Page N1.2 . 20 September 2000                     
ArchitectureWeek - News Department



Norman Foster : Analog and Digital Ecology


One of Foster's themes was the importance of communication in architecture. To communicate, Foster stressed, one must select the best from both the analog and digital worlds, and he illustrated his point by showing a clock face and a digital readout. "We must know how to sketch and how to use the computer," said Foster, "how to track the project on a computer screen as well as create hands-on study models."

Most important, Foster said that we must never forget that "the silent, invisible electronic world" of the project must ultimately end in "physical reality."

While Foster mentioned a variety of elements that influence architecture—social forces, technology, orientation, movement, context, and ecology—his passion is clearly in the realm of the environment. "How do our buildings communicate with the planet," he asked. "How do they reduce energy or use recyclable materials? What makes a building green?"

Foster illustrated the choices available with a pyramid. At the top are the sophisticated and expensive active systems, such as photovoltaic panels. In the middle tier are passive systems, while at the bottom of the pyramid is orientation: how the building sits on the site and interacts with its surroundings.

An inverse pyramid tells the story of return on investment. At the top are lots of dollars for active systems with modest returns. At the bottom, Foster noted, it doesn't cost very much to orient a building properly, but its impact on the environment is potentially enormous. Small investment, huge payback.

One of Foster's heroes is Buckminster Fuller, who, more than a generation before it became fashionable, was talking about the importance of building ecology. Foster called him a "lone voice," whose work with geodesics demonstrated how building form could be both economical and ecological. Orientation and building form became, for Foster, touchstones in his design of ecological architecture.

A hallmark of Foster's work has been the way it challenges the status quo of how buildings are designed, produced, and work. Foster spoke about the Willis Faber and Dumas Head Office building he designed for Ipswich, England, in the 1970s, which turned out to be a pivotal project. This old market town with its irregular grid was not appropriate for a tall, rectangular tower with a core—the standard office parti, even today.

"We inserted a lower building that followed the curve of the streets," explained Foster, while the interior engendered a "family" work environment for the company's 1,350 employees, through large and flexible spaces. On the roof, Foster placed a garden, which not only helped insulate the building but also provided a much welcomed green space—a "garden in the sky."

Foster related how he had recently visited the building and learned that because the building had flexibility built into it, it easily accommodated the transition from typewriters to computers. "The company's competitors had to build new buildings," he claimed.

The Ipswich building established a couple of themes that Foster returned to in project after project: how the building meets the ground in an accommodating way; how light, views, and the interior environment can be adjusted and modified; and how to introduce green space into an urban environment such as an office building.

For the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank building, Foster broke the core apart and scattered it around the plan, working with smaller units. He stratified the tower, delineating "villages in the sky" to create a sense of identity among the different departments. Most important, the building is lifted above the ground plane, allowing space beneath to be used by the public. "This has become a popular venue for picnics," Foster pointed out.

Taking these ideas further, in the Headquarters for Commerzbank in Frankfurt, Germany, Foster used a triangular plan, pushing the core areas to the corners. Four-story gardens are interspersed as the building rises, offering large, green oases for office workers (Foster referred to it as "the first high-rise that is a living, breathing building.")

Before the building opened, people vied for offices at the building's periphery for the city views. But since opening, the coveted offices have become those that face onto the gardens. "People want to be there because they can see and communicate with each other," explained Foster.

The building's abundance of light and greenery, plus the fact that employees can modify the interior environment, has resulted in increased productivity. According to the architect, the building consumes half the energy of a traditional office building. At its base, the Frankfurt building knits into the existing context "catering to the community of the city."

A project yet to be constructed, the Swiss Reinsurance building in London, features a tall, cucumber-shaped form around which spiral gardens, "the lungs of the building," Foster called them. Computer models of the building form showed how it could be modified to minimize wind turbulence at the base.

From the computer, Foster explained how hands-on models are created in his office, the purpose of which is to "learn things about the design that we cannot see in a computer model." This is what Foster means when he refers to melding the digital with the analog. He also explained how moving directly from highly detailed CAD drawings to contractor material takeoffs has resulted in more accurate—and less hefty—project costs.

For another building on a London site, the Headquarters for Greater London Authority, near Tower Bridge, Foster related how computer solar studies were used to manipulate the building's form to admit and shade the sun. What Foster achieves is sensuously shaped architecture in response to its environmental demands. Foster's form making has an ecological purpose; it's not just for the sake of some nifty bent walls.

Closing his address with his design for the Hong Kong Airport, Foster again returned to the theme of joining our digital and analog worlds. Can we design and operate buildings without digital tools? Of course not. Moving 40 million people a year through the airport would be impossible without computers, tracking systems, mechanical equipment, communications systems, and the like--all possible through digital technology.

"But the analog experience is also essential," stressed Foster: Views out of the building, views within the building, how sunlight fills it, how the space feels as you move through it. "The two must coexist together."

Michael J. Crosbie is a contributing editor to ArchitectureWeek and an associate at Steven Winter Associates, Inc., in Norwalk, Connecticut.



ArchWeek Photo

The central atrium and banks of escalators in the Willis Faber building are important precursors of the Hong Kong Bank a decade later.
Photo: John Donat

ArchWeek Photo

The new Citibank European Headquarters at Canary Wharf is made up of two distinctive parts: a 17-floor office building and a service core, tied together with a cross-brace structure.
Photo: Nigel Young/Foster and Partners

ArchWeek Photo

The Millennium Bridge is London's first new river crossing in more than a century. The 350 meter (1150-foot) long pedestrian bridge was closed shortly after opening for structural adjustments.
Photo: Jeremy Young/GMJ

ArchWeek Photo

The objective at Kingswood was to design offices that are economically and environmentally efficient, in buildings that fit into their wild setting.
Photo: Nigel Young/Foster and Partners

ArchWeek Photo

An office development at Kingswood, Ascot positioned buildings within an existing clearing in an ecologically sensitive site, restored scarred areas, and re-integrated the site with its wooded surroundings.
Photo: Dennis Gilbert/View

ArchWeek Photo

Stanford University Medical School's Center for Clinical Sciences Research (CCSR) in Palo Alto, California provides laboratory space for 500 researchers and technicians.
Photo: Robert Canfield

ArchWeek Photo

The CCSR's courtyard allows solar control and natural ventilation in the building's office spaces.
Image: Foster and Partners

ArchWeek Photo

Stanford's CCSR allows a direct relationship between laboratories, offices and community spaces where researchers can interact within and across disciplines.
Photo: Robert Canfield


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