Interview Norman Foster, perhaps more than anyone else, is altering the face of architecture around the globe. Talking exclusively to The National, the master planner of Masdar City discusses urbanisation, ecology and his plans for the great leap forward.
Defining our future
Universally regarded as a superstar of contemporary architecture, Norman Foster - or, more correctly, Lord Foster of Thames Bank - is the recipient of enough honours to fill a page. The winner of the Pritzker Prize - architecture's equivalent of the Nobel Prize - in 1999, he was made a life peer, in honour of his work, the same year. Among his latest coups was winning the Arts category of Britain's Best 2008, where he beat the likes of JK Rowling and Damien Hirst.
Yet when he walks into the Abu Dhabi office of his practice, there is none of the pomp or ceremony that might attend a man of this stature. Dapper in a sharply cut suit and bright purple tie, he radiates presence and wastes no time with idle chat, but it's clear that he has no time for sycophancy. Before the interview one of his staff had advised that he finds his title rather formal and "Mr Foster may feel more appropriate; he is very relaxed about such things". Every member of his 1300 staff calls him "Norman".
Easy, perhaps, to be laid-back about a title when a glance at some of the world's most noted buildings and structures confirms his place in history. To cite just a few: the London headquarters of Swiss Re - affectionately known as The Gherkin, the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong, Hearst Tower in New York, Beijing's new Capital Airport - the largest single building on earth, Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok airport, the rebuilt Reichstag in Berlin, Al Faisaliyah Tower in Riyadh, and the spectacular Millau Viaduct in France's Tarn Valley.
In Abu Dhabi, less than a block away from the office, the practice has designed Central Market, which is now beginning to soar above ground level. It is designing Al Raha Beach World Trade Centre; it won the international competition to design Sheikh Zayed National Museum, to be built on Saadiyat Island. And it has designed both the master plan and several components of Masdar City, the ground-breaking "zero-carbon" city to be built near Abu Dhabi airport as part of the wider Masdar Initiative. Foster's packed schedule in Abu Dhabi last week included sitting on the jury for the Zayed Future Energy Prize. Elsewhere in the region, last week he was reported to be one of 18 architects invited to "establish a new architectural vision" for the mosques complex in Mecca, Islam's holiest city.
Not bad for a lad born in working-class Manchester, who began his working life at 16 in the city's treasury office. On finishing his national service in the RAF (to this day he maintains his fixed-wing and helicopter pilot's licences, flying his own jet between international meetings and his homes in London, France and Switzerland) he enrolled at Manchester University School of Architecture and City Planning, supporting himself with a variety of jobs. "From ice-cream salesman to nightclub bouncer. Whatever earned the most money in the least time," he has said, adding that, in postwar Britain "the idea that one could go from blue-collar beginnings to the university was so far out, it was quite unthinkable".
A fellowship to Yale University followed. While there he met another British student, Richard Rogers, who has also become one of the greats in the field. Returning to Britain in 1963, they set up a practice called Team 4, with two architect sisters, Georgia and Wendy Cheesman (the latter becoming Foster's first wife). Their first commission - a coastal home for Rogers' parents-in-law - came after Rogers convinced them to give this bunch of young upstarts a chance.
That home, Creek Vean House in Cornwall, remains an "important" house and now has a Grade II* listing in the English Heritage National Monuments Record. It is a transformational work that makes clear references to Frank Lloyd Wright's legendary Pennsylvania house, Fallingwater. Both are Modern and at once part of and separate from their surroundings, but Creek Vean is all the more extraordinary for being located in a country more comfortable with its homes rooted in familiarity.
Perhaps the challenge and success of that first project is partly at the root of Lord Foster's continuing interest in residential design. Ask the man who, as the Pritzker jury said, "has reinvented the tall building", whose buildings and urban planning projects have transformed cityscapes, whether designing mere homes is now beneath him and he appears almost offended. "Why?" he asks, in an astonished tone. "Why ever would that be?"
Take a spin around the world and you will find beautiful homes on every continent: the Kawana House in Japan (completed in 1992), a glass-walled cliff top house in Corsica (1993), the futuristic-looking Albion Riverside apartments in London (2003), the Chesa Futura apartments in St Moritz, Switzerland (2004) and Jameson House, still under construction in Vancouver, Canada. Pinned to a wall in Foster + Partners' head office in London are photographs of a project nearing completion nearby: a large Georgian-style house of which little remains but the façade. The old structure - and a new three-floor deep excavation are being transformed into a magnificent 21st-century living space.
And Lord Foster's design versatility doesn't stop there. His drive to experiment and innovate can be seen in a wide range of products from a simple door handle, to tables, chairs and tableware, storage systems, book stacks, lamps, bathtubs, exhibition stands and street furniture as well as a solar-powered bus and a two private motor yachts. The recurring theme, whenever Foster speaks, is the potential for architecture to enhance the social dimension of human life. And while he won't be drawn on which is his favourite project of all time - "that's like asking a parent which is their most-loved child" - the one thing that has him stretching for paper and pencil to illustrate his point with emphatic intensity is energy-saving design.
Foster + Partners' work with the Masdar Initiative will see the practice go way beyond bricks and mortar, infrastructure and product design into the creation of the very glue that binds a city into a liveable, workable entity. This is what gets Foster really excited. And that, he says, is because although he is naturally driven by design, he is increasingly interested in the total experience of a place beyond just its buildings. "You could say that if you live in or visit a city the quality of your experience is less about the individual buildings and much more about the total experience of that city - the parks, the squares, what it's like to cross from one side to the other, the public transport system or, if you are driving, whether you are flanked by trees or stuck in a wilderness of billboards."
The challenge with Masdar is not just about achieving its energy objectives of zero carbon, zero waste, says Foster, but doing it in a way that creates a place where people want to live and work. They should be drawn to it. In Masdar, he adds, there is an opportunity to get it right from the start - and to learn how existing cities and structures can adapt to the new environmental imperatives. "The project's goals are hugely ambitious," Foster concedes, "and it is a sometimes daunting challenge, but I am optimistic that we will make some massive leaps. It'll be a bit like putting a man on the moon."
Not that Foster has ever shied away from ground-breaking challenges. His breakthrough project, after he established Foster Associates (subsequently Foster+Partners) in 1967, was a new headquarters building for Willis Faber & Dumas in the east of England, completed in 1975. The building incorporated a pioneering energy-consciousness that has also become a Foster trademark and, through its design, Foster was able to engender a greater sense of community and democracy in the workplace.
The concept of democratisation had first emerged in his work for the Fred Olsen shipping group in London's docklands in the late 1960s and early 70s. There, he demolished what he calls the 'apartheid' between office workers and dockers, introducing facilities for both in the same building and providing the sort of services previously unheard of for 'mere' blue-collar types. "Sports facilities and showers for dock workers, considering the dignity of all staff, uniting workforces - that was radical stuff back then."
The concept of humanity and liveability is one to which Foster frequently returns. Whether he is talking about giant cities or his own home; the constant return to the human core runs through all of his work. Foster's ideal living space, he says, is a place that makes him feel he would rather be there than elsewhere. "A place I look forward to returning to. Somewhere I would be reluctant to leave because it would lift the spirits, make me feel at ease, more cheerful on a grey day.
"It must give me privacy when I want it, but must transform into a communal space when the family comes together. It should have a view, sunlight and ideally some green. These are the things that make one feel good." Of course it would also have to work functionally and to Foster that means it must perform without obvious effort, so that one doesn't have to question how it happens. It must just work.
What's more, he says, any project must endure, both aesthetically and in its ability to support the evolution of needs and technology. "A core philosophy of our practice is that the only constant is change and that buildings, as with animals, will become obsolete sooner rather than later if they don't adapt to changing circumstances. "The challenge that I see as being most relevant to all of the issues that confront society is urbanisation, particularly? beyond the confines of the established European city or North American cities. Those vast emerging economies and the city models they adopt will define our future - and in that sense Masdar looms large."
He sees Masdar as a model for application beyond the desert region to less extreme environments. "I don't mean literally taking this model from here to there; the point is about a philosophy. Translate the principles and you'll probably find a new and different set of rules." All these models, he adds, would be learning from the past, where builders and designers were mindful of, and working with nature. He urges us to take from traditional, indigenous settlements the "civilising" use of water, shade, vegetation and courtyards.
At the age of 73, working and travelling at a pace that would leave many younger men trailing in his wake, Foster is clearly uncomfortable with the superstar architect appellation. Refreshingly modest, he has written about his studio's achievements as team efforts, and has admitted to wanting to "shout for joy" when he was told of his Pritzker win, adding that it had "come out of the blue". His satisfaction, he says, derives from creating work that can please those who use it as well as those who commission it - given that they are usually not the same people. "So with an office building the client might be driven by, for example, deadlines and cost, while the workforce needs that liveability and functionality, at the very least.
"If we can satisfy both sides, then we can consider ourselves successful."