Norman Foster

Foster's buildings might better suit the sky than the earth, where ordinary mortals live

We cannot escape the high-tech glass and metallic “global architecture” of Lord Foster of Thames Bank. He claimed that “the unique shape” of his Greater London Authority Building, the backwards­leaning testicular lump over which Boris Johnson now presides, and which disfigures the banks of the Thames, “was generated as a result of rigorous scientific analysis”.

The same process also produced Foster’s nearby Swiss Re building (the Gherkin), which, he boasted, “can be likened to a cigar or a bullet”, though it is hard to understand how a bullet could “respond”, as Foster claimed, “to the specific demands of the small site”. This giant, bulging tower overshadows Sir Christopher Wren’s St Helen’s Bishops­gate, yet Foster has dared pay lip service to the notion that “London is essentially a low-rise city”.

His Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia and his Cambridge Law Faculty both house numerous varied functions in a single bubble of space, causing problems for those who have to work in them. Once the Law Faculty building was in use, for example, it was found that the library was so noisy that a large glass screen wall had to be inserted to remedy the situation. Yet Foster explained that before designing the building, “we had to ask ourselves, what is the essence of Cambridge?” Who would have guessed that the search for this essence would result in a sliced-off glass slug? Foster’s Stansted Airport terminal was considered successful ­because its glass walls enabled travellers to admire those parts of the Essex countryside that it had not destroyed. This was, of course, before the passion for airport retailing filled the interior with shops blocking its former transparency.

Foster’s Médiathèque in Nîmes occupies the site of a handsome, colonnaded theatre, which matched perfectly the famous Roman temple, the Maison Carrée, in the middle of the square. In the 19th century, the temple had been set off by finely designed railings and well detailed steps, but these, like the theatre colonnade, have been destroyed because, as Foster explains, “our strategy was a deliberate attempt to peel away some of the layers of history in order to reveal others that were more meaningful”.

Foster sweeps away the past when it does not conform to his strange belief that: “In every period the most advanced architecture has sought the most up-to-date technology as a vehicle for its expression.” But were Alberti, Bernini, Borromini, Vanbrugh, Adam or Lutyens, “advanced” architects, determined by technology? And if Greek temples were structurally advanced, why did they have more columns than they needed to support their roofs? Foster maintains that in all great buildings, “the structure is synonymous with the appearance both inside and out”, yet at Ely Cathedral the structure supporting the lantern is entirely concealed, just as at St Paul’s Cathedral the stone lantern surmounting the most harmonious dome in the world is carried by a largely concealed brick cone.

Foster fell in love in 1963 with American welded steel construction. But many people find it inhuman to be encased by steel, glass and aluminium. In his essay, The Human Touch, Foster even extends this preference to his door handles, most of which are made of aluminium or stainless steel. Similarly, un­aware that this might not be everyone’s idea of a human touch, he claims: “The ideal ­library, like the most advanced office building, would have clear horizontal and vertical zones.” He cannot grasp that many of us would not envisage our ideal library as resembling an “advanced office building”.

A disciple of Corbusier claimed that, “the aeroplane is the symbol of the new age”, and Foster chips in with: “I am really quite passionate about flying.” Riverside Three, the factory from which Foster’s chilling global projects emerge, has been praised by the ­architectural writer Martin Pawley as “uncompromisingly modern”; it is a near rectangular, eight-storey, concrete-frame structure, with an interior that “recalls the dull murmur of an airport lounge”.

Indeed, Foster’s buildings might better suit the sky than the earth, where ordinary mortals live. In 1999, Foster proposed the Millennium Tower for Tokyo. It was to be over 800 metres high with 170 storeys — twice the height of anything so far built — “a virtually self-sufficient, fully self-sustaining community in the sky”. This remained unbuilt, unlike his “wobbly” Millennium Bridge in London, which had to be closed for eight months while £8 million was spent on correcting its faults.

In Foster’s Reply to the Prince of Wales (1987), he did not deign to mention either the Prince or any of his arguments about the cold, high-tech world, except for brief references in the first and last paragraphs. Yet the Prince identified what still alarms many about the architectural establishment of which Foster is the emperor without clothes: “The past, apparently, is largely irrelevant in this scheme of things … I believe that when a man loses contact with the past, he loses his soul.” Foster’s architecture is overrated because it lacks all resonance and has no soul.

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