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'

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