Few international architectural competitions are complete without an entry from Norman Foster, and so persuasive is his architecture that he often wins. Consequently his architecture can be seen from Tokyo to Nebraska, from Hong Kong to London and a good many points in between. Encompassing almost every building type from art galleries and sports stadia to office towers and airports, it appeals across the range of functions and cultures.
Much of this appeal lies in Foster’s extraordinary ability to match generic human experiences with emerging technologies. The ability to strip an experience back to its essence and rebuild it from technology which appears to be universal, helps to explain why many of his major works deal imaginatively with functions that many other architects find hard to define, like airports and office blocks. And the remarkable skill with which he synthesises even the most complex design challenges into a logical whole means each decision and every component becomes part of a contingent chain, from which nothing could be removed or added without damaging the overall effect. The precise logic of the structures has an austere beauty, but where that starts to interact with the less predictable patterns of human usage, it acquires another level of meaning.
Foster initially studied architecture at Manchester but it was winning a scholarship to Yale that provided the most decisive influences. One of his teachers was Paul Rudolph, an architect who found expressive power within a modernist language long after most of America had turned to Post Modernism. Like many other young British architects in the early 1960s, he came under the spell of the Case Study houses in Los Angeles, profound images of a relaxed modern lifestyle, achieved on relatively low budgets with common industrial materials, designed by architects like Charles and Rae Eames. He overlapped with another young Briton, Richard Rogers, with whom he would later found Team 4. But perhaps most important of all was the influence of Buckminster Fuller, the scientific polymath, who exuded the conviction that logically applied technology could improve modern life.
Foster’s trajectory from Team 4, through to Foster Associates which he founded with his first wife Wendy in 1967, to the international presence of Foster and Partners is, in one sense, a progression from simple and elegant industrial sheds to some of the most sophisticated buildings ever made. But there is also a consistency in the clarity of construction and rationality of how architecture serves its functions, and in the interplay between the precision of advanced engineering and the ambiguity of human existence. His work will always be associated with the label “high tech”, but increasingly it explores technology’s interaction with humanity, not as an end in itself.
Elected ARA: 19 May 1983
Elected RA: 26 June 1991