Editor-At-Large: Norman Foster is reshaping our world

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The Independent Online

What our great-great-grandchildren will remember about Britain at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st will be the huge renaissance in building.

Another week, another story of politicians obsessed with infighting and intrigue. We move inexorably towards a general election, with many predicting the lowest turnout ever. Politicians, from Tony Blair to Michael Howard, signally fail to inspire the public; which is not to say that most ordinary people in Britain don't care passionately about issues that relate to their lives, from the health service to our pitiful pension provision to education. But it does seem that we are increasingly cynical and disenchanted with the people we've elected to run our country.

When all is said and done, this period in British history won't be remembered for the tawdry escapades of ministers and nannies, or for the fact we went into a war based on a fundamental mistake. No, what our great-great-grandchildren will remember about Britain at the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st will be the huge renaissance in building. Not since Wren and Nash came up with their master plans for London has there been such an extraordinary explosion of cutting edge architecture. And the man who will be remembered long after Tony Blair has just become a footnote in history books will be our leading architect Norman Foster. He is reshaping our built environment with a series of bridges and buildings that truly form a monument to our times.

This week has been a terrific week for Lord Foster's team - last Tuesday President Jacques Chirac opened the Millau Viaduct (1.5 miles long and taller than the Eiffel Tower) over the river Tarn. It cost £276m and will end the summer traffic jams as motorists drive between France and Spain. This weekend another Foster building, the Sage music centre, costing £47m of lottery money, opens on the banks of the Tyne in Gateshead, part of a huge massive development designed to bring residents and jobs back to a blighted area of the North. The Sage music centre sits alongside the Baltic Arts Centre and the elegant Millennium Bridge, both of which have been huge successes, drawing in locals and tourists and raising civic pride. The curving elegant form of the sexy roof enveloping the three concert halls with a resident orchestra, the Northern Sinfonia, is a clever way of eliminating the notoriously draughty winds that whoosh around this exposed site.

In London, Lord Foster has already made as much impact on the City itself as Wren did, with his quirky "Gherkin" (the Swiss Re Tower in St Mary Axe) winning the prestigious Stirling Prize for Building of the Year on Channel 4 the other month. Lord Foster is brilliant at transport systems around the world, from the Bilbao Metro to the stunning Canary Wharf station on the Jubilee Line in Docklands. When his Millennium Bridge (designed in conjunction with sculptor Anthony Caro and engineers Ove Arup) opened in June 2000, linking St Paul's with the Tate Modern on Bankside, 100,000 people queued to cross it in one weekend. I cannot imagine 100,000 voters queuing to shake the hand of Mr Blair, so this one piece of inspired design proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that architecture can touch humans and excite them in a way that the humdrum rhetoric spouted by most of our politicians simply cannot. Foster's City Hall and the More London site just down the road - next to Tower Bridge - is another massive landmark right in the centre of the capital. Now he's well advanced with Wembley Stadium. Its huge arch might be too reminiscent of a super-sized branch of McDonald's for my liking, but there's no denying that already sports fans are eagerly awaiting its completion. Even weary commuters queueing along the elevated section of the Westway to enter the gridlock of Marylebone Road were thrilled on the day they cast their eyes northwards and saw this soaring arch finally in position - another unmistakable addition to our skyline. Meanwhile, at another of our landmark institutions, the British Museum, Foster created a huge canopy over the courtyard, bringing thousands of fresh visitors into a building too many had taken for granted for too long.

What is so remarkable about Lord Foster's output in the UK is that he is uncompromisingly futuristic. Not for him the fake pastiche of the past adored by Prince Charles, who has never missed an opportunity to abuse his position and publicly attack any kind of innovative architecture - a pig-headed and curmudgeonly opponent. Two centuries from now, the Royal Family will be a slimmed-down operation run as a tourist attraction. Buckingham Palace will be vacant or demolished to make way for a concert hall, gallery or public building used by everyone. And Foster's buildings will be the long-standing reminder of all that was best in our hugely creative community at the start of the 21st century. I don't expect that the men who dreamt up WMD, Asbos or means-tested pensions will even merit a statue.

Ivy's still 'in' place

Proof that The Ivy is still the number one place to be seen - when I dined there last Thursday with Frances Barber after her brilliant performance as Nurse Ratched in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, we were astonished to discover that the Tories' very own Nurse Ratched, Lady Thatcher, had just departed. She'd been having a cosy dinner à deux with her former foreign policy adviser Charles Powell. Simon Shaps and Nigel Pickard, two top telly chiefs, looked on in amazement as Lady Thatcher was seated inches away from Mick Jagger and his girlfriend L'Wren Scott. Lady Thatcher is obviously not letting her son Mark's little "problem" get her down - two nights earlier, in typical fashion, she'd hosted a drinks party for 400 people at the exactly same time as Mr Hague and Mr Howard held their own rival soirées. Ronnie Wood has just unveiled his huge painting of Ivy regulars from Alan Yentob to Sir Elton (commissioned by Andrew Lloyd Webber), at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane. So if you are lucky enough to have tickets for The Producers, you will be able to spend an entertaining time in the interval trying to spot which of the women in the painting is actually me. At first I was thoroughly flattered to think that the gorgeous pouting Julie Christie lookalike was how Mr Wood had rendered me. But then I noticed a horrid Beryl the Peril person complete with (now redundant) glasses looming in the foreground. That, sadly, is the real JSP. Ronnie is a delightful chap, with a gorgeous wife and smashing children, and can I please have the sketch he did of me after a couple of bottles of wine at his studio in which I resemble the star of Doctor Zhivago, Darling and Shampoo, and not the one in which I could be mistaken for one of the Bash Street gang?

* * *

Meeting Mackenzie Crook and Christian Slater backstage after One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was a thrill. Of course, in the flesh, Mr Slater is unspeakably handsome and highly intelligent, and, as my alcohol intake increased over the evening, he became almost god-like. But Mackenzie Crook, so thin that he makes a pipe cleaner look positively obese, has a haunting expression you just can't forget ... and his acting is superb. Surely he'll be whisked off to Hollywood before too long. He's like Macaulay Culkin for grown-ups - Leo DiCaprio had better look out when our man from The Office arrives in Tinsel Town.

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