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Tuesday, 9 May, 2000, 14:11 GMT 15:11 UK
Norman Foster: Building the future
norman foster
The aptly titled Lord Foster of Thames Bank
It is no great surprise that the prestigious task of designing the first bridge across the River Thames in more than a century fell to Norman Foster.

The CV of the award-winning architect spans the world - from the Hong Kong headquarters of HSBC bank to the Reichstag building in Berlin to London's third airport, Stansted.

His style is seen as very much that of the new millennium - clean, unfettered and environmentally-aware.

Even the inspiration for the new bridge has futuristic overtones: Lord Foster envisioned it as "a blade of light across the river".

millennium bridge
The bridge will be for pedestrians only
And it is not the only project of his which will sit on the Thames - the 64-year-old architect has also designed the transparent egg shaped building which will house the new Greater London Assembly.

Aptly enough, when he was awarded a life peerage last June, Sir Norman became Lord Foster of Thames Bank.

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".

It also says that architecture is generated by the material and spiritual needs of people.

'Blue-collar beginnings'

Norman Foster, 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.

hong kong airport
Airport design has changed as a result of Foster's innovations
"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 including airport terminals, skyscrapers, museums and public buildings.

Environmental design

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."

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, Lord Foster's environmental accomplishments with the parliament building risked being overlooked.

The Commerzbank uses natural ventilation for 60% of the year
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."

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. Lord Foster 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.

Carbon dioxide emissions from the Reichstag were cut by 94%
In 1999 he was awarded the international Pritzker architecture prize - only the second Briton to do so.

He also has nine honorary university doctorates and memberships of 16 professional organisations around the world - not to mention the 160 plus other 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 Lord Foster'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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See also:

17 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Work begins on mayor's HQ
30 Sep 99 | Europe
Reichstag row rumbles on
06 Oct 98 | Europe
Reconstructing the Reichstag
06 Jul 98 | Asia-Pacific
Hong Kong airport - is it art?
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