desert wind and behind it the call of wading birds on a nearby lagoon. The smell is of tarmac. The underside of the sky glimmers with oil flares. On the horizon is the centre of Abu Dhabi—a rectangular smudge. 

No wonder we got lost, I think, when we finally get to the hotel. It is no place, or more precisely its sense of place is redundant. It hovers, brightly lit, seemingly untenanted. The windows of my room do not open. I think, this building is not a Foster building, not by a long shot. I sit at the desk in my room and make notes about Masdar, Foster, "sustainability" and "resilience", and I can clearly imagine the architect anatomising this nowhere, his soft Mancunian burr, amiable, yet precise. Foster thinks we'll build cities higher, closer, safer, quieter, cleaner and smarter. I want to believe him, but then I think about Africa and what is coming there.

The foster and Partners studio, on the south bank of the Thames between Albert and Battersea Bridges, is both busy and austere. A Nordic hospital, I thought when I wandered in, but this may only be because I live in Africa and have become attuned to tropical vegetation and mess. In any case, the coolness is offset by the vitality of the young architects with their espressos propped up along a long, narrow counter by the entrance. Foster and Partners is a magnet for young talent. They work harder for less money than at some other firms, but, like a trainee in a Michelin-starred restaurant, they learn from the best. Foster says the firm is his greatest achievement. It is supple, youthful, and even though apprentices fly easyJet while the master pilots into London from his home in Switzerland in his own plane, there is a sense of common purpose. In this, Foster builds what he preaches.

The studio floor is washed in light from double-height windows that give out onto the Thames. Across the brown swirling waters of the river is the rich terracotta of Chelsea. Nearly everyone works in this large, quiet, unbroken space. "Whatever their job description," runs Foster's challenge to himself, "everyone has a place at one of the long workbenches; the arrangement is very fluid, with no division between design and production." Yet the studio clearly shows the Victorians' influence on Foster. The ghosts of great 19th-century engineers are apparent in the sweeping views of London and its hidden engineering. Foster has X-ray eyes that take in not just bricks and mortar, but the flow of people, vehicles, water, waste and energy into and out of buildings. His choice of lordship—he is Baron Foster of Thames Bank—is a tribute to the Victorian Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who built the London sewer system, the Embankment, and Albert and Battersea Bridges.

One of Foster's strengths is that he balances his enthusiasms. He is the modern architect on a tightrope holding a pole. At one end of the pole are the Victorians: Bazalgette, Alfred Waterhouse (who designed Manchester Town Hall), and all kinds of systems thinkers. At the other end is the space age, represented particularly by his friend Buckminster Fuller. "Buckie" was a radical American architect and thinker who invented the geodesic dome, and pushed Foster towards utopianism. "Buckie once said that you can consider me a trim tab. Everyone admires the Queen Mary when it sails by in all its glory and pomp," Foster says, "but it is really the trim tab that makes such a difference." I nod blindly. Later I find out that a trim tab is an additional rudder that helps keep a ship or a plane on course.

For our interview, Foster sat at a table at the Albert Bridge end of the building. Architects and journalists had warned me beforehand that he was brittle, opportunist, slick at escaping blame. There was a refrain that he was played out, that he had lost his way with bling projects in bling places. In my brief encounter, at least, he was not at all like that. My fears that I'd be meeting a Scrooge overseeing a body of Cratchits were allayed when early on he got up and walked me across the office to show off detailed charts on the performance of shade, cooling and insulation in Masdar City. Instead of employees parting in front of him, he swerved cheerfully around them—the genius-shithead roller-coaster described by some of Steve Jobs's Apple colleagues was nowhere in evidence. At 77, Foster was almost boyish; a performance perhaps, except that he was also cheerful, generous with his time and thoughts, and, most tellingly, his greatest enthusiasm in the conversation was for somewhere he did not know and had not yet seen.

His first enthusiasm was Manchester. Foster was born in the city in 1935, and grew up in a terrace in Stockport—something like the compact and chattering homes in "Coronation Street". Foster's mother and father were "blue-collar" (he doesn't say "working-class"); at the end of the street was a railway bridge, whose arches framed larger, middle-class houses beyond. Even as a boy, Foster drew Manchester. He saw the city clearly: grimy, yes, but larger than life. Manchester was the first city of global trade and attendant futurism. It held the spark of the industrial revolution, the inventiveness and cruelty of mill-owners, Engels and Marx in Chetham's library, coal and railways, energy and speed, the whole acceleration. Could Foster have been the same architect if he had grown up in Bristol or Canterbury? Would he have become an architect at all? As it was, Foster "wangled" his way into a job at an architecture office and was accepted to study architecture at the University of Manchester. A scholarship to Yale followed, where he met another towering British architect, Richard Rogers, and the course was set. 

Foster became prolific. Even his biographer, Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum in London, finds summing up his oeuvre defeats him. Of Foster's early works, Sudjic points to the Willis Faber & Dumas building in Ipswich (1975). From the outside, it is a piece of obsidian, simultaneously slicing light and sucking it in. The interior structure was even more original: Foster used escalators in the three-storey building, a rooftop garden and a swimming pool to show that the workplace could be democratic and not a place for drudgery. The Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia followed in 1978. The brief was to open up art to daylight, to make it, again, more democratic. Foster's own description credits its design as having "an infinitely flexible system for the control of natural and artificial light". The lightness of the structure—the first of many forms influenced by aircraft hangars—was groundbreaking; it was the space produced by the building, not the building itself, that afforded beauty and utility. Just as significant was the timing. Both edifices were built in the dog years of British class warfare and hyperinflation. They sent a message that even in difficult times Foster could build something unencumbered.

With the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and desktop computing, what happened to Foster's firm reflected what happened more broadly: capital sped up and went global, air travel became commonplace, telecommunications went portable. Hong Kong was one of the first frontiers of the emerging economies. Foster's Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, finished in 1986, is probably the most significant building in his early history. It marked the arrival of a new kind of tower. It was also among the last buildings to be completely physically modelled. Thereafter, computer modelling offered progressively more fantastic aerated designs. Above all, the building struck a blow for Asia, standing as majestic proof of a continent's return to greatness. The firm became Foster and Partners, a machine capable of building consistently good and sometimes astonishing buildings right across the planet. 

Norman Foster's defining element is not water or earth, but air. He says he is hooked on flight. "I love flying," he said in a recent interview with CNN, "I love aircraft, I've had a love affair with flight since I was a child." He pilots his own helicopter as well as jets. He can describe in detail the birds he has seen from the cockpit of his glider. Examples of flight in his work are many—perhaps most impressively the cable-stayed magnificence of the Millau Viaduct in France. And there have been many aviation-related commissions. The American Air Museum at the Imperial War Museum in Cambridgeshire won him the Stirling prize in 1998. Not far away is Stansted Airport, where Foster overturned the rules in 1991 by placing all the machinery of the terminal underground and letting the light filter "gently" in. He indulged himself as a pilot-customer by designing the lounge and interior of the private jets run by the company NetJets. When asked to name his favourite building of the 20th century, Foster chose the Boeing 747. The Jumbo Jet had beauty and utility in equal measure (even the words carry it). Better still, the 747 carried you onward, or at least away, through days and nights. 

It is significant that Foster did his national service in the Royal Air Force. The most open and meritocratic of the services was at its zenith when he was tinkering on electronics in its hangars in the early 1950s: the Avro Vulcan strategic bomber was being developed, and its noise, speed, range and nuclear bomb payload left an impression. His shed forms—such as the Sainsbury Centre—remind me (the child of an RAF officer) of light-flooded aircraft hangars, those socially levelling places where air crew and ground crew work as one unit, and pilots often defer to mechanics. The stillness and capaciousness of the hangar, and the constant movement beyond it, suggest that if Foster's work were represented in art, it would be a kinetic canvas by the Italian Futurists: everything broken apart to represent movement, the glass and structure of Foster's buildings, airports and stadiums fractured, the smoking chimneys of Manchester in diamond shapes, the Royal Scot hammering across the railway bridge at the end of his boyhood street, and planes, lots of planes.

But Foster's work also reaches beyond flight, into space. A defining influence was Dan Dare, in the British comic The Eagle, launched in 1950, when Foster was 15. Dan Dare—a British astronaut who battled dastardly Venusians with the wit of a Spitfire pilot—captured the imagination of Britain; not the underfed grey-faced damp milksop country of the Suez Crisis, but atomic Britain, moving decisively towards technology and tower blocks. The future was wizard, and Dare exclaimed: "Sufferin' satellites!" The British designer Richard Seymour says The Eagle introduced an entire generation of British boys to an electro-mechanical world, pointing out that Dan Dare took a leather steamer trunk with a Mars sticker into space with him. Foster has often remarked that the curvaceous buildings drawn in Dan Dare by the artist Frank Hampson (also born in Manchester) presage his own creations. An exhibition at the Science Museum in London in 2008 showed a Hampson drawing of a sheathed Big Ben that resembled Foster's acclaimed 30 St Mary Axe (2004)—more commonly known as the Gherkin. The former architecture critic of the Guardian, Jonathan Glancey, argues that Foster "has done more than any other architect to bring to life some of the spirit, and even the fabric, of the optimistic, technologically underpinned world celebrated in Dan Dare." Foster still occasionally doodles Dan Dare spaceships on his notepad, and there are elements of his scheme for a massive new airport on the Thames estuary that feel Dare-esque, in the best sense: the drawings at a talk Foster gave on the scheme had coastal Kent as a landing carrier, the planes gliding in one after the other onto a man-made island, their fuselage shimmering, while high-speed rail whisked air travellers around London and into Britain. 

Then there is Spaceport America, "the world's first space port", opened last year in New Mexico, which may prove among his most iconic projects. Foster and Partners designed its Virgin Galactic terminal, a space-tourism venture from Sir Richard Branson. The project is grounded in lessons learned from building airports, including Beijing airport (2008)—the largest covered structure in the world. But again there is something Dare-esque in the argent crab-shaped design, which sits low in the desert and has "minimal embedded carbon and few added energy requirements".

But for Foster the bigger action is elsewhere. "China is getting a new skyscraper every day," he says. "China is building a megacity the size of Wales, with a population of 42m. If you include Taipei and Hong Kong, 16 out of the 25 fastest-growing city economies in the world are in China. The Chinese are extraordinary." The speed of their planning and decision-making process, he believes, embarrasses Europe. "We are in a state of denial, while they are making decisions in the spirit of the Victorians. They have the courage to try it. By 2020, China will have more high-speed rail than the rest of the world put together."

One criticism of Foster is that too many of his projects serve the rich more than the community. In anarchist terms, they empower capital over labour. His decision to build totemic buildings in authoritarian countries such as Kazakhstan also raises questions, though if human rights were properly app-lied the list of commissions for any major architectural firm would be brutally abbreviated. And there is another criticism that is more difficult to get at. Foster is still producing buildings of stupendous beauty and rigour. Last year in New York, for instance, I spent an afternoon on West 57th Street just admiring the play of light on Foster's Hearst building: he had gutted the historical base of the tower and raised within it an exquisite skyscraper whose windows are like facets of a diamond. So why is it that flicking through the reams of projects from recent years becomes ultimately dispiriting? Blandness. The architecture critic of the Observer, Rowan Moore, says that the "Foster way is to smooth conflict and contradictions into a neutral appearance". Globalisation improves, but it also repeats. I can't help thinking of Italo Calvino's imaginary City of Trude in his book "Invisible Cities", published in 1972 but which now seems prescient:

If, on arriving at Trude, I had not read the city's name written in big letters, I would have thought I was landing at the same airport from which I had taken off…This was the first time I had come to Trude, but I already knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged; I had already heard and spoken my dialogues with the buyers and sellers of hardware; I had ended other days identically…Why come to Trude? I asked myself. And I already wanted to leave. "You can resume your flight whenever you like," they said to me, "but you will arrive at another Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The world is covered by a sole Trude which does not begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport changes."

Foster's push towards the sky has had only a marginal effect on the proliferation of skyscrapers going up around the world. Tall buildings, he emphasises unapologetically, have many virtues. They force us towards public transport. The higher you go, the greater the economies of scale. But not all skyscrapers are successful. The Royal Clock Tower in Mecca, for instance, which at 601 metres dwarves the 381 metres of the Empire State Building, dominates the Kaaba with such crassness that the thought must occur, even to a non-believer, that the building is an abuse of Islam more egregious than any burning of the Koran. (It is being built by Osama bin Laden's family.) In any case, even if some of Foster's buildings resemble each other, they can still sit in their respective communities in a singular way. So what is the problem? The nagging thought, the one that urged me to get on a plane from Africa and sit down with Foster in the first place, is the sense that a genius of our time is on autopilot, at the very moment when he and his firm can have a decisive effect on the way the poorest cities in the world are being built.

In particular, the challenge for Foster is Africa. Can he be the Bazalgette of an African future city? Africa's population will double to 2 billion before 2050. Its urban population will more than quadruple. There are unlikely to be enough jobs for young people to stave off populist unrest. Climate change is likely to jack up food prices and exacerbate water shortages. Africa has already lost much of its forest cover. It has the most degraded soils in the world.

I pressed him on the question of a new model of city for Africa, necessarily poor, without an industrial base, but youthful, vital, playful and verdant. "It is absolutely essential", he said, "to get that balance of greenery, vegetation, animals, space, silence, light and dark. We only appreciate urbanity when we have the opportunity to experience the opposite. Of course, if one thinks of wilderness, nature, safaris and biodiversity one thinks of Africa." He remains a firm believer in the transformative and lasting power of huge projects. He is especially proud of his recent work in Hong Kong—"the largest new cultural district in the world".

He is adamant that cities dependent on the car will fail. Rising fuel prices make this inevitable, he argues, as does the sprawl of the car-driven city. "Probably African cities are ghettoised because of a fly-wheel effect, born of the second wave of cheap energy." He draws a comparison between Detroit and Copenhagen. They are roughly the same climate and size. Detroit is totally blighted, it has almost been taken over by nature, it uses ten times more energy than Copenhagen, building more and more roads, using more and more cars, consuming more and more gasoline, and in the end it is an unsustainable model. But do emerging economies learn from the twilight years of developed countries?

So far, Foster's engagement in poverty has been slight. He made some sketches for a fine rethinking of a village school in Sierra Leone by Narinder Sagoo, an up-and-coming partner in the firm. He also oversaw a project with Sagoo and others to look more closely at the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. They discovered that what people there needed was horizontal space. "They needed to make and move their products across the ground floor of a dwelling. The other side of the dwelling was the railway line where the goods were displayed and sold. This community could easily subsist in a low-rise settlement, two, maybe three or even four storeys. What would never work would be to put one dwelling on another. It would offer an improved environment, but it would be impossible for them to bake bread to earn a livelihood, or to recycle waste." What is needed in African slums", Foster ventures, "is the industrialisation of units that provide the sanitation, kitchens, energy-harvesting, run-off of rainwater, and a proper infrastructure of drains and sewers. That would be transformational, but that's a very different approach to the design-profession response to wipe it clean and superimpose another order, which completely disregards the fact that, notwithstanding the horrific deprivation, there is an underlying social order and an organic response to needs."

Foster emerged from Manchester on his own merits and is not inclined to socialism based on sentiment. Still, the cause of African future cities need not be philanthropy. There is plenty of money to be made from squatters. Most of the economic growth in the world in the coming years will be from the poorest bits of cities in the poorest countries. Companies such as Coca-Cola and Unilever expect their profits from these communities to swell. Nokia will rise or fall according to whether slum-dwellers continue to buy its low-end phones. There is money in Foster's idea of laying down grids, especially for cities yet to be built. And there is reason to be optimistic about new technologies, such as solar-panel roof sheeting, affordable windows, LED lighting, gargantuan rainwater tanks, and high-tech latrines that pay for themselves by filtering urine into water and microwaving excrement into fuel. Africa's dense gatherings of young people present a high degree of political risk, but they also create economic value. 

Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economist, says that cities "supercharge" ideas. That is even more true of slums. If Foster was inspired by the simplicity of the barns he saw on his trips to Norway as a student, what might he find in Africa? "Of course we would love the opportunity to work in Africa," he says, passionately. "Everything that I described in the Oxford talk [about the Thames estuary airport] about the challenge of pylons, transmission cables and high-speed rail in a dense and crowded island, protecting the countryside, and talking about the economies of those things, is a hundred times more relevant in an African continent where you are creating an urban infrastructure from scratch. So instead of thinking as in the past that you have one authority talking about pylons, another rail, another roads, why not bring those together with tremendous economy and elegance? In a way, the Victorian tradition had the courage to imagine that. High-speed rail is still operating on the track Stephenson created for the Rocket. Olmsted laid out Central Park at the time when people were herding sheep, horses and carts. Now, bringing back a pedestrian-friendly experience, taking away the dependence on gasoline, why drive when you could walk, design with an understanding that these are very scarce commodities—Africa has that opportunity."

Which brings us back to Masdar. I went there to see if there were lessons for African future cities—could it serve as a trim tab? An architect from Foster and Partners, Gary Owen, led me around. It was a surprisingly cool day, and I kept stepping out of the shade and into the sun, the opposite of what you are meant to do. So far the biggest tenant is the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, and the outstanding building is the institute's library, the front of which is shaped like an eye, with beautiful use of ash wood. Owen patiently showed me the solutions to making the city liveable and yet carbon-neutral, the small windows bouncing natural light onto the ceilings, the insulating cloaks on the sides of the building, the attempts made to limit thermal shock between street and apartment by using screens and shaded corridors and hallways, the wind chimneys which pull down cool air into courtyards, and everywhere the tasteful use of Islamic motifs. All of which might have some application in lower-rent Africa. 

Masdar is intended to have tens of thousands of real residents, and become a defined and loved community. Ditches at the edge of the city will gather rain to water parks and football pitches. It will be possible to walk the few kilometres from one end of the city to the other. Perhaps Foster will even take an apartment and stroll across town in the heat of the day. But Masdar is also an attempt to build a self-contained community to the highest environmental standards, using oil money. It is still a building site, it cannot be fully judged yet, but to me there was a threatening sense of the ers-atz. Abu Dhabi has virtues, not least its dynamism and fits of sobriety, but strip away the sycophancy and it is Money World, surrounded by smaller satellites such as Ferrari World. Masdar may just be Green World. Certainly, no one is under any illusions it will be for locals; for now, Emiratis prefer the privacy of their five-bedroom, three-car villas. 

Foster has insisted Masdar is the most idealistic of his projects. "This is not about fashion, this is about survival," he said, back in 2008. The main means of getting around Masdar is by "pod car": driverless, computerised vehicles. They lack solidity, and jounce out from the "personal transit station" as if onto the set of a sci-fi film (think Michael York in "Logan's Run"). The idea is that you park your petroleum vehicle at the edge of Masdar and pick up a pod to take you where you want to go. Only a fraction of the city has yet been built, so the options are limited. It seemed an unnecessarily expensive way of getting about. Why not use a rickshaw, I asked Gary Owen. He looked alarmed. "That was never discussed." The sustainability of future cities should include providing jobs for young people; but perhaps developers will always favour a pod over a rickshaw.

Everything Norman Foster does is about letting in light, increasing comfort and utility, and above all sloughing off weight—the weight of the building itself, and of hierarchical work habits. His skyscrapers, bridges and airport terminals attest that he is in many ways gravity-free. Yet Foster's lasting achievement would be to embrace gravity, the gravity of the vast squatter settlements of Africa, grave in their heaviness, sucked into the mud, made of mud, wet, stinky, wormy, yet bearing fruit, growing daily. If he can bring his experience to a reconsideration of the lowliest shack, help let in the light there, and clean water and sanitation, his name would take flight even among the poor. 

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