Earthbound design with the grace of a flying machine

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The Independent Culture
Sir Norman Foster (born 1935), a keen pilot, has developed a link between the imagery and structure of aircraft and architecture over the past 30 years. Keenly influenced by the hardware of the Nasa programme and by the ideas of Buckminster Fuller, the American inventor (a sort of Marshall McLuhan of the material word), Foster has sought to bring the notional freedom offered by flying machines to the world of earthbound building.

The Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts (completed 1978) is the apotheosis of the aircraft hanger, a gleaming silver shed that housed - and this is what seemed so shocking at the time - a rich grocer's collection of ethnic and modern art, rather than a clutch of Harrier jump jets.

Critical reaction in Britain at the time, with the notable exception of the Architectural Review, was remarkably hostile (or, possibly, bewildered). Foster had created architecture that, belonging to no context, looked as if it had landed from outer space. Was this staggering arrogance on the part of the architect or a stroke of incisive brilliance? Like an aircraft, the Sainsbury Centre has required dedicated maintenance, but remains one of the most original and breathtaking of modern English buildings.

Foster's aircraft aesthetic has since come to land in the design of two airport projects - the second terminal at Stansted (London's third airport, in rural Essex), completed in 1991, and the new airport at Chek Lap Kok, Hong Kong which, when finished, will itself resemble a giant aircraft in plan. The architect's design for a 2,000ft tower in Japan, however, looks as though it will never take off.

Although grounded, Foster's aerospatial buildings enjoy one advantage over every aircraft: huge, free, open and light interiors that have the power to lift the spirit if not the body of the traveller. In these highly distinctive buildings, Foster and his team offer people a sense of freedom of movement that mirrors (if not matches) that of a pilot at the helm of a nimble plane.

JONATHAN GLANCEY

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