Lord Foster: The world's favourite architect

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The Independent Online

The entrance to Lord Foster of Thames Bank's studio, which overlooks the river at Battersea, says a great deal about world architecture's greatest technocrat. There is a long, gently inclined ramp; to the left of it, above the ascending visitor, an equally long bar-top. From this slim slot of a works café come voices and the smell of decently roasted Brazilian coffee beans. The scene - and, ahead, a faint glimpse into the studio itself - is a carefully contrived theatre of intent.

The entrance to Lord Foster of Thames Bank's studio, which overlooks the river at Battersea, says a great deal about world architecture's greatest technocrat. There is a long, gently inclined ramp; to the left of it, above the ascending visitor, an equally long bar-top. From this slim slot of a works café come voices and the smell of decently roasted Brazilian coffee beans. The scene - and, ahead, a faint glimpse into the studio itself - is a carefully contrived theatre of intent.

That intent has made Foster the most successful architect in British history. This week, his latest projects were rolled out to the usual acclaim: a vast bridge over the Tarn gorge at Millau in France, and the Sage music centre in Gateshead; two more architectural gongs to add to the scores of signature buildings which, starting with the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank headquarters in 1986, and punctuated most recently by London's Swiss Re building, have put Foster in a class of one as the supreme designer of what modernists would think of as machines for working in.

Foster is a singularity, a quark of creativity. He has become a self-perfected Achilles, a god without the gimpy heel that a regular deity would have. When the repetitiveness of Foster's perceived "corporate" architecture was savaged in a very thorough 4,000-word attack by the commentator Rowan Moore in Prospect magazine three years ago, it was simply ignored - left lying, like Hector's remains.

Moore wasn't just dealing with a hyper-modernist architect who flies jets, dated the newsreader Anna Ford between one of his three marriages, and is reputed to be personally worth £100m. No, the thing about Foster is that he's nuts about cross-country skiing. The intent, the what-makes-Norman-run thing which is so apparent in the incline leading to the place where most of his 500 employees strive for excellence, snaps into particularly brilliant focus on the langlauf cross-country pistes of Switzerland's Engadin Valley.

In a telling little essay, Lessons From Skiing, written in 1998, Foster refers to the "paradox that a traditional playground for the rich and famous should also be a setting that has enabled some of the greatest minds to find creative inspiration - Hesse, Mann, Giacometti, Nietzsche and others. What mixture of sport and setting in the world could be at the same time so accessible, so intensely physical and yet so spiritual? It is a unique place, which can embrace such polarities.

"On most days in the year - whether jogging in a London park, California desert, African bush, Hong Kong mid-levels, or streets in Sydney and Shanghai - the cross-country Engadin Marathon is in my mind as a point of reference. After long hours in jets, with time changes that can turn nights into days, I have to push myself to jog on arrival. I know that it is the only way to ensure that once a year, in the freezing cold of a March Sunday morning in Maloja, I will join up with 12,000 other souls who come together to celebrate their sport."

Foster as a 68-year-old Jonny Wilkinson, then, a steely jock fused with the ghost of the wartime flyer and mystic, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry - the pristine loneliness of the fit, physically pared down long-distance skier and the metaphysical vision thing coalesced into one charcoal grey suited being, light years from his origins in Levenshulme, an industrial swathe of Manchester.

Had he been born in 1955 rather than 1935, Foster's ascension would have been positively Thatcherite. His father managed a shop and, later, was a security guard and factory worker. But there was extraordinary scrimping: his parents saved enough to send him to a private school until he could enter grammar school. Even so, the teenage Foster worked for two years in the city treasurer's office, and studied commercial law before leaving for national service.

By now, he'd become interested in architecture. When he came out of the RAF, he worked in a bakery, sold furniture, and sweated in a factory - but there was a pay-off. In 1961, he graduated from Manchester University's school of architecture and city planning, then won a fellowship to Yale University. Here, he gained a master's degree, and got to know Richard Rogers, with whom he set up the Team 4 practice in 1963. That double incandescence burned out, and Foster went solo in the same year that Bruce Chatwin delivered his novel Songlines, Sir Harrison Birtwistle scored Endless Parade and the Boyle Family completed its super-real artwork Kerb Study with Metal Edge.

Something else happened at Yale, though, that was far more important than either his degree or his association with Rogers. Foster, who had sketched water towers at Manchester while his fellow students were copying Georgian details, hung out with engineers rather than architects. And it was at Yale that he was overwhelmed by the worldview of Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome, and the first architect to go hard-core on the sustainability of the organism he referred to as Spaceship Earth.

Foster's key buildings owe their design ethos to Bucky, and the first was the breathtaking glass amoeba in Ipswich otherwise known as the Willis Faber Dumas building, which made him a star overnight. And so it has continued, with increasing refinement, in buildings including the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank headquarters, Duxford Air Museum, the Commerzbank headquarters in Frankfurt, the Reichstag in Berlin and now that extraordinary bridge over the gorge at Millau.

Some would say that Foster's practice simply repeats riffs. For example: isn't Gateshead's new Sage music centre just three GLA headquarters rolled into one super-smooth form? And surely Duxford and the sleek canopy of Canary Wharf Underground are essentially the same skimming, minimalist doodle transmuted into glass and steel?

If Foster's image has a problem, it lies in the super-refinement of his forms - and in the fact that he's the least "public" architectural superstar. He doesn't work rooms like Richard Rogers, nor (despite claims to have drunk "late into the night" with Ken Bates during the Wembley stadium re-design) knock it back as convivially as Will Alsop; he's not an intellectual dude, like Rem Koolhaas, nor is he a dreamer like the hugely gifted Frenchman Jean Nouvel - with whom he's now collaborating on a redevelopment east of St Paul's.

Even Britain's greatest architectural masterplanner, Sir Terry Farrell, frets about him. "Have you noticed how it's sometimes hard to find the entrance to Norman's buildings?" he once speculated. "That quite interesting, psychologically." Almost as interesting as Foster telling the Spanish newspaper El Pais that he had "felt like a working class yobbo dressed up as Father Christmas" when he became a member of the House of Lords in 1999.

The yobbo is being a shade precious. Foster is assiduously courteous and slightly diffident in person, though he becomes dynamic when discussing the minutiae of design details in his notably classless accent. He has known major success for decades and mixed, to the manner born, with international power brokers; he is one of the key connections on the circuit board marked Masters of the Universe. His buildings may not be as physically or intellectually provocative as those of Frank Gehry, Daniel Libeskind or Renzo Piano, but he's simply the main man in a way that these stellar performers can never be, and perhaps don't want to be. Foster is very often the architect of automatic choice when big business decides it wants something really special.

Which is precisely what goaded Rowan Moore into his excoriating attack on the architect in Prospect. "Foster is popular because he supplies the look of innovation without the pain of actually changing anything," he declared. "The establishment likes him because he lets it feel daring at minimal emotional expense; he is the purveyor of radical architecture for people who want no such thing ... The establishment has adopted Foster in order to effect that mutation of external form it needs to survive. To evade challenge, the pillars of English life need to appear as if they are changing. Where Prince Charles failed to win the country over to conservative architecture, Foster has succeeded by giving it a different cladding."

Foster's obsessions with structure, low-energy internal environments and seamless form are virtually genetic. Some mutter that his buildings are increasingly like him: cranially ballistic, streamlined of dress, close-shaven, almost detail-free. This particular game can get naughty. One corporate lawyer referred to the Swiss Re building with brilliant mendacity. "The Erotic Gherkin?" she murmured. " We call it Cockfosters."

Smooth, streamlined, seamless. "It is difficult to describe the heightened sense of awareness on a long run," writes Foster about his beloved langlauf. "At the last marathon, I developed a rhythm on the stretch alongside Samadan Airport, even though I only had one stick at the time. And I remember thinking that it felt close to flying (there are parallels to sailplanes and cross-country soaring). Then there is the way in which the mind can roam freely - from the most profound thoughts to the most prosaic." A perfect coda to, say, Foster's wonderful Millennium Bridge, but nothing to do with his shiny but faintly depressing Spitalfields development.

Two days ago, Foster was talking 13 to the dozen about engineering at Yale, the "needle-effect" of his new Millau gorge bridge, and the way the tension cables vanished against the sky with "impossible delicacy". He talked of the spiritual content of architecture, and of how he came up with the Wembley arch structure while riding a bike in Bayreuth, and of his compulsion to "go to the edge" so that boundaries between structure and form dissolve. And he was very sorry, but he was in rather a hurry because he had to take his children to the cinema.

The work ethic, and the obdurate physical stamina bred into him in Levenshulme, continue to define the almost Victorian manner, and thoroughness, of his success. "I'm like one of those wind-up toys," he told the journalist John Carlin four years ago. "You wind it up and it goes round and round and round. But if you stop winding it up it falls over. That's the story. That's me. If I stop I'll fall over. But the truth is I won't stop. I can't stop. I can't."


Born: Levenshulme, Manchester, 1 June 1935.

Family: Married to Wendy Ann Cheesman 1964 (four sons), died 1989; married Dr Elean Ochoa 1996 (one daughter, one son).

Education: Burnage Grammar School; Manchester and Yale Universities schools of architecture.

Career: Team 4, 1963-67; Foster and Partners (chairman), 1967- ; has designed award-winning buildings around the world.

Honours : Fourteen honourary degrees and doctorates; created Baron Foster of Thames Bank, 1999, Member, Académie d'Architecture 2003.

He says...: "Architecture is generated by the needs of people. It has much to do with optimism, joy and reassurance."

They say...: "Foster is a complex and contradictory man. For all his aggressive business attitude, he has artistic aspirations." - Rowan Moore, critic