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Thursday, April 29, 1999 Published at 10:50 GMT 11:50 UK


Norman Foster: Building the future

Sir Norman Foster: Designer of the Millennium Bridge

With a CV the size of one of his skyscrapers, Sir Norman Foster has come a long way since his days working in the treasury department of Manchester town hall.

The latest project of the 63-year-old world class architect - he is 1999's Pritzker Prize Laureate - is the Millennium Bridge over the River Thames in London.

In the style that is the hallmark of his work, it is planned to be a clean, unfettered and environmentally-aware structure.

The philosophy statement of his company Foster and Partners - which employs 500 people at studios in London, Berlin and Hong Kong - says that in recognition of architecture being a public art, each project "is sensitive to the culture and climate of its place".

[ image: Bridge will be a
Bridge will be a "blade of light"
It also says that architecture is generated by the material and spiritual needs of people.

So the capital gets its first dedicated pedestrian footbridge across the Thames - whose steel and aluminium frame will be lit at night to resemble a "blade of light" connecting the different sides of the city.

He grew up in a working class area of Manchester, left school, got his job in the treasury department and did his national service in the RAF, where he trained in electronics and aviation.

He went to work in the contracts department of a Manchester architectural firm, John Bearshaw and Partners.

By the early 1950s, at the age of 21, he started studying architecture at Manchester University.

He told the Christian Science Monitor: "I come from a working-class neighbourhood in Manchester.

[ image:  ... it will link St Paul's and the new Tate Museum of Modern Art]
... it will link St Paul's and the new Tate Museum of Modern Art
"In Britain the idea one could go from blue-collar beginnings to the university was so far out, it was quite unthinkable."

He added: "I took a variety of jobs to pay for tuition - from ice-cream salesman to night-club bouncer. Whatever earned the most money in the least time."

He then went to the US on a fellowship to Yale University, where he gained his masters in architecture.

He established Foster Associates - later to become Foster and Partners - in 1967.

He is now famous for his numerous multi-million pound projects all over the world, from Germany to China, including airport terminals, skyscrapers, museums and public buildings.

His designs have been labelled "high-tech" - but he does not care for the term, saying: "Since Stonehenge, architects have always been at the cutting edge of technology. And you can't separate technology from the humanistic and spiritual content of a building."

[ image: Airport design has changed as a result of Foster's innovations]
Airport design has changed as a result of Foster's innovations
Indeed, they often exist to make his buildings as ecologically sensitive as possible.

With much of the reporting in UK on the renovation of Germany's Reichstag focusing on its British architect, Sir Norman's environmental accomplishments with the parliament building risked being overlooked.

But he managed to incorporate in his design a method of fuelling the building with vegetable oils, thus reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 94%.

And by eschewing traditional air conditioning - at least for 60% of the year - in favour of natural ventilation in Frankfurt's Commerzbank, he ensured that fuel consumption was cut.

He said of that project: "Anything that reduces fuel consumption and cuts down on greenhouse gasses is good news."

[ image: The Commerzbank uses natural ventilation for 60% of the year]
The Commerzbank uses natural ventilation for 60% of the year
His fresh approach to each task has rewritten many of the accepted rules of architecture.

This is probably most evident in the field of airport design. Sir Norman decided the traditional exposure of ducts and pipes was not only aesthetically displeasing, but a waste of energy.

His clean, spacious and airy airports - including London's Stansted and the world's largest airport, Chep Lap Kok in Hong Kong - now set the design standard.

And his working spaces challenge the traditional "them and us" attitudes, with wide, open plan areas surrounding both blue and white collar workers.

But his portfolio also includes projects as small as doorhandles, and as diverse as a new design for a wind turbine, a partly solar-powered electric bus for Kew Gardens, and the sports centre for the spinal injury charity Aspire.

[ image: Carbon dioxide emissions from the Reichstag were cut by 94%]
Carbon dioxide emissions from the Reichstag were cut by 94%
While his former partner Richard Rogers is now Lord Rogers, Sir Norman has his fair share of honours. As well as his knighthood, he received an Order of Merit in 1997. He also has nine honorary university doctorates and memberships of 16 professional organisations around the world - not to mention the 160 plus awards made to his studios.

Among those was the Stirling Award, made last year for the American Air Museum at Duxford.

It was described by judges as: "... A great big, clear span hangar of a building, beautifully integrated into its flat landscape ... dramatic, awe-inspiring, an object of beauty displaying a collection of warplanes dispassionately ..."

But flying is a particular passion of Sir Norman's, and he pilots both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters all over Europe.

Yet after all his achievements, inside and outside his professional life, he seems to be almost shy about his success.

He writes about his studio's achievements as team efforts, and admits to wanting to "shout for joy" when he was informed of his Pritzker win, adding that it had "come out of the blue".

He was similarly modest at the launch of work on his Millennium Bridge, saying: "Five years ago this concept would have been impossible to produce.

"Pedestrians will have a gentle promenade to walk across offering them spectacular views."

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