Profile: Nuts and bolts of genius: From industrial sheds to the British Museum: Laurence Marks on an architect in demand - Sir Norman Foster

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The Independent Online
SIR Norman Foster, who has won the competition to redesign the heart of the British Museum, practises architecture in an enormous glass-walled room on the river at Battersea from which all colour, passion and ambiguity have been resolutely excluded. You walk up a broad and stately staircase and arrive in a sealed, luminous space 200ft long, 70ft deep and two storeys high overlooking the water. Surfaces are black, white and grey, shapes hard-edged and rectangular. Only a chaste bunch of blue delphiniums relieves the monochrome of this temple to pure reason.

A hundred or so staff members are seated at long work-benches strewn with computers and models. It so closely resembles Lazare Meerson's sets for A Nous la Liberte, Rene Clair's 1931 satire on industrialism, that for one wild moment you wonder whether the whole thing might not be an arcane architectural joke. But no. Only the post-modernists employ irony. Hi-tech is a school for puritans. You are permitted to gasp at its wonders but not encouraged to smile.

Foster sits at a large circular table. As he talks he draws diagrams, or scribbles notes in a slanting italic hand, in one of the shiny black sketchbooks that accompany him everywhere. The scribbles are neatly boxed in with pencilled lines lest disorder invade even so casual an activity.

He is a taut, tightly sprung man of 59, 5ft 10in tall and weighing 12 stone, with close-cropped silvering hair, a long face and unexpectedly dreamy eyes. He talks in a soft, unemphatic but insistent voice, like a discreet debt collector.

The figments of his dreams have been a succession of shimmering steel-and-glass structures of astonishing beauty that have made him possibly the richest and presently the most desired architect in the world. He and his family own 80 per cent of the equity in the private company that constitutes the practice. (He has four partners.) Four years ago, only 15 per cent of its work was overseas. Now it's 85 per cent, a hedge against domestic recession.

He has offices in Berlin, Frankfurt, Hong Kong (headquarters of his growing Asian practice) and Tokyo. He has been working on master-plans for sections of Cannes, Duisberg, Nimes and Rotterdam. His foreign projects include the new Bilbao metro; the revamped Reichstag in Berlin; the contentious new Hong Kong airport; public buildings in Valencia, Omaha and the Gorges du Verdon (in the Var); private houses in France, Japan and Germany; an ocean-going yacht; and furniture ranges for Tecno in Milan. In Britain there are master-plans for King's Cross, Greenwich and South Kensington.

Not everyone in the trade likes him. He can be bruisingly combative in a profession that, until the Thatcherite Eighties licensed sauve qui peut commercial aggression, regarded itself as a gentlemanly branch of the liberal arts. 'Norman doesn't know how to be magnanimous in victory,' says a friend. His uncompromising devotion to advanced industrial materials and structural systems is controversial even among modernists. 'In that respect I'd distinguish between his work and that of Michael Hopkins, who has a diversified approach,' says Sherban Cantacuzino, architectural critic and secretary of the Royal Fine Art Commission.

But even Foster's ideological enemies concede that he has produced masterpieces that place him in the highest rank of European architects. The mystery is how this obsessionally controlled man, apparently preoccupied with detail, commands an imagination of such visionary grandeur.

NORMAN FOSTER was born in 1935. His father was a Manchester factory worker. An only child, Foster left school at 16 for the traditionally safe white-collar job in the town hall. He paid his fees through Manchester's School of Architecture by working as a furniture salesman, security guard and Saturday night bouncer. 'Norman's the only architect of note in Britain who comes from a working-class background,' says the architectural historian, Charles Jencks. 'I once asked him whether that hadn't been a disadvantage. 'Not in the least,' he replied. 'It gave me a single-minded vision as I sat in the public library as a boy reading about Frank Lloyd Wright. None of those middle-class kids knew what they wanted from life.' I've never come across anyone so focused.'

Foster's fascination with aerospace technology, which influences his designs, was enhanced by RAF service as a mechanic working on electronics systems for the Vulcan bomber. In 1962 he went to Yale with an immigrant's visa. Richard Rogers was there at the same time. They were taught by the late James Stirling, who later defected to post-modernism, and Serge Chermayeff, a pioneer of British modernism.

Both Rogers and Foster were exhilarated by the social freedom, advanced technology and sheer scale of America, whose professional business style has indelibly marked Foster. He stayed on for a year as a city planner before returning to England to go into partnership with Rogers and their wives, Wendy Cheesman and Su Rogers, working out of the front room of Wendy's tiny Hampstead flat.

Their first important client was an ambitious young businessman, Peter Parker, later chairman of British Rail, who commissioned them to design an electronics factory at Swindon for Reliance Controls. He wanted a cheap shed on a low budget to be completed in a few months. 'That forced us into a technological answer,' Rogers has recalled, 'using industrial materials off the shelf.' They worked 16 hours a day, six days a week. Parker nearly had a nervous breakdown and the contractor almost went bankrupt, but Reliance was the breakthrough. They had found their style.

The partnership broke up through lack of work, but after three years they were in any case developing in different directions. Rogers is a romantic. His Lloyd's building is a love lyric to Victorian engineering. Foster is a classicist in spirit. His buildings are elegant in the particular sense in which mathematicians use the word: as the most refined solution of an equation. Rogers: 'Norman's buildings end up saying QED.'

In practice with Wendy from 1967, Foster produced a sequence of brilliant industrial sheds, confirming a reputation for driving contractors through at high speed and on budget. His first masterpiece was the grand piano-shaped Willis Faber office for 1,300 people in Ipswich, designed for an old- fashioned City firm of insurance brokers who wanted 'nothing over-ambitious but nothing too pedestrian'. He encased the structure in a continuous bronzed glass sheath hung on to internal supports uninterrupted by glazing bars. By day it reflected the neighbouring townscape. By night internal lighting caused the skin to dissolve, revealing an interior of majestic splendour. He was on the road to stardom. Strikingly, his patrons up to this point in his career had been enlightened business managers, not Exchequer-funded bureaucracies.

It was followed by the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at Norwich, an Attic temple reincarnated in metal, and the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, said to have been the most expensive building ever designed. It brought Foster pounds 25m. Wendy died in 1989. They had four sons. Two years later Foster married Sabiha Malik, ex-wife of Andrew Knight, former chairman of Rupert Murdoch's News International. She is a director of the company and designs furniture for it. They live above the shop in a grand apartment overlooking Battersea Bridge.

Foster flies the firm's twin-jet executive aircraft around Europe. One of his favourite recreations is packing a bike into a rented single- engine plane, landing it in the French or Swiss countryside, and cycling for hours. He is an ambitious skier: he took part in the 50- mile Engadine Marathon this year and last. It's healthy and, like everything he does, dedicated. He's not a man with a talent for idleness, even at leisure.

His enthusiasm for innovation has extended the hi-tech vocabulary also used by other architects: the inside-out exposure of cabling, the dramatisation of structure and movement (all those see-through escalators and lifts), the grey and silver palette, the filigree of tent- poles and stressed cables - the poetry of advanced structural engineering. In the pluralist republic that has succeeded the tyranny of modernism in Britain since the mid-Seventies, it can be as useful, frivolous, beautiful or pretentious as any other style. In Foster's hands it is sometimes magic.

In his latest book, Architecture Today, published last year, Jencks launched an urbane attack on some of Foster's pretensions, pointing out that the famous 'sunscoops' on the Hongkong Bank produced a dim metallic rather than a cheerfully sunny glow, and that the aluminium panels on the Sainsbury Centre had corroded and would have to be replaced at a cost of pounds 2m. He also argued that the use of expensively hand-crafted industrial components was turning some buildings into 'executive toys'.

Foster was furious, but refuses to be drawn into public altercations about style, a word he seldom uses, preferring to describe hi-tech as an 'approach' to architecture. The case for his genius is that at his best - at Willis Faber and at Stansted Airport - he can transmute all these nuts and bolts into great architecture. 'We've always thought of the British Museum project as an opportunity for something beautiful,' says Sir Claus Moser, chairman of its development trust. 'I believe that's what we're going to get.'

(Photograph omitted)