Lord Norman Foster, the 86-year-old architect, is mostly known for things that don’t move: grand, iconic edifices such as the Gherkin and the British Museum’s Great Court in London, the Reichstag in Berlin and the Apple Park campus in California, completed in 2018. OK, he was also part of the team behind the Millennium Bridge over the River Thames, which swayed so alarmingly on its opening day it was renamed “the Wobbly Bridge”, but that was resolved soon enough.
As a human being, though, Foster is constantly in motion. He lives between the UK, Switzerland, Spain and the United States. With his architecture studio Foster + Partners, and foundation, he has realised projects on six continents (come on Antarctica, commission him!). His favorite recreations his all involve mobility and speed : sports cars, riding his racing bicycle and flying (he’s qualified to pilot both jets and helicopters). This past winter he completed his “28th or thereabouts” cross-country skiing marathon. Foster has a laser mind, so that number is almost certainly spot on. We did mention he was 86, didn’t we?
When I point out this modest incongruity, Foster laughs. “The family motto is ‘the only constant is change’,” he says. “It sounds a bit pretentious, but it’s kind of embedded in our DNA and I think it’s true of anything. It’s true of history, it’s true of events, of architecture, of design, of everything. Everything in life.”
Foster mulls it over some more. “I can’t separate one aspect of my life from any other: the one informs the other,” he goes on. “So yes, I see analogies between cross-country skiing or riding a bike, and the way in which you can capture a view with a room – the links with nature. When I started professionally as an architect, I passionately believed that if you had a shaft of sunlight, if you had a view, then you were going to be happier. The difference now is that it has been scientifically proven. So statistically, if you’ve had surgery in a hospital, and your bedroom has a view, you will leave that hospital earlier. You will recover faster than somebody with a room that might look on to a blank wall, for example.”
This afternoon, Foster is in Bilbao, at the Guggenheim Museum, casting an exacting eye over an exhibition he has spent a good chunk of his life thinking about. It’s called Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture and considers the past, present and future of the automobile at a time that Foster believes is a pivotal one in its history. With the evolution of electric vehicles and self-driving cars, the dominant mode of transport for more than a century could be on the cusp of extinction. “This exhibition is almost like the requiem for the age of combustion,” says Foster, on a video call from the museum.
Curating the exhibition has clearly been a dream commission for Foster, who today wears a look sometimes called “architectural casual”: black turtleneck, black blazer. Growing up on the outskirts of Manchester, during the Second World War and its aftermath, he was obsessed with planes and cars. Foster won a place at grammar school by writing an essay, in vivid detail, that described a duel between two drivers on the Nürburgring in Germany. That child has now been given free rein to assemble 38 of the rarest automobiles ever made, in one space. These include a Bugatti Type 57 SC Atlantic, of which four were made between 1936 and 1938, and only three still exist.
Not all the selections are supercars: there’s a 1951 VW Beetle, an original Mini, a Willys MB Jeep. Foster does n’t hide that there might be a subjective element to some of his picks his. In the early 1960s, when he was an architecture student, he drove a Beetle across the United States with his friend his, Richard Rogers. The men were partners, briefly, before going their separate ways and pioneering the British tradition of architecture known as “high-tech” in the 1970s, including the Pompidou Center in Paris, the Rogers masterpiece, which opened in 1977. The pair remained close until Rogers’s death last December.
“It was a very formative trip,” recalls Foster. “The America of that period was extraordinary culturally: the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, discovering the work of Europeans like Mies van der Rohe, who really built their most important works in America. So, yes, an amalgam of the road, of travel, of insights, of culture, of architecture, the paintings, the music, the jazz… It was an extraordinary period.”
Foster makes explicit the link between driving- culture and culture-culture in the new Motion exhibition. Alongside a muscle car and a lurid hot-rod in the Americana room, there is a Donald Judd sculpture and paintings by Ed Ruscha and Robert Indiana. Elsewhere, there is a huge Alexander Calder mobile, Henry Moore’s Reclining Figure and an Andy Warhol silkscreen of an 1886 Benz motorcar. “It’s really seeking to break down the barriers between what is art, what is not art, what is design?” says Foster. “To see how, in some cases, artists anticipated streamlining, before the streamlining of an automobile or an aircraft. So it’s really taking a holistic view of design.”
If anything conforms to the idea of “the only constant is change”, Foster believes, it’s the automobile. When it came on the scene, it was viewed as an environmentally progressive gamechanger. Now, not so much. “At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, the automobile was the hero,” says Foster. “It was the white knight that rescued the cities that were being engulfed by a rising tide of horse manure and dead carcasses. It beautified the city. Since then, it’s become the urban villain, the polluter in the same way that the horse was the polluter.”
As for what happens next for the car, Foster has views of his own, but he has also asked 16 schools of design and architecture, from the Royal College of Art to universities around the world, to present visions for the future of mobility. They will tackle urban congestion, resource scarcity, pollution – big questions that Foster believes all designers and architects should be thinking about.
Foster seeks out contact with younger generations: he’s proud of the fact that the average age in his architecture studio, which is the largest in the UK, is typically in the early-30s. So, Baron Foster of Thames Bank, how old do you feel? “I feel as young as the people that I’m working with and engaging with and sharing passions,” he exclaims. “I enjoy doing all the things that I’ve done all my life, and see no reason to change it.”
We catch up again a few days later: Foster is now in London, overlooking the Thames on a bright, early-spring morning. He had expected the operations of Foster + Partners, which he founded in 1967 with his late wife Wendy, to slow dramatically during the Covid period. The company braced itself by furloughing 70 staff, who were unable to work from home, in March 2020. But, as it turns out, the business showed “remarkable financial resilience”, according to accounts released in January. Their profits – £36.2m before tax – were actually higher than before the pandemic. Foster + Partners has repaid the furlough money in full, around £500,000.
“We were all surprised by the way in which the technology has worked,” he says. “And the energy and resourcefulness of the team. But I guess it’s also made us acutely aware of the importance of physically coming together. The lessons of history are that an event like that accelerates trends that were already apparent and magnifies them.”
Foster has consistently shown astute business acumen. Richard Rogers would often give Foster credit for being a self-made man. At a time when many architects came from privileged backgrounds, Foster’s father was a laborer, then managed a pawn shop. When Foster started to see other British architects, competitors of his in the 1970s and 80s, going out of business, he realized instinctively that he needed to make his practice global. This led to one of his great early buildings his, the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong, completed in 1988 (Foster has admitted that his firm most likely would have gone bankrupt if it had n’t won the commission). Today, the busiest region for Foster + Partners is the Middle East, where it has four offices.
As vigorous as he is, succession is clearly on Foster’s mind. In the early 2000s, he was diagnosed with bowel cancer and told he might only have weeks to live. He has fully recovered, but in October last year, he sold a majority stake in Foster + Partners to the Canadian private investment firm, Hennick & Co. Foster and his family his remain the second-largest shareholder and, going forwards, he imagines what he calls a “perpetual partnership model”, which will lead to an “orderly” transfer of power, initially among the existing 180 partners in the practice.
I ask Foster what’s the defining personal quality he brings to his work. “Never being satisfied,” he replies. What does that mean for those who come after him? “You know, architecture perhaps more than any other profession is a team endeavor,” he says. “There are many professions involved, and then the realization of an idea, a dream, however you describe it, into the realities of a building is a long drawn-out process and it involves extraordinary team efforts on a building site. If you visit any building site, it’s a wonderful surprise that a finished building comes out of that process! How you pursue that across continents, that’s really a stimulation and a challenge – and it’s beyond any single individual.”
Foster’s work still has the power to divide. Only last month, a £30m design for a winery complex in Cuxton, Kent, was rejected by local councillors with one comparing it to a “Teletubby Palace”. Foster + Partners have also received criticism for continuing to design airports, despite the environmental concerns. For Foster, this criticism is completely wrong-headed. It would be entirely negligent of architects and designers, he believes, not to work on such projects. Foster has long been talking about the importance of “sustainability”: the Apple Park campus is powered by 100% renewable energy; Bloomberg’s European HQ in London has “gills” to aid its “breathing” and uses 70% less water and 40% less energy than typical office buildings.
“Climate change and countering climate change is a design issue in the most fundamental sense,” says Foster. “It is totally about design.”
Isn’t that a lot of pressure on architects? “One of the key ingredients in the most rounded sense of the word is ‘energy’,” he says. “And we do have sources of clean energy. Nuclear is statistically by a huge margin, the safest, carbon-free, cleanest form of energy. And, interestingly, in terms of waste, 10 million people die a year through poor air quality, either because they’re growing up next to the burning of animal waste, wood or coal, or just in poor air quality in cities.
“Everything comes down, in the end, to design. Look out the window, everything that you see, whether it’s clean or dirty, polluting or otherwise, at some point has been designed and made. So yes, it’s a design issue.”
Foster is at an age where many would be slowing down: he could kick back with his wife, Elena, and five grown-up children. Or spend more time driving some form of transport very fast and langlaufing through the Swiss Alps. Still, no one, at least in his earshot his, is mentioning the word “retirement”.
“Why would I?” he asks, more laughter. “If I enjoy doing what I do, why would I change it? Of course, at any point with any of us, there’s always the other side of the coin. But big picture no, absolutely not. I get the same buzz from designing buildings, working with people, educational workshops, working with the UN heading their Forum of Mayors, engaging with civic leaders, writing, drawing, sketching. I’m privileged to have many such opportunities.” Foster reflects for a second, “I think they’re my lifeblood, yes.”
Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture is on show at the Guggenheim Bilbao from 8 April to 18 September (guggenheim-bilbao.eus/en)