Norman Foster Is Still Looking Upward
Take the escalators to the top of the Pompidou Center in Paris and you’ll reach the museum’s largest exhibition hall, Gallery 1 — a vast space which, over the years, has hosted surveys of art-historical heavyweights like Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Salvador Dalí. Now, for the first time, Gallery 1 is showcasing the work of an architect: Norman Foster.
Foster, 87, was approached by the museum in 2018 to exhibit his work in the ground-level gallery often used for architecture shows, but he wanted to display many more objects than would fit. So he was granted a space that’s nearly three times bigger, said the exhibition’s curator, Frédéric Migayrou. To help cover the extra costs, Foster secured sponsorship from companies whose buildings he had designed, Migayrou added.
Foster was drawn to architecture from his teens in Manchester, England, filling his class notebook with drawings of buildings. He studied the discipline at Yale University alongside Richard Rogers, and teamed up with him in a collaborative practice before setting off on his own. (Rogers later designed the Pompidou Center, together with Renzo Piano.)
As an architect, Foster has harnessed technology to make buildings that are modern yet aim for ecological soundness. He has reinvented structures such as office towers and airports by moving bulky mechanical elements out of the way — to the sides, below ground — and letting light in.
Notable landmarks include the soaring Millau Viaduct in southern France, the glass-roofed Great Court of the British Museum, the circular Apple headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., and the Reichstag building in Berlin — a spectacular glass cupola fitted over what was a bombed-out edifice. In the year of its inauguration, 1999, Foster received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and became a member of the House of Lords, the upper house of Britain’s Parliament.
“Before Norman, architecture was rigidly divided between the kind of architects that critics wrote about, and the people that built most of the stuff,” said Deyan Sudjic, the author of a Foster biography. “That divide has more or less evaporated,” he said.
Foster “made the commercial practices raise their game,” Sudjic added, discouraging “what was once called hit-and-run architecture: get it up quickly and cheaply, and then move on.”
Foster recently spoke in a video interview from the Pompidou Center, where he was installing his show. (The exhibition opened Wednesday and runs through Aug. 7.) The conversation has been edited and condensed.
How does it feel to have a retrospective at the Centre Pompidou?
There’s inevitably an element of nostalgia, because on the night of the official opening, back in the 1970s, I was outside the Centre Pompidou when the French President opened the building.
There’s only one Pompidou. Breaking down the boundaries between the arts of design, of architecture, of painting and sculpture, is right at the heart of the cultural message of this building, which is free and open.
You’ve been quoted as saying that architecture is too often treated as a fine art, “delicately wrapped in mumbo jumbo,” when in fact it incorporates disciplines including science, math, and engineering. Is there a tension between beauty and functionality in architecture?
No, there shouldn’t be. My objectives as an architect are the material and the spiritual, and I can’t separate the two. One is to keep the rain off, keep you dry when it’s wet, keep you cool when it’s hot, look after your material comfort. The other is your spiritual comfort: to incline the building so you have a view, to bring in the sun and a shaft of light to create shadow, to give you a surprise when you enter a space. If the architect is not doing this, then the architect is not acting as an architect. Architecture is as much about the soul and the spirit as it is about the material.
In the exhibition wall texts, you say that a vertical community well served by public transport can be a model of sustainability. How can urban high-rises be the future in an age of human-induced climate change?
I think they’re more relevant than ever. Just look at the energy consumed by cities which are compact, walkable and well served by public transport, compared with cities that sprawl and have long commutes. A high-rise city like Manhattan is highly sustainable from the standpoint of energy consumption. People live close to where they work: It’s not dependent on a car, it’s not alienated in a suburb. Medium-rise cities like London or Paris are more sustainable than Los Angeles or Houston, which sprawl and are dependent on cars.
Buildings account for 40 percent of world energy consumption. Doesn’t that carbon footprint mean that your profession is facing obsolescence?
Look at societies like ours which consume the most energy. Statistically, we live longer, infant mortality is lower, life expectancy is greater. We have more sexual and political freedom. Notwithstanding exceptions, we have less violence, fewer wars. High consumption of energy is good for you, for society, for medical research.
The imperative is to generate clean energy. The cleanest source of energy, by a huge margin, is nuclear. There’s no reason why, using clean energy, we shouldn’t be converting seawater into jet fuel and decarbonizing the ocean at the same time. That’s our future.
Climate activists would severely disagree with you.
But one must separate facts from hysteria and emotion.
You think that what they say is hysteria and emotion?
It’s not what I think. It’s what the statistics, what the data, is telling us.
You say we need to get away from transportation that damages the climate. Yet why are you so engaged in building airports?
We all deplore the carbon emissions generated by air travel. We also deplore the massive amount of carbon emissions every time we eat a hamburger, which makes air travel look, by comparison, almost insignificant.
Yes, air travel generates carbon. But what about the infrastructure of transport? Airports are connected by cars, by subway systems, by railways. The whole world is mobile. We’re not going to stop moving overnight. It’s a connected world. It’s not just about moving people: It’s also about moving freight, responding to world emergencies, providing aid.
If we can make that infrastructure more sustainable — consuming less energy and recycling more material — then we have a responsibility to do it as architects. We can’t be ostriches burying our heads in the sand.
You’re not frightened by the future?
No. I’m frightened by anything which would threaten my family, or myself, or the community around me. There’s always some boogeyman on the horizon. At any point in time, individuals and families and communities have been threatened by their neighbors, by the weather, by drought. We like to think that these things are new to us — and, of course, climate change is new. But climate change takes a back seat when you have a pandemic, and if there’s a meteorite suddenly hurling toward you.
Pritzker Prize winners such as yourself get a lot of big global projects, and are often referred to as “starchitects.” How do you feel about that?
There are projects which, as an architect, you’re drawn toward, which continue to excite. They don’t fall off a tree and you have to compete for them. You have a choice: You can compete or not. The idea that you suddenly get a Pritzker Prize and the floodgates open, and anything and everything just drops in your lap, is a total myth. Does the Pritzker help? Yes, it does.
There are also plenty of projects which are not about high profile, which are not about so-called star architecture — the all-singing-all-dancing, look-at-me building, which I reject anyway, which is a cartoon image.
In 2018, after the killing of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, you pulled out of the advisory committee of Neom, a Saudi megacity project led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Yet you’re still working on a Red Sea air terminal in Saudi Arabia. Where do you draw the line when it comes to human rights?
You’re right, I did resign from the executive committee of Neom. And yes, we work in Saudi Arabia. And yes, I know about the human rights record. The reality is that the buildings that we’re involved with are about the people in those countries.
I’m also very aware of Guantánamo Bay, and the role played by governments in terms of rendition. I wouldn’t want to get into some of the aspects of child labor in the United States. I’ve just been reading something about a McDonald’s restaurant where, till 2 o’clock in the morning, two 10-year-olds were working.
The hope is that, through the power of architecture, in terms of breaking down barriers, you’re creating a more civil society. The Red Sea projects are about the transition of that society. You will see completely different social norms from the mainstream cities. Architecture is very much about people, and humanity crosses political boundaries.
You’ve pulled out of Neom, but are still working on the Red Sea airport.
I have transitioned from being, with my late wife, one of two architects who founded a practice in 1967. That practice has grown. We’re now a total of 1,800, spread across about 20 different cities around the world. And I now have partners. We don’t necessarily agree individually. We seek to find a consensus. There are wider responsibilities.
As architects, there is no question that we engage with all societies. We might make exceptions on some projects which we think are not ethical. We are doing the pro bono project for the reconstruction and regeneration of Kharkiv, in Ukraine. We were in the middle of two cultural projects in Russia and we stopped and walked away from that, as a matter of principle.
Zaha Hadid was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize, in 2004. Since then, few women have been recognized in that way. Is architecture still a male-dominated profession?
My daughter went to Harvard University to study art history and converted to architecture in the first year. She now works for an architect in London and is going to Yale University to study architecture. More and more, schools of architecture are dominated by women, which is fantastic. It’s a profession which is in transition, and some of those changes are long overdue. I see the kind of bias that you’re talking about and I deplore it.
Which of your buildings do you think people will look back on in 50 years and consider important?
The buildings that I would like to think would endure would be those buildings which have become symbols of democracy, of a way of life, of a nation. I would hope that the Reichstag would continue to architecturally embody those virtues. It’s also a manifesto of clean energy, zero carbon, and of Berlin’s transition from its wartime role to its peacetime role. As architecture, it’s very much about values.
Your colleague Renzo Piano once said: “Buildings stay forever, like forests, like rivers.” Do you agree?
Buildings last as long as they’re useful. The history of architecture, like cities, is a history of renewal. Cities are our greatest invention: an agglomeration, a coming together of individual buildings. The urban glue that binds them together determines the quality of our lives more than any individual building. I’d like to think that buildings last forever, but realistically, the only constant is change.
Then how do you approach the notion of your own legacy?
That’s for somebody else to worry about. That’s not for me.
But you’ve put on a retrospective at the Pompidou Center.
No, I’ve responded to an invitation. Nobody could knock on the door of the Pompidou Center and say, “Hey, I had this idea.” This wasn’t my idea. I’m responding to an invitation, and I’m honored on behalf of so many people to accept it.
When you look back on your life, do you feel a sense of achievement?
I’m excited about the future. I think the future is more interesting than the past. I leave the past to other people.
Through Aug. 7 at the Pompidou Center, in Paris; centrepompidou.fr.
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