Architecture & Design: Foster makes an exhibition for himself

Norman Foster's first museum installation reveres the 1930s and the arrival of international modernism.

When Sir Norman Foster, Britain's most celebrated architect, studied at Manchester University in the late Fifties, working as a bouncer to pay his way, he fell in love with that city's first modern building. Owen Williams's glass-skinned building for the Daily Express lit up like a beacon at night, when the presses rolled off millions of copies.

"It had a dramatic quality that gave me a real architectural charge. I could walk there and back - just - in my lunch hour." Years later, in 1975, Norman Foster was to adopt that glass membrane, smoky-black and at once both shiny and opaque, for the Willis Faber Dumas building in Ipswich. This, and his Hong Kong and Shanghai bank (1986), now Grade One listed, show his ability to free the facade from any visible support and give it a powerful shape, all harking back to the Mancunian building of 1939 that so impressed him as a young student.

Memories of Manchester have encouraged him to make one sentimental gesture in his punishing international schedule and agree to design the exhibition installation at the Design Museum for a show that pays homage to that period. Modern Britain 1929-39 is just a decade in the history of architecture - but what a tumultuous time.

"Britain was a staging post for the emigres from Europe. There was a social manifesto too, centring on inequality, heightened and dramatised by the social upheaval in Europe. The Thirties became a very tense and productive time here."

The Thirties marked the time when any fixed expectations of architecture disappeared, along with the traditional props of the construction industry. Cement flowed, spans of glass lengthened, and the pillars and posts of the stonemason's craft were replaced by reinforced steel joists. Etchell's translation into English of le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture, in 1927, was received with tremendous enthusiasm in Britain, where white-painted blocks of flats, with swing doors and elevators as well as window walls, introduced a new way of open-plan living. So did the cantilever - the penguin pool at London Zoo has scarcely a ripple in its glacial form.

Some of these buildings have disappeared and, as the Twentieth Century Society points out, those that do survive, like the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill on Sea, are often under threat. But the period's influence on the generation of post-war British architects has been spread around the world.

In between finishing the Reichstag in Berlin and designing a new home for London's mayor, you would think Norman Foster would be too busy to bother with an exhibition which only lasts six months. Not at all. No job, it seems, is too small if it captures Norman's interest. He rattles off a list of small-ish jobs (under pounds 3m) for the Spastics Association and Mental Health that have kept his 500-strong practice busy. "It's a good shot in the arm to have immediacy, to create the instant environment that will be dismantled. Consider that Stansted airport took us 10 years, Bilbao Metro seven, Nimes arts centre also seven, and Duxford air museum, 11 years."

Inky black rectangles, amid Norman's distinctive loose freehand instructions, have just been faxed to Italy, showing a tray he designed for Alessi, the Italian stainless-steel-with-style manufacturers. Just how difficult it is to design a tray? Norman doesn't even smile. "A good tray has to be lipped to hold things. You need to consider how to open doors while holding one in your hand. This one folds like origami in metal."

Norman Foster's first venture into exhibition installation is a wavy wall, 124 metres long and 3 metres high, snaking along the Design Museum. This showcase for the art and artefacts of the decade between 1929 and 1939 charts a course through history.

"If you look at any particular period, you don't look at the artefacts in isolation. To be relevant you need to remind people of that time, and use the events with the objects as a narrative." Ticker-tape printouts for every year, spelling out political and cultural events, are billboarded above the exhibits. Foster has designed everything for this exhibition, down to specifying details such as Eric Gill fonts throughout. But then, as the architect Mies van der Rohe observed: "God is in the details." Colours from the Penguin paperback bookcovers of the Thirties signpost the routes through the exhibition.

Take 1933, the year that George Orwell described as a period of irresponsibility "such as the world has never before seen." Amelia Earhart flew over the Atlantic, Hitler challenged Hindenberg in the German elections, and troops occupied Shanghai. TS Eliot's Wasteland highlights a sense of fragmentation and frustration after the First World War. Despite superficial prosperity, structural problems in British society were largely ignored.

Yet through the gloom that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929, artists began to see in the alliance of geometry and nature a new source of creativity. London Underground launched posters for "The Modern God of Transport". Gerald Summers, Wells Coats and Marcel Breuer made furniture with Isokon. And Geoffrey Jellico, the landscaper, made a shop signs.

As the economic crisis deepened, even politicians began to espouse the cause of creative design as a means of social recovery. The parallels with 1999 are scary.

`Modern Britain 1929-39: Design and Craft', sponsored by Bacon and Woodrow with `The Independent' and `The Independent on Sunday'; supported by the Henry Moore Foundation; at the Design Museum, 20 Jan - 6 June (0171-378 6055)

2. Boots Building, Beeston, Nottinghamshire, by Sir Owen Williams 1932. `Look at the reinforced concrete mushroom columns around Boots, a structural device given such joyous form in the modern workplace and, as such, the antithesis of Victorian gloom'

3. Lawn Road Flats, Hampstead, London by Wells Coates 1934. `Pioneering the international modern style as dwelling places. His flats were home to numerous influential architectural and literary emigres fleeing the political turbulence in Europe'

4. De la Warr Pavilion, Bexhill on Sea, by Erich Mendelson and Serge Chermayeff, 1934. `De la Warr pavilion is a very good building, dynamic with its streamlined curves. The pure strain of European modernism in the UK by two emigres'

5. The Penguin Pool, London Zoo, by Berthold Lubetkin with Tecton, 1938. `Not in my first four because it lacks a social dimension, but my partner, Spencer de Grey, wants the freely-moulded concrete pool to be included because of its scupltural qualities'

Arts and Entertainment
Cold case: Aaron McCusker and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tv Review: Sky Atlantic's ambitious new series began tonight with a feature-length special
Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee