REACHING FOR THE SKY

Arts: Sir Norman Foster, designer of tall towers and darling of the avant-garde, is the architect the tabloids most love to hate. In an exclusive interview, he gets a chance to answer back he talks about his

It has been a busy month for Sir Norman Foster, what with getting married to Elena Ochoa, his third wife, and designing the decorative eagle that will adorn the reborn Reichstag building in Berlin, future seat of the united German parliament. "Societies use eagles in many different guises," says Foster, "to express their shared values. You can imagine that, given Germany's history this century, I have to get the turn of the head, the length of the talons, the position of the wings exactly right. What is truly astonishing is that the Bundestag should commission an Englishman to design such a politically sensitive symbol."

In between eagle and Elena, he has been jetting around Europe in his virginal white Cessna Citation, exploring new commissions, winning them and returning home to court controversy and column inches (in the Sun as well as the broadsheets) with his sky-piercing design for a 1,300ft Millennium Tower on the site of the former Baltic Exchange in the City of London. If built, this would be the tallest building in Europe. (The current record holder, at 1,150ft, is the Commerzbank in Frankfurt. It is nearing completion; the architect, you may not be surprised to hear, is Foster & Partners.)

Foster won the commission to rebuild the Reichstag (destroyed during the Second World War) in a competition that corralled the talents of more than 800 architects from 54 countries. He won the hand of Elena Ochoa, meanwhile, not only from her former husband, Luis Racionero, the Catalan essayist and bon viveur, but also from a large and enthusiastic Spanish television audience, who know Ms Ochoa best as the presenter of Hablamos de Sexo (Let's Talk Sex). She is the mistress, wrote one Spanish journalist, of "sexual science to titillate the masses". But the new Lady Foster is more than a beautiful face and a knowing voice on prime-time Spanish TV; a columnist for El Pais, she is also a respected psychiatrist, holding a seat at the University of Barcelona (she met Foster while lecturing at Robinson College, Cambridge). Like her new husband she has become an international star without compromising her talent.

And there is no doubt that Foster is a star. In July he gave a public lecture in Barcelona, a city whose skyline is punctuated by his sentinel- like communications tower. Shortly before the English architect spoke, the 1,000-seat venue had to be exchanged for one that could hold an audience of 14,000. He is surely the only living architect who could command such a crowd.

Sir Norman and Lady Foster make a complementary and glamorous couple. Not only are they at the leading edge of their chosen fields, but they are famous, feted and omnipresent - so much so that they have been seen together in the pages of Hola! magazine, on a visit to the Alhambra. And back in Britain, they have to cope with the tell-tale terrors of tabloid fame: "How our most avant-garde architect fell under the spell of a sex guru," chirped a particularly lurid headline in the Daily Mail.

Foster has had to get used to being the subject of sensational press reports. "I guess it's part of the deal," he says, adding, "some of the stuff I've read about myself over the past few months has been very strange, but you have to live with it." Now, we read, he plans to destroy famous views of St Paul's Cathedral with his megalomaniacal Millennium Tower; now, we learn, he is trying to outgun his deadly professional rival, Lord Rogers of Riverside (aka Richard Rogers, architect of the Lloyd's Building and the Pompidou Centre), even though, in reality, they are old pals. We see him cruelly parodied in Philip Kerr's thriller Gridiron, published two years ago, in which a hi-tech English architect who flies his own planes designs a computer- driven sci-fi building that ends up destroying itself and its creator. Foster was not amused.

There are, however, other and more substantial ways of reckoning Foster's success than in column inches. There was the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture in 1982 and a knighthood in 1990. He has offices in London, Tokyo and Hong Kong employing a total of 375 staff, with a turnover of pounds 20m. Foster & Partners won the Queen's Award for Export Achievement last year. To date, it has won Lottery-funded Millennium commissions worth pounds 126m, with more to come. Success has rewarded Foster with a small squadron of aircraft, and some of the most prestigious architectural commissions around the world. These include the new Hong Kong airport; the pounds 100m remodelling of the British Museum; a pounds 200m motorway viaduct across the Tarn Gorge in south-west France (the central section of which is 100ft higher than the Eiffel Tower); a pounds 100m redesign for Wembley Stadium; a pounds 1bn deal to design three stations for London & Continental Railways for its Channel Tunnel expresses; and the proposed Millennium Tower.

The London & Continental Railways' commission is the most valuable ever awarded to a British architectural practice. Foster held the previous record too: for the stunning high-rise headquarters he designed for the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank (opened in 1986), which cost about pounds 500m.

Not bad for a Manchester lad, born in 1935 with a tin spoon in his mouth, who left school at 16. "I wasn't able to get a grant to go to university," he remembers, "so I paid my own way. I sold furniture, worked in a bakery, a cold store and drove an ice-cream van. I also applied for scholarships and entered drawing competitions. In 1959, I won pounds 100 and a silver medal from the Royal Institute of British Architects for a measured drawing of a windmill. I took off to Scandinavia to look at the new architecture and haven't stopped travelling since."

Since then, he has risen to become, as one critic put it, "the crop-haired guru of the elite avant-garde". At 61, he is lean, fit, bronzed and apparently at one with himself. His only trouble, if that is the right word, is that he has got himself in the position where he needs to be in a multiplicity of places at one and the same time. Perhaps he should use his knowledge of hi-tech wizardry to clone himself? "I don't know how to stop. Like a child's toy, I keep spinning - if I ever stopped, I'd fall over. Recently I took my son, Jay, to Scandinavia. We went sledging with teams of huskies. At first, I thought the dogs were being overworked but I quickly learnt that they are never happier than when pelting flat out. I'm not very different."

Foster Is not without his critics, who claim that his name has become a brand and his buildings a symbol of late-flowering and high-flying international capitalism. But while he appears sensitive to criticism, he knows that, whatever anyone says, clients around the globe are queueing up for a Foster "signature" building, as once they did for a Mies van der Rohe or a Le Corbusier. These patrons have come to expect buildings as finely machined as a BMW car or a Boeing airliner, and as smooth in operation as a Jaguar V12 engine.

Not the least of Foster's achievements is to have delivered an ever-growing number of buildings, from schools to airports via corporate headquarters, on time and under-budget, to the most demanding international clients. He has a knack for choosing the right projects, the right clients (notably some of Europe's most dynamic mayors), the most competent and hard-working architects and the best engineers. What's more, Foster & Partners has an American-like ability to deliver the goods: no surface agonising, no self-justifying articles in architectural journals, just a lot of invention, highly directed passion and sheer hard work.

Foster's London office is an extraordinary place, a modern riverside palazzo, with a triple-height studio overlooking the Thames between Battersea and Albert bridges. Rows of architects toil at long white tables across the length of a room that seems little smaller than a railway terminus. Sir Norman sits at the far end, both a part of his massive team and apart from it. The atmosphere is rather like a cross between a Manchester cotton mill and the headquarters of IBM.

Foster's working life is somewhat more relaxed today than it was in the early 1990s, when he was married (for three and a half years - a "quickie" divorce was granted in 1995) to Sabiha Rumani Malik, the former wife of Andrew Knight, chairman of News International. "The Begum" (as she was known by Foster's staff) was not only a director of the firm but also, or so the sotto voce story goes, the designer of a flag for the Foster penthouse atop Riverside One (the name given to the Battersea HQ), which was to have been raised when the couple were in residence.

Apocryphal or not, such stories demonstrate the extent to which Foster has fallen under the spell of the women in his life. His first wife, Wendy Cheesman, a qualified architect and a former girlfriend of Richard Rogers, was his professional partner when he set up his own practice in 1967.

Foster had met Rogers at Yale University in 1961 when both were studying a masters' course there. Chalk and Parmesan cheese on paper, the intense and brilliant young man from Manchester formed a lifelong friendship and what proved to be a temporary working relationship with the outgoing and mercurial Anglo-Italian two years his senior. Back in London, the pair joined forces with Wendy and Su, Rogers' first wife, to set up Team 4 in the front room of a small Hampstead flat. The rest, as they say, is history.

Going separate yet complementary ways in 1967, Rogers and Foster built up two of the world's most radical and successful architectural part- nerships. Each was to produce modern masterpieces that reflected their very different characters: where Foster's revolutionary Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia (1978) was sheathed in air-smoothed silver panels, the Pompidou Centre in Paris (Rogers + Piano, 1977) was a free-spirited expression of a sophisticated "let it all hang out" approach to architecture and life. A later pair of comparable monuments, the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank headquarters (Foster, 1986) and the Lloyd's Building in London (Rogers, also 1986), were described at the time as being up-to-the-nanosecond realisations of the Classical and Gothic spirit in architecture. It was a pretty accurate analysis.

Ever since, Foster's buildings have been smooth and sleek, the nearest architecture gets to aircraft design. Significantly, when asked by Ruth Rosenthal, a BBC TV producer, to choose his favourite work of architecture for her Building Sights series, Foster chose a Boeing 747. Appropriate, too, that one of his finest buildings is Stansted Airport in Essex, bringing together his two great passions, architecture and flying.

Wendy's Death from cancer in 1989 left Foster deeply shaken; by now he was the father of four sons (two by adoption). But after a brief encounter with the broadcaster Anna Ford, he married Sabiha Malik. Where Wendy had been a quiet power behind the throne, Sabiha thrust Foster out of the arcane confines of the professional press and into the limelight. Few observers could forget the court drama in which Lady Foster took on the Customs & Excise authorities for alleged mistreatment at their hands at Heathrow Airport in 1990. Sabiha, married to Andrew Knight at the time of the incident, was thought to be smuggling bags of cocaine which turned out to be homeopathic powders. The ensuing case was a farce, and yet it was hard not be touched by Foster's behaviour in court; he rushed to comfort his wife when she broke down.

Often accused of being remote and cold, Foster is, like most driven people, a passionate man below the surface. Day to day that passion is poured into minutely detailed buildings and into flying. His least successful buildings - and this is a matter of degree - are those to which he has paid the least personal attention. He once said that he thought an architectural office should not grow beyond about 30 or 35 strong; Foster & Partners is 10 times that size today, so there is no conceivable way in which Foster can be fully involved in the minutiae of every project. If this is a shame, it is not because Foster lacks highly talented partners, but because he has always been a "hands-on" designer. When you meet him, he tends to draw as he talks, explaining his ideas in lively pencil sketches. It is not hard to trace the young architect who won a silver medal and pounds 100 for a perfect drawing of a windmill 37 years ago, before he went to Yale and met Rogers. His boyish enthusiasm and his curiosity about the world have never waned; and herein lies a key part of his enduring success. Those who say he is cool cannot spot the schoolboy that still lurks beneath the suntan.

"Twenty years ago," he says, "I learnt to fly, and I've been fascinated by flight ever since. Before that, like many schoolboys, I was obsessed by the world of model aircraft." Literally as well as metaphorically, Foster is a man who has spent a lot of time with his head in the clouds; the astonishing thing about him is that, by hook, crook, gasket and PVC membrane, he continues to bring his high-flown brand of architecture so successfully down to earth. !

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