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Friday, 1 February, 2002, 17:02 GMT
Lord Foster: Stormin' Norman
Lord Foster: Going from strength to strength

As London's Millennium Bridge finally solves its wobble, Andrew Walker of the BBC's News Profiles Unit looks at the high-flying career of its designer, Norman Foster.
Architects are a strange breed. No other profession stamps its personal style on our lives in the way that theirs does.

Most of the time, though, their buildings go unnoticed: they are functional, workaday, unsexy. When, from time to time, more radical designs do make the headlines, it is usually to face a tirade of abuse and popular scorn.

Architects are seen as either nerdish draughtsmen or crackpots bent on moulding society in their own chaotic image.

Not so Norman Foster.

Defiantly Modernist

Together with his great friend, and fellow peer, Richard Rogers, Lord Foster of Thames Bank has stamped his own, defiantly modernist, style on cities from London to Berlin to Hong Kong.

His is the most accessible and popular face of contemporary architectural design: ambitious, outrageous even, yet endearingly human.

The young Norman Foster
As a youth he was fascinated by Meccano and architecture

Born in Manchester in 1935 and brought up in its run-down Levenshulme district, Norman Foster was a bookish youth, fascinated by Meccano and, in particular, by two books.

One was a work about the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the other Le Corbusier's modernist bible, Towards a New Architecture.

Lloyd Wright's maxim "Form and Function Are One" and Le Corbusier's theories of space, light and minimalism, have influenced Foster's outlook ever since.

Leaving school at 16, he initially worked in Manchester's City Treasurer's office before National Service in the Royal Air Force.

Great architecture should wear its message lightly

Norman Foster

But Foster's ambition would not be denied. Once out of the RAF, he went to Manchester University School of Architecture and City Planning, working in a cold store, selling ice cream and even acting as a bouncer at a local cinema to pay his way through college.

After graduating in 1961 he won a Fellowship to study for a Masters degree at the Yale School of Architecture. It was here that he met Richard Rogers and the two young men travelled the country, as he says, "by thumb, by car, and by Greyhound bus" to see as many Frank Lloyd Wright buildings as possible.

Stansted Airport
His design for Stansted Airpost was ground-breaking

The States had a huge impact on Foster's thinking. "When I got to America, I felt I'd come home", he once admitted. He admired the 24-hour lifestyle, the positive thinking and, most of all, the innovative architecture.

Seeing Wright's organic buildings, with their sweeping curves and natural light, he determined to bring this vision to drab, formal Britain.

Back home, Foster and Rogers formed Team 4. Their first major commission, the Reliance Controls electronics factory in Swindon, broke new ground.

Removing the demarcation between workers and management, the building was a 32,000 square foot box, with large moveable panels acting as walls and with only the kitchens, toilets and plant room as permanent structures.

Modern materials

Splitting with Rogers, he formed his own firm, today called Foster and Partners, in 1967. Eschewing the usual concrete shell favoured by most other architects, Foster used modern materials, especially steel and glass, and opted, wherever possible, for natural light.

The Willis Faber and Dumas building in Ipswich, completed in 1974, was Foster's big break.

A glass-sheathed office complex, its entrance featured two large escalators, "much more civilised than lifts" - and replicated, on a grander scale, in his recent Canary Wharf station complex - a turfed roof garden and an Olympic-sized swimming pool in the basement.

The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank
The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank

Thereafter, commissions flooded in: the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts in Norwich, the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong (then the most expensive building ever), Stansted Airport in Essex and, more recently, the Reichstag in Berlin.

All are stripped-down spaces, all utilise natural resources wherever possible, all place services like water and electricity away from public areas.

He frequently uses, as in the redevelopment of the Great Court at the British Museum, the geodesic designs pioneered by another great mentor, the techno-sage R Buckminster Fuller and often employs environmentally-friendly technology.

The Reichstag, for instance, is powered by vegetable oil, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 94%.

Common philosophy

Lord Foster now oversees his team, rather than designing everything himself. His brilliance comes in asking the right questions and instigating debate about particular projects, but all his designers instinctively understand the common philosophy underpinning its work.

Retaining an essentially Northern outlook, friends say he remains thrifty, insecure about his success and obsessed about bringing projects in on time and on budget.

Norman Foster on London's Millennium Bridge
Norman Foster on his once-wobbly Millennium Bridge

Now with his third wife, he is a fitness fanatic, with a penchant for cross-country skiing and also pilots gliders, helicopters, light aircraft and larger jets, including the Boeing 747.

His close-cropped grey hair gives him the patrician aura of a Roman senator. He is, as the French say, "un homme d'affaires".

Foster's critics dismiss his ideas as a dystopian, rather than utopian, dream. They grumble about his fetishistic use of steel, aluminium and glass. His very ubiquity is seen as a threat.

Forthcoming London projects, including the 41-storey Swiss Re building, a re-developed Elephant and Castle and the headquarters of the Greater London Authority, could make it seem that Norman Foster is redesigning the capital in his own image.

The same could have been said, though, about Sir Christopher Wren, whose 51 churches, and landmarks like Kensington Palace and Greenwich Naval Hospital, dominated the city after the Great Fire of London.

"Great architecture", says Norman Foster, "should wear its message lightly." Perhaps this philosophy is the reason why, even with his wobbly bridge, his reputation as the foremost urban stylist of the age goes from strength to strength.

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