Luis Fernández-Galiano (LFG): Everybody knows you love flying, but I wonder how it has inspired your architecture. When you turned 75, you recollected how many different models of aircraft you had piloted, and they happened to be exactly 75…
Norman Foster (NF): It was one of those extraordinary explorations. I got all my log books, in which I’d noted every flight in each type of flying machine, and discovered I had piloted 75 different craft – microlights, aerobatic monoplanes, vintage biplanes, military fighters and business jets. It is interesting that professional pilots rarely cross the boundaries between these different flying machines. If the pilot of a light aircraft has to make a landing without an engine into a remote field, then an emergency would be declared with calls of “mayday” to alert the emergency services.
However, for a glider pilot that would be a normal procedure when running out of lift on a long-distance cross-country flight. Similarly, the worlds of fixed wing and helicopters are normally quite separate as the skills are different, even if the flight environment is the same. I have been very fortunate to enjoy an extraordinary cross-section of aviation experiences, to have been able to fly so many types from spitfires to racing sailplanes. It crosses my mind that there are parallels in my attitude to architecture. Similarities in the sense that either by virtue of interest or passion, most architects and engineers, like pilots, tend to specialise in their chosen fields. I realise now that in design as well as in aviation, I have crossed conventional boundaries. As a designer I am just as excited by the challenges of high architecture for civic events as by low-cost construction for a mass audience. Infrastructure also inspires me in the same way as buildings or even furniture. So for me, flight and design are both universal activities.
LFG: Your piloting being so important to you means perhaps that you enter every field with a sense of discovery and a sense of risk…
NF: Yes, I think that the same curiosity that drives me to explore different experiences, whether aviation, cycling, or cross-country skiing, and my fascination with the marathon – the cross-country skiing marathon as a race, the marathon bike ride with colleagues – is perhaps mirrored in building projects, which also assume marathon-like experiences. A building such as the Monaco Yacht Club was a 12-year haul, and the same was true for the Carré d’Art in Nîmes. How do you lead a team and keep fresh over that long a period, so you don’t lose the design plot along the way? With some projects, you have to keep focused and sharp, pacing yourself over a long period of time, just like in a marathon race. Of course you can also have the polar opposite, in those megaprojects which can happen surprisingly fast, like Beijing Airport. It’s the biggest in the world and was realised by 50,000 people in five years. Or Hong Kong Airport, which involved moving mountains and creating land from the ocean. But for every one of these epic journeys, there is an honourable series of projects which are smaller – do not command the headlines – but are equally important. I am reminded of the anonymous tradition in architecture. Bernard Rudofsky draws attention to this in his book Architecture Without Architects, which accompanied the New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition of the same name in the 1960s. It illustrated the so-called vernacular stream of buildings which in a past before the age of cheap energy were elegant and ingenious responses to local climates. These ranged from benign Mediterranean regions to the extremes of desert heat and the intense cold of polar and Alpine locations. The resulting structures were formed from the materials at hand and were always in harmony with the landscape. We cannot attribute names to the authors of this vast body of indigenous work which spans continents and is not considered as architecture in the conventional sense by most writers on the subject. However, for me, even as a student, it has been an important and inspirational mainstream. For example, our zero-carbon, zero-waste project of Masdar would not have been feasible without applying the timeless lessons learnt from traditional desert building which go back several hundred years. Such works as our school system for Sierra Leone and the winery for Château Margaux are appropriately local in their response and this back-to-basics approach. Perhaps it is in the nature of the media to be moved, as I believe we all are, by the biggest, the longest, the tallest – we are all stirred by the epic dimension, that’s human nature. But it should not cloud us to the importance of buildings which are smaller in scale.
LFG: But projects like Trafalgar Square have also commanded attention and they’re very silent.
NF: Yes. I am often asked which of our buildings in London are the most important. Almost as a reflex, I say Trafalgar Square and the Millennium Bridge, because in terms of their importance to the community – whether locals or visitors – and on the capital city, I think they have had far more social impact than any single building. That is not to underestimate the importance
of the British Museum or many of our other built projects, but it is about the greater significance of the infrastructure of public space, routes and connections. When I move in this city of Madrid over the next 24 hours, the lasting impression will be of its public spaces. Of course I will have a recall of this building as well as my apartment. But the big picture will be the infrastructure of Madrid: its spaces, routes and connections, the journey from the airport, the walk to the restaurant…
LFG: You once said that you had been much influenced by buildings, but not as much as by libraries.
NF: Books have been one of the most powerful influences in my life. I would say that without books and access to a public library, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today. I might have ended up as an office clerk or a manual worker somewhere in the north of England, certainly not an architect. There are all kinds of interesting links between the past and present. At the time that we won the competition for the New York Public Library, I decided to revisit the local library of my past, in an obscure corner of an industrial suburb of Manchester, and discovered in the foundation stone that it was made possible by the same benefactor who funded the New York Public Library system. As a youth in Manchester I discovered on those library shelves books like Towards a New Architecture, by Le Corbusier. I was inspired by the juxtaposition of the Caproni hydroplane and the Acropolis. In that sense Corbusier is a kindred spirit, not just because of such beautiful buildings as the chapel at Ronchamp or his Unité in Marseille, but also for his fascination with the romance of flight and machines. The way he would draw parallels between these flying machines and architecture fired my imagination as a young man. As you and I move around the
spaces in this Foundation and look at models and drawings of projects as well as objects, I can start to make visual connections between flight and our architecture, even if it is indirect and subconscious. The furniture that I worked on at the time of the lunar landing module touches the ground as lightly, almost seeming to hover over it.
LFG: And the result is expressed through drawings. Drawing, for you, is very important, even as a way of thinking.
A: I sketch for different purposes. There is the personal dialogue to explore an idea on paper which might exist in my head or surfaces through an intellectual exchange with others. Often I am drawing at the same time as talking – this can even be in a presentation or a conference. I might also sketch my response to a design proposition by colleagues. Other times I might be creating diagrams which communicate the generators behind a design – a kind of validation. The pencil or pen, like a computer, is a tool. My obsession with sketching is in no way to deny the parallel importance of the computer. But like the pencil it is a tool, albeit wonderfully sophisticated, and so far only as good as the person operating it. Thinking about it more, the sketches annotated with notes combine the best of both words and images, and I use this format constantly.
LFG: So for you, drawing is almost like breathing.
NF: For as long as I can remember I have been sketching, since I was a child, and it is one of the reasons why I wanted to become an architect. I was willing to pay for the privilege to study, to work to be able to pay the fees and sustain myself. For me, the practice of architecture is still pure luxury. The downside is that with the larger entity of an international studio come all the other things that have to be done. But I still get pure joy out of designing.
LFG: Now I know that you do not want to discuss legacy, that you would rather leave that to historians, but since your first project in Manchester, you have kept all your drawings and models, so somehow you do see that there is a whole body of work that may have substance and importance for the future.
NF: This body of work, which is organic and expanding, embraces many parallel themes. One of these is the nobility of making things – pride in construction, and not just buildings. This tradition is not a fashionable opic in our newly found digital age, but even in the world of virtual reality there is an ever growing need for cities, buildings and the movement of people between them – by cars, planes and trains.
The quest for quality is a reminder of that tradition – not just the actual manufacture but the initial conception and its later appreciation. To explain the importance of a personal approach to design, I tend to repeat the mantra that “quality is an attitude of mind”. In the creation of a building there are three resources: money, time and creative energy. It is always the creative element that determines the quality of the end product, never the amount of money or time. Some of the best buildings in the world have been achieved in record time, and often on shoestring budgets. Some of the worst have taken forever and cost a fortune. That is not to deny the wisdom of investing wisely in more enduring materials and craftsmanship. Paying more to do something well once, without having to take it to pieces and try again (and sometimes yet again), is, in the end, sound economics. It is the same in aviation, where “the price of safety is constant vigilance” – nothing can be taken for granted, everything is to be questioned. Continuing this theme, there is a direct link between questioning and innovation. So for me the most interesting projects are those where we have challenged preconceptions. For example, before our bank headquarters in Hong Kong, every skyscraper was a ribbon of space around a solid central core. I challenged this and consequently reinvented the tall building by fragmenting the core and displacing the smaller bits to the edges of a clear open space, from which you could look out in all directions. This created a much better place to work, to uplift the spirits of everyone in the building.
The Hong Kong project was born in the same decade – the 1970s – as our Willis Faber building in Ipswich. The innovations in that design similarly raised social levels, as well as the flexibility to accommodate the new digital technology without having to resort to a new programme of building.
The story of London’s third airport at Stansted is a similar one of innovation or reinvention. In the quest for a new generation terminal we literally turned the previous model upside down to create a radical alternative which has since become the norm and been adopted by other airport planners and designers worldwide. It seeks to bring back the joy and romance of air travel as well as improving the efficiency of its operation.
I could give you other examples from our body of work which are revolutionary, although most of our projects could be termed evolutionary. In other words, they build on our earlier pioneering projects or they are further developments of an otherwise existing model. Beijing Airport is a good example at an epic and celebratory scale, made possible by Stansted and the interim achievements of Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok.
In response to your question, I could also demonstrate links from my student interests in the anonymous traditions in architecture to the present day – our recent works in places as far removed as the vineyards of Bordeaux, the Arabian Desert, Africa and even outer space. All of these examples are rooted in improving the conditions of today, but pushing the boundaries of the possible to serve the needs of the future. This as a journey is surely important?