Constraints are the Spur of Invention

arhitect Norman Foster
interviewed by Vera Grimmer, Mira Stanić


Interviewed in London on 22 September 2016

Norman Foster entered the international architectural scene with his realization of the project of Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, in 1985, at the latest, and has stayed there to the present day as one of its most relevant participants. The innovativeness of the latter project in relation to structural expression, spatial organization, and progressive technology are features that constantly point to the architect's diverse and rich practice. Foster, however, does not see the technology as the goal of his work, but as a means of optimizing the conditions and the way of life of recipients of his architecture. His work encompasses a wide spectrum – from the design of utilitarian items to public spaces to large-scale infrastructure projects. Norman Foster has developed a universal method of processing architectural topics, appropriate for our time, but based on the Vitruvian principles – firmitas, utilitas, venustas – enriched by the aspects of sustainability and responsible attitude towards social reality.


ORIS: The architecture historian William J. R. Curtis put your position in the history of late modernism somewhere between Rogers and Piano. He says about your work: His ideas are rooted in structure, facts, and metaphors. And then, the nature and human spirit make a fusion which leads into a new kind of creation. Would you agree with such definitions?


NORMAN FOSTER: No, but that is all right, I respect them – everybody has an opinion. As an architect I, from the beginning, had a social idealism – a belief that architecture is about making a difference, that it has the power to break down barriers, to improve the quality of life. That is a powerful generator – the needs, the human condition, the things that you can measure, the things that you cannot measure, such as having a workplace where you can enjoy the view and have the contact with nature, but which you intuitively pursue as beauty or another poetic dimension. Very recently, last October, the Harvard School of Public Health published findings which quantified those and said: those who have a workplace which has all the benefits – natural ventilation, changing climate and so on are seen to be more productive. Finally, you have the scientific evidence; whether you need it or not is another matter. And then the way in which a building might express itself, whether it expresses the structure or supresses it under a skin, those are the kind of explorations an architect goes over backwards and forwards. A critic like Luis Fernández-Galiano would condense our work as skin and bones and see to demonstrate it. You could take the very first 2 projects, the project for Olsen which is highly reflected, almost like a very beautiful mirror with the most minimal graphic lines of junctions, separated by 2 or 3 years from Reliance which was the expression of structure. If you then go 50 years later in time and you look at 2 projects which I am very close to – Bloomberg down the road – it is bones, it is the stone frame, and it is the bronze fins, the breathing building. If you go to Apple in Cupertino, it is skin. And yet, they are both about the social dimension and have a sense of place, they are about public space. Bloomberg is interrupted by an arcade so the public can penetrate it. It is dissolving the boundaries between public and private in the same way that Olsen and Reliance were dissolving the boundaries between the blue-collar and the white-collar and were raising standards in the industrial workplace dramatically. If you go and see the research buildings in Stanford University, it is, again, about dissolving the boundaries between different disciplines where the hope is you will achieve medical breakthroughs. It is about the social spaces, the social dimension. These are recurring themes over projects. From time to time, we reinvent. We reinvent a building type. The Hong Kong Bank questioned, for the first time in the history of the high-rise building, the skyscraper, the idea that you have a central core. It takes it out, puts it to one side and enables the building to do more and spawns evolutionarily a whole new body of high-rise buildings. The big move is Hong Kong, the other ones are not revolutionary, they are evolutionary, they build on that model. I do not hear any of these tendencies in the description.


ORIS: Of course, it is a poetic and a very personal view. I would like to point out to a very early work of yours – the Willis Faber Headquarters, a very progressive work in many ways which was widely influential. You already mentioned some of these points – the social dimension. There are facilities for the people working there which improved their everyday life. But this is just one of, for that time very innovative aspects, like the curved curtain wall with mirrored glass, the central void as a communication area and the fluid continuous working places which then had the German name of Büro Landschaft.


NORMAN FOSTER: Which has beennow developed much further in Bloomberg, and the big innovation there is the ability to make a breathing building using natural ventilation, in a very deep space. That was a huge research investment on our part where we created, in a warehouse not too far from here, since dismantled, a test bed, probably about the quarter of the size of this space here, with test dummies and temperature monitors. At different points in time different levels of innovation occur within a whole series of continuous experiments.


ORIS: Many of these topics can be tracked back to an early phase in your formation, when you developed an interest for what will later be called Architecture Without Architects. I am referring to your study of vernacular buildings from 1959, for which you received the RIBA Silver Award. The kind of embodied intelligence those unauthored buildings had seems to be a continuous topic – be it in one of your latest projects – the Droneport or the Margaux Winery. Would you agree with that?


NORMAN FOSTER: Yes, and Maggie’s Centre also. I am putting together a talk at the moment, a rather unusual talk which I’ll be giving in Bologna for Francesco Dal Co. It will be longer than usual, so I have made it much more autobiographical, but visually, I have just traced some of the ideas and thinking probably starting from the first building, which was the architecture that I worked in – the Manchester Town Hall, a High Victorian Gothic by Alfred Waterhouse. That was one kind of influence. You could call that going back and you could call that the bones. The other kind of buildings that excited me in central Manchester were the cast iron arcades. The other interest was, as you say, the vernacular. Then, there were city spaces which I explored as a student. Recently I managed to retrieve, from a rather obscure library in Manchester, a copy of the work that I did in 1960, where I analysed public spaces from Sienna to Verona to Bath to Mayfair, Oxford, the universities, quadrangles. I think that a lot of the ideas which I explored and am still exploring go right back to early roots as a student, before I was even aware of the profession of architecture. It was just as an interest, an interest in structures. I would cycle out to something called the Jodrell Bank, which was a radio telescope in Cheshire, and it is still a heroic structure now. There are a number of parallel threads and I see no conflict between Maggie’s or Margaux which are tiny and a heroic viaduct like Millau, Bloomberg in the middle of London, Apple and designing an area of 170 acres. They are all about architecture in the same way that, after this, I will be going upstairs and doing a design session on furniture, on tableware. For me, it is all design in the same way that I do not see a distinction between art and design. A car, sculpture, painting, architecture – for me, it is a seamless continuum.


ORIS: If we go back to the social aspect of your work, then we must say that, aside from these large corporate projects, there is another part of your work which is dedicated to those who are less fortunate in the society of our time. Such is the study you have made for the improvement of the Dharavi quarter in Mumbai, or the Droneport project for Africa which you have shown at this year’s Venice Biennale. There is great empathy and understanding for different and specific ways of life. The same empathy can be seen in the mentioned Maggie’s Centre which has some relation to Scandinavian humanistic architecture.


NORMAN FOSTER: My hope is that the foundation which we are working on, which is based in Madrid, will be able to develop further some of those humanitarian-type projects which, for whatever reason, architects don’t really consider as architecture, but I think of them as absolutely fundamental because they are about making a difference. You can use technology to deliver power to a remote community, to transform lives and bring enlightenment through access to lighting and so on. All of those things are mixed up together.


ORIS: One can perhaps say that your works show an optimistic belief in the potential of technology. Could you agree with an opinion that you belong to the technological wing of the Modern Movement, with predecessors like Buckminster Fuller or Jean Prouvé.


NORMAN FOSTER: As long as you are very clear in your mind that the technology is a means to an end and is not an end in itself. And that, basically, the story of society is the story of technology, so when human beings come out of a cave, they create a building, whether it is an upturned boat or whether it is a boat to get from one place to the other – that is technology. There is, for me, a very disagreeable arrogance in the belief that technology is something of our time. It is outrageous because the progress of human society is the story of technology and the quality of life, however critical we might be in terms of the dispossessed, has never been higher in the history of society than it is at the moment. All of that is the continuous story of technological progress. So the idea that technology is something that happened overnight in the lifetime of one or two critics and therefore we can hang it as a label on some more than others is a denial of reality.


ORIS: We have touched upon Buckminster Fuller who was certainly one of your mentors and a colleague.


NORMAN FOSTER: He was an eternal optimist. He was also the first person to draw attention to the fragility of the planet. He was extraordinarily wise in that he saw the challenge of delivering more with less. Although he never articulated it with those words, those societies which consume more power have the greatest life expectancy, lowest infant mortality, the greatest freedom from political or sexual oppression, so there is a direct link between enlightenment and the consumption of power.


ORIS: A few years ago, as certain homage, you recreated his legendary Dymaxion car. I think there are some very direct lessons that the Dymaxion offers, particularly in terms of performance.


NORMAN FOSTER: It was a kind of homage to Bucky. I saw the rather sad example, the only surviving example, in the exhibition of Bucky’s work at Whitney, this rather sad surviving car with no windows and no interior, but nonetheless a very beautiful object and kind of utopian, or be it in some respects somewhat naïve, conceived with the American yacht designer Starling Burgess. I just thought that it would be great to recreate that and to make it the Dymaxion car number 4, because all the pieces would be truly authentic – you could get the engine from 1934, the chassis from 1934, you could get the ignition, the steering wheel, you could get all these original pieces and it would be a true number 4. Perhaps to do that, it would be helpful to have the car that was in the Whitney. So we borrowed that car and, as a gesture, we refurbished it, gave it windows, gave it an interior and generally brought it back to life so everybody has benefited from that. It was a kind of a mini manifesto about the importance of links between the automobile, Bucky’s vision, design, art. In a way, the artists always anticipate the age that follows. If you take the flowing figure of Boccioni or take Brancusi, they all anticipate the streamline age.


ORIS: You often mention the importance of infrastructural projects. A good example would certainly be the highest bridge in the world, the Millau Viaduct, which is very important for the everyday life of many people.


NORMAN FOSTER: When you take out 5-hour traffic jams with all the pollution that is involved, surprisingly, you find that it has a very strong ecological dimension. It is a model of sustainability, which is the last thing you could ever expect from something that encourages road transport. I believe the infrastructure of a city is more important than the architecture, the individual building. So if you asked me what I think is the most important work we have done here in London, it is probably the Trafalgar Square and the Millennium Bridge. Somebody would say, but what about the British Museum. And of course, the British Museum is a significant contribution in all kinds of ways – it creates an urban room, it eases the circulation, it enables the many millions of visitors to be able to go to one gallery directly rather than to queue to get from one gallery to the other. But in terms of the quality of life in London, the 2 infrastructure interventions are arguably more significant. In that vein, I say that the work we have done in Marseilles was also where we brought the life back to the waterfront and created a new café life. I think that the kind of span and range of the interest, the work is wider than the rather narrow band that Curtis evokes. But in the end, that is only something that is going to be measured later, in the future.


ORIS: Continuing on the relationship between infrastructure and buildings, and in one of the lectures which you recently gave, you used the term inhabited infrastructure. Could you expand on that?


NORMAN FOSTER: There are certain types of buildings where, in the past, the dominant was engineering and the spectators or the participants were largely secondary. If you look at stadia, stadia have moved from the realm of being enclosure with seats added on, and they have become extraordinary manifestations of entertaining, of ceremonies, rituals, events, and transcended their original infrastructural scope of creating a big room, or a lack of roof, over a kind of forum. It is really my shorthand of saying that there has been a transformation of infrastructure.


ORIS: There is another interesting topic which demonstrates the diversity of your work and that is the notion of building as enclosure and space, like in the Villa la Voile in Cap Ferrat or especially in the Free University's Library in Berlin which opens other topics related to energy, sustainability and so on.


NORMAN FOSTER: I think Bucky put it quite well when he said that, when he was working at a design, he never thought about beauty, but if it did not come out as something beautiful, then, in a way, he had not done it right. When you are working at a project with the idea that it is sustainable, if, when you have completed it and it is highly sustainable, it is not also beautiful and uplifting or adding something to the human spirit, in some way you failed. Sustainability cannot be a way to justify a design failure; that is a contradiction. Everything, in the end, has to be integrated.


ORIS: Another big issue of Modernism or late Modernism is building in historical context with great examples by Scarpa, Hollein, Gino Valle or even Peter Zumthor in Cologne. You once said that, with buildings in such contexts, you wanted to stress the value of the place, the value of memory. Which are your methods and processes behind outstanding projects such as the Reichstag conversion, the Carré d’Art in Nîmes or the Vieux Port Pavilion in Marseilles?


NORMAN FOSTER: Paul Goldberger wrote a book recently, Building with History, and he took a whole range of our projects because he felt that we engaged with the fabric of historical building with contemporary interventions probably to a greater extent than anybody else. There are a lot of examples, from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Treasury here in London, Reichstag as you say, British Museum, Joslyn Museum, Smithsonian… It is a very long list, but a fairly consistent philosophy is rooted in understanding the layers of history and how they add up rather like a city in microcosm. The kind of diversity and the richness of many layers is positive and it is important not to get carried away into a wave of pastiche which was a method in the past. That is another quite strong thread in our work.


ORIS: The project in Nîmes extended over a rather long period – 12 years, and it is a small-scale project, but then you have some immense projects, like the Beijing Airport, constructed at a much faster pace. How does the process change in relation to those very different frequencies, or does the working process change?


NORMAN FOSTER: It is more difficult to work on a project over a longer period of time because people change. When the project is fast, you are dealing with the same people. The most difficult thing is when you become the custodian of the project. A project might start and then, along the way, it is handed to someone else; they were not the incubators, the patrons of the project, they might even have a vested interest in challenging it, rubbishing it, questioning it, in making a mockery. They might have more to gain by its failure than its success because it is associated with the previous regime. And I can think of projects where that kind of commissioning body has changed 4 times over the life of the project. So the people with whom you finish it have no concept of the idealism which might have started the project.


ORIS: That was the case with the Reichstag as well – there were constraints, there were changes.


NORMAN FOSTER: Reichstag was different though, because it did have continuity of important individuals. Rita Süssmuth was a constant, Peter Conradi was a constant, but some other projects did not have those advantages.


ORIS: Almost every architect faces constraints from the outside and is forced to make compromises.


NORMAN FOSTER: No, I do not agree. Constraints are the essence of architecture; architecture does not exist without constraints. There is no such thing. I think it is the very essence, the lifeblood of architecture. Constraint brings out the best in terms of architecture. And there is no reason why it should lead to compromise.


ORIS: It can lead to new creation.


NORMAN FOSTER: It is the spur of invention, the spur of creativity.


ORIS: You have certainly shown a capacity to distil very complex issues, problems, and technological needs into very simple and universally understandable spaces and your airports are among the projects which most clearly show this.


NORMAN FOSTER: That is a result of a distillation, it does not come easily. If it looks easy at the end, that is a nice compliment. The things which look the simplest and the easiest really come out of blood, sweat and tears. As Charles Eames said, never let the blood show. If you take Stansted, Stansted reinvented the airport terminal, it was revolutionary. It literally turned it upside down, opened it up to the sky, so it is a quest for the architecture of the sky. Beijing and Hong Kong were evolutionary, they built on top of that model, and they refined it. The Mexico City Airport, I think, has the potential to reinvent again.


ORIS: Could we shortly go back to the Willis Faber. It could be viewed as a very elegantly designed product in a very large scale and it could perhaps be defined a Produktform as Max Bill understood it.


NORMAN FOSTER: I would disagree. I would say that it is totally contextual. In other words, what is the essence of a medieval market town?


ORIS: You are referring to the facade which curves in response to the irregular medieval street pattern.


NORMAN FOSTER: Yes, it is a very precise response to the urbanity of the market town. The building goes right to the end of its site and it squeezes the streets to the minimum. The idea of a product is a universal thing which you can drop here in a market town or you can drop it there in a suburb; it is not contoured for a specific place, whereas Willis Faber is absolutely site-specific. A product is universal. You could put it anywhere. Willis Faber could not be put anywhere but on that site in Ipswich. It is like a piece of jigsaw – there is only one place where it will go.


ORIS: Perhaps it is meant in the sense that it is Produktform in the same way that the Crystal Palace was one.


NORMAN FOSTER: That is a great compliment. Paxton is a hero. But, if that is the perspective, name a building that is not a product.


ORIS: Every building is a product, but the question is how perfect it is. You surely have many concerns with so many projects of all scales. Can you still find the passion and the commitment which was always present in your work?


NORMAN FOSTER: I am just travelling more than I ever had in my life and I am working harder than ever so the answer has to be yes. For me, nothing has changed throughout my life in terms of my passion for architecture. With time, I have become more aware of the importance of cities, importance of urbanity, the importance of public space, but all of those were things that preoccupied me as a student, whether it was measuring vernacular buildings or exploring glass with very little knowledge about that, my travels in America, my time at Yale, my exposure to teachers such as Vincent Scully who brought history alive and made it relevant in terms of what was happening today. I still have the same mad obsessions, and still the crazy passions; they are amplifications and developments of things that interested me when I first became aware of architecture. For me, it was a privilege to study architecture; I paid my own way through university. If you are passionate about something, then you can become very driven by it. Just at the end of the summer, I was with somebody from New York and we were comparing backgrounds and in the end he said, you know, as youth, we were both PHDs. I asked him what he meant by PHDs and he said, poor, hungry, and driven. In a way, everything has changed and nothing has changed.