June 14, 2010
At the height of the fashion for post-modernism, the camp panjandrum of late 20th century American architecture Philip Johnson described Norman Foster as “the last modern architect,” suggesting that his broad adherence to the technological and ‘moral; principles of the by then 70-year-old modern movement was old hat and that the future was the aberrational cod classicism that he was dumping on New York and Robert Venturi was about to dump on Trafalgar Square.
In Norman Foster: A Life in Architecture, Deyan Sudjic rather tellingly omits this episode, for although Johnson was, of course, wrong, this is not merely a matter of frivolous taxonomy. It does raise the matter of Foster’s relationship to his predecessors and begs the question of whether he is anything other than a neo-modernist, a skilled pasticheur. My reaction in 1976 upon seeing—by chance, for I didn’t know of its existence—the recently completed Willis Faber Dumas building in Ipswich was: “What is this startling unrecorded prodigy of the 1930s?”
Fifteen years later, from a balcony on Chelsea Embankment, I noticed a Macmillan era block across the river and wondered why I hadn’t registered it before. This was Foster’s newly finished offices with his apartment on top. Whilst his later work is less beholden to the modernist past, it prompts another question—that of attribution. Paul Rudolph, the uncompromisingly spikey brutalist who was chairman of Yale’s department of architecture when Foster (and his early partner Richard Rogers) were students there, said: “Architects were never meant to design together. It’s either your work, or it’s his.”
So who does design the polished, affectless stuff that bears the name of Foster in one or other guise, currently Foster + Partners? This is, after all, an enterprise which employs 1,400 people in twenty-five offices across the globe, whose questionable regimes it is unabashed about treating with. Given the sheer volume of work being undertaken at any moment it would be naÃ¯ve to believe that Baron Foster of Thames Bank’s involvement in every project is any greater than John Player’s was in the rolling of every cigarette. This is evidently a bogus analogy: architecturally designed buildings only atypically come off production lines. They are bespoke creations. Sudjic coyly admits in an afterword that being an authorized biographer “suggests a certain intimacy between subject and author.” Indeed! He need not have said it. His bias towards the authorized version of events is such that he dismisses the very public spat about authorship between Foster and his sometime partner Ken Shuttleworth as the latter’s “deft publicity campaign that strained credulity.”
Again, writing of the Millau Viaduct, he describes Michel Virlogeux as “the French engineer who was responsible for the calculations on which the design depends.” This is both insulting and risible. Foster had not actually seen “his” viaduct till a few weeks before Jacques Chirac opened it. According to the starchitect-struck Midi Libre, Milord helicoptered himself in and lavished all of forty precious minutes on it.
Faute de mieux, however, the most diverting parts of this doggedly enthusiastic enconium, which now and again emits the cloying scent of a vanity project, do derive from that certain intimacy. Foster has opened up about his drab, pecuniarily straitened Mancunian childhood and adolescence, its cultural bereavement relieved by Meccano and drawing, grammar school and public library. It is obligatory in the lives of the architects of a certain generation to discover their vocation through exposure to Le Corbusier’s Vers une architecture and Foster is no exception. He was also a devotee of Frank Hampson’s illustrations for Dan Dare in the Eagle, and of that comic’s exploded drawings—a worryingly elderly devotee, for its first edition was not published till he was fifteen.
Sudjic deftly accumulates details: the sartorial and orthographic fashions Foster followed (he is left-handed); his absolute dedication to what is no longer called bettering yourself; his capacity for autodidacticism; his extraordinary physical energy (cycling 150 miles in a day, running marathons); his refusal, no matter how materially uncomfortable the consequences might be, to seek short term advantage. He is portrayed as a man who, had he any hair, would not know how to let it down: a grafting, self-controlled, meticulous obsessive; a wilful self-creation, who after he made himself remade the world in his technophiliac image. This is all very well—but then you consider the sheer banality of More London, City Hall’s sullenness, the ineffable Sainsbury building at Holborn Circus, and so on.