Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20, 352pp, £18 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Norman Foster: A Life in Architecture by Deyan Sudjic
Tall stories with a pilot of the future
Sir Norman Robert Foster is the single most powerful architect in the world.
His latest buildings and city plans are redefining life and environmental conditions in the world's fastest growing economies, where legions of steroidal architectural implants recall the novelist Norman Mailer's warning in 1964 about Modernist architecture's "empty landscapes of psychosis".
I encountered Foster's 1975 masterpiece, the darkly glassed Willis Faber & Dumas building in Ipswich, a year after its completion. I don't know if it's psychotic, but I still find this building as metaphysically provocative as, say, the black obelisk in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Foster's forthcoming solar-powered city of Masdar in Abu Dhabi is not mysterious; it already hums with driverless bubble-cars in a techno-world whose design genetics were formed in the mind of an only child who read Dan Dare comics in his parents' terraced house in working-class Manchester in the 1940s.
Foster is not yet solar-powered, and makes do with the radiance of two overlapping auras. One belongs to the man who, in the 1970s and 1980s, created hugely influential buildings of ultra-rational design that caused shock-and-awe among critics and clients. The second aura is that of the garlanded leader of a thousand staff in offices worldwide, developing more than 200 major projects at any one time. Despite his late-period pink corduroy suits, and the rumoured nine-figure wealth, Foster remains absolutely driven. Why?
Lord Foster of Thames Bank's authorised biographer, Deyan Sudjic, has delivered meticulously researched and psychologically resonant insights into the conflicting forces of aspiration and outsider status that propelled Foster towards his breakthrough building, the amenities block for the Fred Olsen Line at Millwall in 1969. The nuggety, slightly rumpled student with the chippie look of mid-period Harold Pinter made his mark at Manchester University School of Architecture, then at Yale under the maniacally brilliant Paul Rudolph. When Foster toured America in a Volkswagen with another student, Richard Rogers, he was as interested in photographing gas stations in the Midwest as in snapping Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater. Foster's early ascendency is well described, as is his fascination with what Susan Sontag described as modernism's savage autonomy of the detail.
Sudjic is particularly good in delineating Foster's astonishing ability to get clients to revise their expectations so that he could develop truly radical architecture. The design of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank – which cost £1bn in today's money – is an obvious example. Sudjic's forensic descriptions of Foster's pathological need to explore the edges of technical possibilities are equally effective. The architect's memory of flying in a Comet 4B airliner, for example, could not be more revealing: "It was so beautiful on the outside that even inside the cabin it transformed the whole experience of flying."
The book reads differently after its mid-point, becoming somewhat dry in places as Sudjic works his way through Foster's later work. There are still notable insights, but the initially strong sense of intimacy is gradually lost. Sudjic, a pre-eminent design critic, editor and curator with a carefully cultivated decorum, has not ducked critical issues concerning Foster's ideas and architecture; but at certain points he has applied a stucco lustro of politesse over interesting questions about Foster's work.
In describing the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, he says Foster avoided the architectural consequences of different materials touching each other, in search of a building that was "a mechanism for controlling light". Is ultra-purified functionalism all that matters to Foster? We never quite find out, even though Sudjic refers to "a kind of delirium" that threatened the most radical high tech architects.
He also quotes the legendary graphic designer Otl Aicher, on Foster's buildings: "There is no zeitgeist experienced here, no world feeling. One sees one of the best possible solutions to a set of questions." No "world feeling"? And what about Sudjic's suggestion that Foster's personality seeks architectural expressions that are hard to read? The architect might have been pushed harder on these questions, and on his views about non-technocratic genres of architecture – and about art, which increasingly interests him.
Sudjic's ultimate summary is wonderfully astute: "Foster has moved from creating a limited number of masterpieces, to running an office that has significantly raised the standard of the ordinary." However, as I walk past the Willis building or enter Stansted Airport, it will probably be the words of Lord Foster's late wife, Wendy, that spring to mind. "I will say," she told him, "that you were a juggler. You throw the balls higher than anybody else, and you let them fall lower before you catch them." There's nothing seamlessly perfect about juggling, is there?
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