Architecture: Beautiful buildings, bargain prices: Excellence does not depend on cash alone, as Norman Foster, Designer of the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank (pounds 500m), proves in a new library (pounds 4m)

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IF YOU want to fall out with Sir Norman Foster, one of the world's finest architects, here's how. Ask him whether the stunning headquarters he designed for the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank (1979-86) is really the most expensive building constructed since records began.

Custom-designed and custom-built to a level of perfection normally associated only with the greatest of the medieval cathedrals - of which it is a secular

descendant - it is easily the most impressive building on the Crown colony's famous shoreline. It cost something like pounds 500m - perhaps more, perhaps less - a dream commission from a dream client.

What makes Foster cross today is that his masterpiece has become, for all the wrong reasons, a millstone around his neck. The only thing that most people know about the bank is that it was stratospherically expensive to build. They do not see the sheer quality of its unrepeatable design and construction, something newspaper and magazine illustrations cannot hope to convey. Ever since, he - and his London- based practice, Sir Norman Foster and Partners - has been seen as being a bit on the pricey side.

This, however, is patently untrue: as the new library for the Cranfield Institute of Technology in Bedfordshire proves, Foster glamour and Foster sophistication cost no more than a dull building by an unimaginative architect with the same brief.

Cranfield's 'library of the future', as the institute likes to call its new wing, cost just under pounds 4m, which means that it has got a BMW for Ford money. The three-storey, glass-walled, concrete and steel building has been designed by Foster's partner Ken Shuttleworth to be as simple, as elegant and as responsive to its users' needs as he can make it. To this end, it is very unlike the expensive, over-the-top university libraries of the Sixties, many of them designed to impress with sheer novelty.

Foster and Shuttleworth have achieved elegance through economy. Take the design of the curved vaults of the roof: 'We used curved steelwork here,' says Shuttleworth, 'not just because we thought it looked nice, but because an arch gives you much more strength than a straight beam from 10 per cent less steel.'

Shuttleworth has been able to design an apparently delicate and translucent structure - a hallmark of Foster architecture - despite the problems of the British climate, in which the combination of moisture and sunlight conspire to produce dazzling light, difficult to work with. Crystalline buildings can be successful but only if architects build in protection from heat and cold, sunlight and rain. This can be achieved by using expensive air-conditioning systems, or by intelligent design as at Cranfield. 'We've designed the library without air conditioning,' Shuttleworth explains, 'except where delicate archives have made it absolutely necessary, and we've kept the sun at bay with overhanging roof bays and an external screen of silver-anodised aluminium louvres.'

The Cranfield library has the feel of an expensive building, yet what Foster offers is a cut-price bargain: a building funded - for the most part - by the Department of Education and Science, which could never be as luxurious nor as beautifully detailed as the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank. It shows just how far such a tight government budget will spread. Cranfield is concrete proof that a future generation of British public buildings, be they hospitals or schools, could readily match the highest architectural achievements of the private sector.

'A huge budget is not necessarily an advantage for an architect,' says Foster. 'A tight budget imposes tremendous discipline; it makes you think hard and laterally. What is the best building we can produce with this amount of money? This might be playing with words, but I like to think that we are capable of designing low-cost rather than cheap buildings. We design up to limited budgets.'

'Take Stansted, for example', says Foster, referring to the highly acclaimed new Essex airport terminal. 'What British Airports Authority got was a building 20 per cent cheaper than any terminal building it had commissioned before, including Heathrow's new terminal five.

'It's a simple building,' continues Foster, 'the roof above you as you walk to the plane, for example, is just that, a roof. It's an umbrella to keep off the rain, not a complicated piece of engineering loaded with service ducts and electrical cables, as you find in mostairports.'

Sir Norman Foster and Partners have repeated this low-cost thinking in numerousrecent projects. The ITN headquarters (1988-90) in Gray's Inn Road has one of the most dramatic - and workable - interiors of any office in London. It cannot fail to impress; it has enormous grandeur, yet cost no more than one of the run-of-the-mill speculative office blocks that surround it.

Foster's own office on the Thames at Battersea (1987-90) is another example of this low-cost, high-design thinking. The entrance is up a dramatic flight of stairs; these take you directly into Foster's studio, a stunning workspace 195ft (60m) long, 78ft (24m) wide, 21ft (6.5m) high and faced on the river side with a double-height wall of glass. 'We spent the money on space; that's the luxury of this building,' says Shuttleworth.

'Part of the reason we're able to design effectively at low cost,' says Shuttleworth, 'is the fact that we've been together as a team for a long time. Staff turnover has been exceptionally low over the past 10 years, so there's a tremendous expertise concentrated in one small place; we can bring that to bear very effectively on any project from a private house to a giant bank headquarters.'

Elsewhere in Europe, Foster is being asked to design public buildings on a shoestring. These include the Lycee Polyvalent Regional at Frejus, in the south of France. This has been designed for rapid construction and, to keep costs down, incorporates an updated version of traditional Arabic air-conditioning (using hot air to draw cool air through 'solar chimneys', as in the medieval merchant houses of Cairo), rather than wasting money on expensive proprietary technology.

Glamour on a shoestring is not achieved without some cost, however - a cost met by the architects themselves. 'To achieve a high standard of design at low cost we have to work exceptionally hard,' says Foster. 'Each of these buildings demands a vast input of ideas, then drawings, models and simulations. In the end we always get carried away and put far too much effort into each of the buidings. At the end of the day we make a loss; we've lost money on Cranfield. We're not the world's greatest business operation, but we work hard to give clients the most imaginative and the best building they can get for their money.'

This is not how the big commercial architectural practices think; they are not prepared to makes losses, nor to run up the kind of overdraft that Sir Norman Foster and Partners has been prepared to do during a recession in order to design public sector buildings of the quality of Cranfield and Stansted. However, the odd pounds 500m bank headquarters - pace Sir Norman - does come in handy now and again to keep this remarkable team of architects afloat in a world of cheap, glossy buildings, banality and schlock.

The additional discipline imposed by a tight budget

The new library at Cranfield Institute of Technology, built for pounds 4m, and the celebrated headquarters of the Shanghai & Hongkong Bank - at close to pounds 500m, the most expensive building constructed since records began - both by Sir Norman Foster and Partners. 'A tight budget imposes tremendous discipline; it makes you think hard and laterally,' says Sir Norman. The graph demonstrates that on cost grounds, many of the practice's projects compare well against typical city office blocks.

(Photographs and graph omitted)