The City That Built Norman Foster

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The HSBC Building under construction

It was a typically busy morning at Chek Lap Kok. Thousands of passengers swarmed beneath the vast sweep of the airport’s white roof, duty free bags in hand, squirming children in tow. The line for Starbucks inched ever longer. Yet a cool tranquility reigned over the terminal. That was especially true inside the first class section inside Cathay Pacific’s Wing lounge, where besuited travellers rested against a Carrara marble bar, gazing out to a row of jets sitting idle on the apron. Beyond that, the mountains of Lantau rose against a grey sky.

When the airport first opened, Cathay’s flagship lounge was one of the boldest and most intriguing in the world, with an unapologetically minimalist design by British architect John Pawson – one far removed from the wood panelling and grandfatherly armchairs of most airport lounges. Fifteen years of wear and tear meant it needed an overhaul, and the architecture firm Cathay chose to oversee the redesign was a natural fit: Foster and Partners, the same practice responsible for the airport itself, which opened in 1998. “The airport looks fresher and more modern than many airports built in the last five years,” says Cathay executive Toby Smith, who oversees the airline’s product offerings.

Airports are some of the most loathed spaces in the world: crowded, confusing and beset by increasingly onerous security restrictions that make them feel like some unholy cross between a shopping mall and a prison. But even after a decade and a half of intense use—nearly 60 million people passed through last year—Chek Lap Kok is praised for its durability and, even more importantly, its usability. “It’s absolutely efficient,” says architect Eric Schuldenfrei, who travels frequently for work and conferences. “Even aesthetically, the airport feels light, and the materials are good, so it won’t age badly.”

It’s hard to overstate the significance of that achievement. Great buildings are hard enough to design even if they’re a simple box, but designing a great airport, with its inherent complications, is even harder. For every success there is a spectacular failure; consider Paul Andreu’s Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, which attempted to strike a sharp aesthetic note when it opened in 1974, but which is now reviled for its “baffling circular layout” and “warrens of tunnel-like structures,” according to CNN Travel, which declared it to be the “world’s worst airport” in 2011.

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Chek Lap Kok Airport

By contrast, Norman Foster seems to have a knack for the very qualities that an airport needs most. Since his first project in Hong Kong, the HSBC headquarters, Foster has become one of the most important architects in the world, known for a restrained aesthetic and a fascination with high technology. He has won just about every major architecture prize that exists, from the Pritzker to the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal, and even those who do not know the man or his name will recognise many of his works. There’s the Gherkin in London, the Millau Viaduct in France, the Bilbao Metro. And then there are the airports: Stansted, Beijing, Kuwait, Hong Kong. Few architects have designed as many successful airport terminals as Norman Foster. “Foster has achieved what no other architect has been able to: he has rethought the airport from scratch and made it work,” writes critic Paul Goldberger. “[He] has established a pattern so clear that your natural instinct to walk straight ahead from the front door takes you where you need to go.”

But Foster has also attracted his share of criticism. Where one sees rational efficiency, another sees aloofness. Foster’s own son put it very bluntly when, as a young boy in 1996, he was interviewed by the British youth magazine Headliners. “I don’t really like the buildings my dad designs. They’re all so boring – made of glass and steel and that’s it.” A few years later, that assessment was echoed, with an even more caustic tone, by the critic Rowan Moore, who characterised Foster as a control freak whose high-tech innovations mask an aversion to the messiness of human life. More recently, New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman lambasted Foster’s proposal for an expansion of New York’s iconic library: “The designs have all the elegance and distinction of a suburban mall,” he wrote.

Foster bristles at such criticism—he called Kimmelman’s attack “both offensive and premature”—and it is easy to see why. Commentary is fleeting; architecture is enduring. And there is no better place than Hong Kong to assess Foster’s legacy. After all, this is the city that launched his global career. Born in 1935 near Manchester, Foster grew up in a working class family and left school to work for the government and then the air force. But trips to the library as a young boy had exposed him to the works of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier, and when he completed his national service at age 21, he began studying architecture, paying for his studies by working part-time as a cinema bouncer and a crumpet maker at an industrial bakery. In 1963, Foster founded his first architectural practice, Team 4, with classmate Richard Rogers, future wife Wendy Cheesman and Cheesman’s sister, Georgina Wolton. In 1967 he and Cheesman struck out on their own.

The next decade proved rocky. Foster’s first building, completed in 1974, was an insurance company headquarters in Ipswich, and it foreshadowed much of what was to come. Its curtain glass walls were starkly modern, but its form reflected the medieval pattern of surrounding streets. Its offices were open plan and it contained a swimming pool, roof garden and gymnasium for employees. It wasn’t until 1978, when Foster won a bid to design a new HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong, that things truly took off. “Hong Kong was the most exciting place I’d ever been – I remember my first trip clearly, it made such a deep impression on me,” he says from his office in New York. “I had never experienced anywhere that made most cities look like a quiet Sunday afternoon.”

It was such a major project that, in the early 1980s, Foster actually considered moving his entire operation here. “At the peak of activity we had 120 people in Hong Kong and only 16 in London,” he says. (Foster and Partners’ Hong Kong office is still its largest outside the British capital.) HSBC had asked for no less than “the best bank building in the world” and they spared no expense. When it was completed in 1985, the HSBC building was the most expensive office building in the world, with a cost of HK$5.2 billion.

It was worth it. “We reinvented the high-rise office tower,” says Foster, and it’s no empty boast: the building’s open floor plan, emphasis on natural light, sea-water cooling system and modular construction were all ahead of their time. Utilities were housed beneath lightweight floor panels, making it easy to modify the function of each room. “This flexibility has saved the bank time and money – figures in the long run that far offset its capital cost,” he says. “Its design anticipated open plan working in the age of the cellular office, while allowing for both. The flexibility granted by relocating the central service core to the edges of the building meant that the bank was able to introduce a large trading floor quite easily and without disruption – something that was never anticipated when it was designed.”

Foster also raised the building above street level to create a public space that connects Queen’s Road with Statue Square – one that is used to great effect every Sunday by domestic helpers, who gather under the building’s shelter. It also served as somewhat ironic accommodation for an anti-capitalist Occupy encampment in 2011 and 2012. “I still get a personal thrill every time I revisit the building,” says Foster. He is not alone. “That building is one of the reasons I wanted to be a designer,” says interior designer Joyce Wang. “You might not have much money in your bank account but you feel really important going up those escalators – it’s the power that architecture can bestow on you. For that moment it makes you feel like a million dollars.”

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The HSBC Building

Foster would be happy to hear that: he says his criteria for a great building is that “it lifts the spirits.” The HSBC building’s potency has not diminished with age, even as it has been engulfed by taller, lesser buildings. “I hate using the word masterpiece but I will make an exception to say that the HSBC building really is one,” says Aric Chen, the M+ museum’s curator of architecture and design. “It represents a moment in Hong Kong when the city believed in itself and it believed in the power and value of architecture.” The fact that the building looks as fresh today as it did in 1985 says a lot. “One of the things I admire about Foster is that he has always believed in the future,” says Chen.

There is certainly something heroic about Foster’s architecture, which is why it isn’t surprising to learn of his fascination with flying. His stint in the air force was no accident. His love affair with aircraft predates his interest in architecture, and he spends his free time piloting planes, gliders and helicopters around Europe. That, in turn, served as inspiration for him to restore the greatness of the airport just as it was falling into decline. “Most airports are depressingly divorced from the experience of flying,” he says. “You barely see the aircraft and when you do, you are inside and anaesthetised with drinks, food and movies – almost anything to pretend that you are doing something other than flying. Somewhere there is a missed opportunity. An airport should be a celebratory structure. It should combine a strong visual identity with a humanistic sense of clarity so that the experience of air travel is uplifting, secure, welcoming and efficient.” His first airport design, for London’s Stansted Airport, laid the groundwork for Hong Kong and Beijing. “With Stansted Airport we tried to recapture the clarity of the very first airfields, when you would see your plane standing on the grass or the tarmac and would walk directly towards it,” he says. “You were never in any doubt about where to go.”

One of Foster’s greatest sources of inspiration was the late Buckminster Fuller, an American architect best known for geodesic domes and other innovations. The two first collaborated in 1971, when Fuller asked Foster to contribute to a theatre project in Oxford. It was never built, but the two became friends. “Bucky was so far ahead of his time in many ways – and often ahead of the technology of the day,” says Foster. “I was inspired by his optimism, his belief in a benign technology that would enable man to survive if he used his intelligence. His geodesic dome was an attempt to create the most efficient form, to make an enclosure lighter, to use materials more economically, to do more with less, to use his phrase. This philosophy is integral to our work, as we design buildings and spaces that work with nature via passive environmental means such as natural ventilation, orientation and thermal mass.”

There is a direct line between Fuller’s ideas and Foster’s work on Masdar City, a cloistered settlement under construction in Abu Dhabi. It is a beautiful enclave of undulating buildings that look at once traditional, with delicate Arab latticework, and earnestly futuristic, as if it sprung from the imagination of Gene Roddenberry. It is also environmentally friendly: zero-carbon and zero-waste, with streets that are 20 degrees cooler than the surrounding desert, thanks to a 45-meter-tall window tower that sucks air from above and recirculates it through short, narrow streets. “There is a very simple pyramid diagram that shows how the biggest environmental gain really comes from the least financial investment,” says Foster. Most energy savings come not from technological gimmicks but from the smart positioning of buildings, so that they are cool when it is hot and warm when it is cold. Of course, Masdar also includes plenty of high-tech solutions, like an underground network of electric vehicles, rooftop solar panels and sensors that turn on lights and faucets only when they are being used.

The inspiration for Masdar came from traditional Arab villages and the architectural techniques they use to stay cool in the desert heat. Foster says he is fascinated by vernacular architecture, the structures built not by architects but by ordinary people working from generations of accumulated experience. “Architecture must always be a response to the needs of people – material and spiritual,” he says. “A few weeks ago, I gave a lecture in New York on a subject close to my heart – the tradition of the anonymous builders and great figures like Guastavino, who turned the vernacular tradition of Catalan vaulted arches into a patented product and art form.”

Though some critics doubt Masdar’s relevance as a model of sustainable building—the world is littered with the ruins of utopia—its influence can be felt in many of Foster’s latest projects, not the least of which is his master plan for the West Kowloon Cultural District. Like Masdar, it seeks to bury its services below ground, leaving the surface level free for pedestrians. And it is also informed by the Hong Kong vernacular: “We approached West Kowloon with a new idea of the cultural district being an extension of the city, influenced heavily by the DNA of its streets, alleyways and building blocks,” says Foster. Much of the media attention on the district has focused on its highlights – the marquee museums and the large park that Foster has planned for the western part of the site. But most of the cultural district will actually consist of everyday shops and apartments. “We would advocate that, as the architecture is developed, there are a limited number of ‘star’ buildings within the context of more general background buildings and urban spaces, like streets, squares and parks,” says Foster. “Public space is the urban glue that binds the city together, and will be central to the success of the new district.”

Foster says that his most memorable architectural experiences are actually experiences of public space. “The dappled sunlight, scents and sounds of the Middle Eastern souk, the shaft of light that pierces the dome of the Parthenon in Rome, the terrace of the typical Parisian café, the signage and vertical layers of activity and life in Lan Kwai Fong, the great Galleria at the heart of Milan or the Piazza del Campo in Siena, New York’s magnificent Central Park. It goes to show that the quality of the infrastructure, the streets and squares, the urban glue that binds a city together, is arguably more important than the merits of individual buildings.”

That says a lot about the real intention behind West Kowloon, which is not to design a cultural complex (the goal of Foster’s 2003 proposal for the area, which was scrapped after a public uproar against the monopoly on development granted to Sun Hung Kai) but rather an extension of the city’s liveliest and most fine-grained areas. Whether that can be accomplished is something that will be answered many decades in the future. Recently, alarmed by ballooning construction costs, lawmakers urged the government to drop one of the most crucial networks of the plan, the underground service roads, without which the district would be inundated with traffic. Foster says he is optimistic that won’t happen.

Another question is whether Foster’s sleek aesthetic and high-tech sensibility are at odds with his interest in the vernacular. “His fantasy world is only possible as a meticulously planned community, built from the ground up and of modest size,” wrote architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff after a 2010 visit to Masdar. That sounds a lot like Rowan Moore’s critique of Foster: “Those things Foster can control completely, like a roof, he makes perfect. Those things he cannot, like the messy ground level, he seeks to neutralise. There is a fear of friction, an aversion to touch and the sense which dominates is the distancing one of sight.”

Yet this kind of criticism ignores what Foster’s most successful architecture shares with vernacular spaces, which is a kind of effortlessness of use. Like the open area beneath the HSBC building or the corridors of Chek Lap Kok, they are spaces that provoke an instinctive response. They are not merely spaces to look at – they are spaces to be lived. And sometimes it takes a bit of remove to see that, which is perhaps why Foster is so attracted to flight – not to escape the messiness of the ground, but to see it more clearly.

“Over the years I have piloted all kinds of aircraft – helicopters, racing sailplanes, microlights, historic aircraft and jets,” he says. “Looking down on a city like London, you start to see the importance of the river, the way in which certain buildings block access to it and others open it up. You also see the parks and pockets of greenery. It’s extremely revealing, very educational and hauntingly beautiful.”

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All photos courtesy Foster + Partners. This story was originally published in the August 2014 edition of Peak magazine.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Friday October 24 2014at 07:10 pm , filed under Africa and Middle East, Architecture, Art and Design, Asia Pacific, Interior Space, Public Space, Society and Culture, Transportation and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

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