Sir Norman Foster is the mastermind behind some of the world’s most iconic buildings. With Max Tholl, he discussed how architecture helps us communicate, where our fascination with bigness stems from, and why we need to do more with less.
The European: Lord Foster, architects design buildings that will characterize cities for decades or even centuries to come. How difficult is it to design buildings for an unknown future?
Foster: Flexibility is a key consideration. We design with an awareness that circumstances will change -- that a building’s context will evolve; it may be used in different ways and will need to incorporate new technologies that we cannot yet predict. For example, our headquarters for the insurance brokers Willis Faber in the 1970s was able to accommodate the shift from typewriters to word processors just a few years later. This was made possible by the provision of a raised access floor -- this was revolutionary at the time because such features were confined to computer rooms.
Willis Faber’s competitors could only accommodate this new technology by building new facilities. Our Hongkong and Shanghai Bank was similarly radical for its flexibility -- we relegated the normal central core to the edges of open, flexible floors. This meant that the bank was able to introduce a large trading floor quite easily and without disruption -- something that could never have been anticipated when the building was designed. The bank’s competitors would never have been able to accommodate a trading floor in their headquarters towers. Similarly, other insurance companies had to create new buildings to respond to the digital revolution.
The European: Most of the buildings that you have designed have become absolute landmarks and will continue to characterize their respective cities for a very long time. What impression will buildings like Tower 2 of the new WTC or the Gherkin in London leave behind of our civilization?
Foster: I hope that these buildings will endure and respond to changes which we can now only imagine. Our work might provide some references from the past for future generations -- we have yet to see a complete understanding of the impact of environmental issues on architecture.
The European: You have redesigned buildings with a lot of historical legacy/baggage -- notably the Reichstag here in Berlin and now Tower 2 of the WTC. Do you think a lot about this when working on such buildings?
Foster: I think you could characterize my approach as deeply respectful of history and also in part inspired by it. Throughout our rebuilding of the Reichstag we respected the imprints of the past -- whether civic vandalism or the graffiti of war -- and felt that it should be preserved for future generations. Junctions between old and new were articulated, and where the existing fabric had been repaired it was clearly expressed. The concept for Tower 2 of the World Trade Center is equally driven by this balance between memory and rebirth. The building occupies a pivotal position at northeast corner of Memorial Park, and its profile reflects this role as a symbolic marker. The tower also has a function, as part of the renewal of the World Trade Center, in regenerating this part of downtown Manhattan. Its street level retail and connections to the WTC transit hub will help to reinvigorate the area with a vitality that is typical of a Manhattan neighborhood.
The European: Do you think that architecture is also a means of communication? Cities are full of memorials and other buildings that aim to remind people about certain events.
Foster: Architecture is a connection with the past. However, our concern is not for relics but for the revitalization of historic buildings, repurposing them for a new generation. Architecture can communicate memory, but it can also communicate values and a sense of place. Our airport in Beijing, for example, is designed as a symbolic gateway to China -- its form and use of color in the columns and roof, which flow from imperial red to golden yellow, deliberately evoke traditional Chinese symbols even though the design is state-of-the-art.
"Every era produces its own vocabulary."
The European: Most prominent architects concentrate on commercial buildings or infrastructure, while housing -- especially in poorer regions or city parts -- is widely neglected. Should architecture refocus on its duty to serve the people instead of business -- as Rem Koolhaas demands in his essay “Junk Space”?
Foster: This is not the case -- I would welcome an opportunity to address the mass housing issues of slums. Six years ago, we began a project in Mumbai which aimed to raise the quality of housing, sanitation, and public space in Dharavi, one of the world’s largest slums. Current standards of sanitation are low, with just one toilet per 1,400 people, and the lack of open space means that the only places for children to play are in cemeteries and on the railway tracks. Our team spent time studying the way that the space was used and engaged with the local community -- the residents of Dharavi recycle 80 percent of Mumbai’s waste. We developed a comprehensive plan to improve the quality of life for all living there, which was based around the existing balance between spaces for living and working, yet introduced new public facilities and infrastructure. While we sadly have not had the opportunity to implement our master plan, this work has been a valuable reference for potential future projects. Significantly, it pointed the way to solutions in which the community would be respected and the quality of amenities transformed. This is a radical alternative to the traditional approach of bulldozing, uprooting the social structure, and starting afresh -- a policy which has so far failed.
The European: Koolhaas also complains a lot about architecture’s obsession with “bigness.” Do you agree with him? Where does this human fascination for bigness stem from?
Foster: Scale, along with many other design decisions, such as the choice of materials, form, and location, is a response to a set of needs -– and for some projects, one large, compact structure is often the best response to those needs rather than a proliferation of smaller buildings. There can also be cost and environmental efficiencies with a larger, single enclosure. Big need not mean inhuman -- everything we design is legible at a human scale. Take, for example, Beijing Airport, which we completed in 2008. It is the world’s largest, most technically advanced airport, yet it has a reputation for being friendly and easy to use. The terminal is planned under a single unifying roof canopy, akin in its scale to an artificial sky. Beijing has evolved from our Hong Kong airport, which was similarly a single terminal under one roof compared with Heathrow, for example, which has five separate terminals divided by roads and car parks. For seven separate years, Hong Kong has been voted the airline travelers’ best airport by 13 million passengers from 160 countries.
Similarly, the site of our Apple project was originally the Hewlett Packard campus, which was full of separate buildings interspersed by parking lots and tarmac. The creation of one single building for Apple has enabled the creation of a 40-hectare park with five kilometers of trails and more than 7,000 trees. Aside from the quality of life offered by this green playground, the single building consumes less energy and provides better internal communication between the separate disciplines which make up Apple.
However, there is a media fascination for “bigness” in any field. When a building is the largest, a bridge the longest, or a tower the highest, it inevitably attracts attention, but for every one of these mega-projects, we produce infinitely more equally deserving but less publicized projects.
The European: Decades ago, your mentor Richard Buckminster Fuller propagated the concept of “ephemeralization” -- the ability to do more and more with less and less. Back then, it was just theoretical reasoning, but because of finite resources it will become a necessity in the near future. Do you agree?
Foster: Never has the exhortation to “do more with less” -- to make an enclosure lighter, to use materials more economically, to consume less energy -- been more relevant. The principles of sustainable design, which Bucky really pioneered, are completely central to architecture today. His predictions in many fields have already been realized. For example: a hand-held phone today has the processing power of a room full of computers when Bucky was alive.
The European: Glass seems to play a very important role in your designs. German glass-architecture pioneer Paul Scheerbart famously said: “Glass is the enemy of secrecy.”
Foster: Glass is just one of a vast palette of materials at our disposal, and it can transmit light without being see-through. However, it has allowed us to open up previously very insular buildings to the outside world. For example, in early discussions about the transformation of the Reichstag, the theme that emerged most clearly was that it should be publicly accessible and “transparent,” both literally and symbolically -- the resulting cupola of metal and glass is a very tangible expression of democracy. The main chamber of parliament is visible for all to see. Public and politicians meet and interact; they can see and be seen.
The European: Is architecture the visual representation of society?
Foster: Architecture is an expression of values -- the way we build is a reflection of the way we live. This is why vernacular traditions and the historical layers of a city are so fascinating, as every era produces its own vocabulary. Sometimes we have to explore the past to find inspiration for the future. At its most noble, architecture is the embodiment of our civic values.
"The city is a response to human needs."
The European: Do you think that pop-up megacities like the ones popping up in China can establish themselves as a model for building cities in the future?
Foster: The pace of growth in China has indeed been unprecedented – the top six of the world’s megacities are on the Pacific Rim. The model for every city must be different -- there is no one-size-fits-all approach to urban development. However, there are common problems, and cities can learn from one another -- one of the most important lessons, in terms of reducing energy and creating a walkable, enjoyable city, is density. There is a myth that higher urban densities lead to something poorer -- literally and also in terms of quality of life. Macao and Monaco, for example, are among the densest communities on earth, yet their roots lie at opposite ends of the economic spectrum. Proximity to a park or garden square is a major factor. Mayfair and Belgravia in London, for instance, pair with Hyde Park, just as the Upper East and West Sides of Manhattan relate to Central Park, and the most desirable parts of Brooklyn are on the borders of Prospect Park. It is interesting that the most popular aspect of our master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District with the people of Hong Kong is the major new waterfront park.
The European: Do we even need new cities?
Foster: The city is a response to human needs. There is a need to tackle the challenges we face as the world’s populations proliferate and become increasingly urbanized. However, there is no single solution with global applicability. In some cases, there may be a need for a new city -- in others, the focus will be on the densification or development of an existing city. No two scenarios are the same.
The European: Asia and the Middle East are leading this controlled urban-sprawl trend. Has the West lost its pioneering role in the realm of city development?
Foster: To say so would be to discount the important role that Western architects, engineers, and consultants, working with local collaborators, are playing in the development of these pioneering cities in the Asia and the Middle East. Masdar, for example, is the world’s first experiment to create a zero carbon, zero waste desert city -- and we designed the master plan as well as the first buildings.
The European: In the 20th century, many architects -- notably Le Corbusier -- tried to change the way society is organized and works. In many places, the consequences of their failures are still being felt today. Do you think that architecture should seek to influence the ways society works?
Foster: Buildings and the infrastructure, or urban glue, that binds them together do not design themselves -- they are designed by people regardless of how the individuals are titled. Some of their conceptions for living together have proved successful, been adapted and endured -- others have not. As Winston Churchill said, “We shape our buildings and they shape us.” Le Corbusier is no exception. Some of his visions and their interpretations by others were not successful -- others were.
This piece first appeared in The European.