Norman Foster: Man of steel

The unveiling of his tower in the World Trade Center site was greeted with near universal acclaim
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The Independent Online

Lord Foster of Thames Bank is architecture's most ubiquitous top-of-the-range brand name. The working-class boy from Manchester who left school at 16 now rearranges townscapes from Canary Wharf to Tokyo. He has hundreds of staff working for his practice, Foster and Partners, which dominates the profession across the globe. At 71 he shows no sign of decline or any indication that he'll be stopping any time soon - the unveiling this week of his tower for the site of the World Trade Center in Manhattan was greeted with near universal acclaim. He is currently working on the world's largest construction project, Terminal Three at Beijing airport. He has recently expressed interest in masterminding London's Olympic plans for 2012.

Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao is usually offered as the locus classicus of iconic architecture in the modern world, but Foster is arguably the pre-eminent creator of buildings which fuse with their cities and surroundings in the public imagination: the domed redevelopment of the Reichstag in Berlin; the Troika towers in Kuala Lumpur; the exuberant hi-tech headquarters of HSBC and the artificial island airport in Hong Kong; the Commerzbank in Frankfurt, Europe's second tallest building; the austere steel and glass gallery Carré d'Art in Nîmes; the cloud-topping Millau Viaduct over the Gorge du Tarn; the light-filled terminal at Stansted Airport; the Millennium Bridge across the Thames; the new arch at Wembley Stadium; the roofing of the Great Court at the British Museum; and the Swiss Re Tower at 30 St Mary Axe in the City of London.

"The Erotic Gherkin" as the last is almost universally known in the capital has joined the London Eye, Big Ben, St Paul's Cathedral and Tower Bridge as a key element in the skyline. Recent films, such as Basic Instinct II and Woody Allen's Match Point, have used it fix their location in London.

The importance of iconic architecture in the modern world had no greater supporters than those who hijacked the airliners on 11 September five years ago. They knew its power. Psychologists have argued that architecture is an expression of man's instinct to compensate for mortality by projecting his body into abstract, monumental form, and that we tend to read architecture in terms of our bodies, whether consciously or not.

The thousands of deaths and the shock of the physical assault on the United States were magnified by the symbolic destruction of the highest towers on the Manhattan skyline. To repair such a psychic assault requires the creation of an equally powerful symbol. As soon as the site of World Trade Center was cleared, the problem of what to put there became acute. After years of wrangling, misdirection and political interference, something approaching a suitably effective masterplan was accepted from the American architect, Daniel Libeskind: a spiral of four skyscrapers, descending from David Childs' Freedom Tower, a symbolic 1,776 feet tall.

The designs of the other three were revealed on Thursday from the practices of three of the world's leading architects; the Japanese Fumihiko Maki and the British Richard Rogers and - of course - Norman Foster.

The architect has been exquisitely conscious of what it means to build on this particular site in the city that perfected the skyscraper. He recently completed a new headquarters for the Hearst Corporation on Eighth Avenue at Columbus Circle, putting a million square feet of offices for the magazine empire on top of an existing eight-storey Art Deco structure built in 1928. Foster pulled off this difficult assignment brilliantly. Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker's eminent architecture critic, was moved to call him "the Mozart of Modernism".

For Ground Zero he has designed a 78-storey office tower with a sparkling glazed crystalline form and topped by four slanting diamond summits. Conscious of its memorial aspect, at night these illuminated diamonds will lead the viewer's eye down to the two reflective memorial pools which mark the footprint of the two towers of the World Trade center. The building has also been placed on an axis so that each 11 September one side of the building will be lit by sunshine at precisely 8.46am - the time when the first plane struck. With terrorist attacks in mind, the structure is built around a solid concrete core which would prevent the catastrophic collapse which brought down the two towers. Various planning permissions still need be acquired, but it seems very likely that Manhattan will have acquired another signature Foster building at some point in the next decade.

Invisible ironic quotation marks may hang above many of London's buildings erected in the past 30 years, which look like Thirties radio sets or Meccano constructions, but Foster eschews such postmodernist jokiness. Le style, c'est l'homme. The lean, fit, ascetic architect produces spacious, serious but optimistic buildings from his favoured raw materials of steel, glass and light.

Although his work shares the label of hi-tech late modernism with his contemporary, rival architect and sometime colleague Lord Rogers of Riverside, the pair form a satisfying contrast: the classic Foster, the romantic Rogers. They first met at Yale in the early Sixties where Foster was taking a master's degree. (Though he did leave school at 16 to work in the Manchester City Treasurer's Office, he studied architecture at Manchester University after his National Service in the Royal Air Force.) Together they founded Team Four and worked together for several years until Foster founded his current practice in 1967.

Foster's private life has been less obviously colourful than Rogers's, but his wives and girlfriends have attracted some attention. His first wife, fellow architect Wendy Cheeseman, died of cancer in 1989, leaving him with four sons. For a while he was linked with Anna Ford, but it was the exotic and elegant Begum Sabiha Rumani Malik who became his second wife. They met when Pakistani-born Sabiha was married to a close friend of Foster's, Andrew Knight, then chief executive of the Telegraph Group. This close friendship, however, did not survive an acrimonious divorce.

Foster and Sabiha divorced in 1995 and he has a new young family with his third wife, Dr Elena Ochoa. She used to lecture at Cambridge and is an expert on Alzheimer's disease. In Spain, however, the glamorous Miss Ochoa is better known as La dotora del sexo after she presented a prime-time TV programme Hablemos de Sexo ("Let's Talk About Sex"), a show which galvanised the country in 1990. The Fosters live "above the shop" in two massive penthouses in Riverside One, Foster's glass and steel building on the Thames at Battersea.

The trend of much of Foster's work in the Eighties and Nineties was towards the bigger, taller, and even more expensive. It is an often observed irony that modernism, whose theorists imagined an architecture which would break down hierarchies and privilege, has become the house style of turbo-charged capitalism. (When it was completed in 1985 his Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, at £5bn, was famous for being the world's most expensive building.) It is no surprise therefore that the wealthy Foster flies his own jet between his three offices in London, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

However, increasingly the practice has taken the environment and sustainability seriously: the Foster and Partners' press release for his Ground Zero tower emphasised that it was designed to the highest energy efficiency ratings and was seeking the gold standard of the US Green Building Council; the complex façade of the "erotic gherkin" lets in air as passive cooling and then vents it as it warms and rises.

Earlier in his career in the Seventies Foster collaborated with Buckminster Fuller on several projects and this was the beginning of his development of an environmentally sensitive approach to design and the infrastructure of cities. He was recently quoted as saying that the most important thing he had done in London was not a building, but the Millennium Bridge and the pedestrianisation of Trafalgar Square: "The bridge has seven million people crossing it each year. The ripple effect on surrounding areas is extraordinary."

He has also expressed a desire to crack the nut of providing affordable, desirable, sustainable housing in our cities. Foster has long been exasperated by the slowness of planning in Britain and has sounded off on the need to create a more rational system. He naturally prefers clients who are powerful autocrats, like the go-getting mayors of Barcelona, Nîmes, Cannes and Bilbao. He is currently alarmed by the Thames Gateway project, the massive eastward expansion of London, and its lack of co-ordinated planning. "When you look at the decision-making there, you find about 24 different bodies involved. The quality of any project is hugely influenced by the quality of the decision-making. The responsibilities are too divided. Compare London with Barcelona. There the decision-making structure has clarity, leadership, transparency. We don't have that clarity here."

From time to time, when his vast number of projects comes under consideration, doubts are expressed about how much even the workaholic Foster could actually do on each one. He acknowledges that much of the work is done by his colleagues. But Foster is the brand name that sells the product, and he insists that he oversees everything done at the practice. The once brilliant draughtsman has become a brilliant impresario, staging highly profitable productions of himself to run in cities across the world.

A Life in Brief

BORN Manchester, 1 June, 1935.

FAMILY Married Helen Cheeseman (died 1989); Sabiha Malik (divorced 1985); Elena Ochas. Two children.

EDUCATION Left school at 16 but after National Service with the RAF attended Manchester University's School of Architecture and City Planning, and in 1961 won a fellowship to Yale School of Architecture/

CAREER Founded Foster and Partners in 1967. The practice's first big project was the Willis Faber and Dumas building in Ipswich, completed in 1974. Subsequent big commissions include the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong, Stansted Airport, the Reichstag in Berlin, the Great Court at the British Museum, the Millennium Bridge across the Thames and the Swiss Re "Gherkin" building. Foster and Partners has won dozens of major architectural awards including the prestigious Pritzker Prize in 1999.

HE SAYS "Great architecture should wear its message lightly."

THEY SAY "He is the Valentino of the profession, producing perfectly tailored designs that flatter his clients." - A fellow architect