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    Talking with Norman Foster

    continued

    Does that mean you're turning me down?

    Don't get me wrong. I've nothing against small jobs. A lot of people think that in our firm we only want to build superlatives, nothing but airports, bridges and skyscrapers. But that's not true. We even design furniture and door knobs. Just have a look here (he opens a black sketchbook), I need only flip through a few pages and you can see what a variety of things I deal with. Many of them are huge, others tiny.

    So why not my little house in Hamburg?

    We simply get very, very many enquiries. And we couldn't possibly do everything people ask us to.

    Not even with your 1,200 employees?

    Not even with them. So we have to choose, and mostly we choose projects that seem to us unusual, i.e., that allow us to develop and discover something new. Though I have to admit I'm keen on many commissions mainly for personal reasons. That's how it was with the New York Public Library for example.

    What's your connection with that?

    I didn't know, either, at first. I went to New York and talked to the director and the trustees about how they wanted to rebuild the impressive old building. I heard how incredibly popular the library is and how it's still urgently needed even in our digital age because it gives so many people access to education and knowledge. So when I came back to London, I realized how important a public library like that had been for me once, in my youth in Manchester. Probably no other building left a mark on me as much as that library (does a pencil drawing of the ground plan of the reading room).

    Do you mean the architecture of the building as well?

    Indirectly yes, because I grew up in a very poor, rundown part of Manchester. My parents were simple workers, and there was no one else in my environment either who'd ever have thought of going to university. I really have the library to thank that I became what I am today. It was only there I discovered architecture for myself, books about Frank Lloyd Wright, for example. I couldn't put them down.

    The library was a second home.

    To some extent it was. And you know what the odd thing is?

    Tell me.

    When we started planning the rebuild in New York, it turned out there's a much deeper connection between the libraries in Manhattan and Manchester than I thought. Both libraries owe their existence to the generosity of the same man, Andrew Carnegie. So you can see why this project is so important to me.

    How did you come to be such a bookworm as a child?

    (leans back) I ask myself that sometimes. You might think I was lonely, but I wasn't. More of a kind of private love affair, you'd probably have to call it. Architecture wasn't on the school syllabus, and there was no one else I could talk to about it with. And so I was really well-read without knowing it. I read Henry-Russell Hitchcock's In the Nature of Materials, or Le Corbusier's Towards an Architecture. Though perhaps read is almost the wrong word. I was absorbed in these books.

    How old were you then?

    14 or 15, perhaps. I left school at 16.

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    What about your schoolmates? Presumably they read comics.

    Many did, of course. But by then my Flash Gordon was Frank Lloyd Wright.

    You mean you read architectural books like science-fiction comics?

    For me, they were adventure books. They opened up a world that was completely alien to me, a Utopia, if you like, a long way from Manchester. And I wanted to be a long way away. Unfortunately I didn't have the money, and I didn't get any scholarships. You wouldn't believe the things I did to get by. I worked at a baker's, I sold furniture, drove an ice cream van, and even had a job in a disco.

    As a disc jockey?

    (laughs) No, as a bouncer. Okay, it probably did me no harm, at any rate I developed at the time a strong desire to show everyone someday. I wanted out, and at least I got out a lot by bicycle. I found the bicycle very liberating. Even now I like cycling, as much as flying, incidentally.

    And where did you go?

    I biked off after my obsession, you could say. I went to look at houses, looking for beautiful buildings. I was very taken with the Daily Express building, for example, from the Thirties, wonderfully curved with black glass. But not only was it classic architecture that interested me, I also looked closely at very simple buildings, barns and windmills. I even won a prize with a drawing of one of those windmills.

    What sort of prize?

    There was a silver medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects. I've rarely been as thrilled as I was about getting that prize that time, believe me. I'd just started as a student, and as every summer, we were supposed to draw a building, and so exactly that someone else could have built a copy of it just from the drawing. Okay, luckily no one ever tried to. Anyway, the normal thing to do for this exercise was to find some venerable old building, a Georgian house, something like that. I was I think the first student to challenge that. I drew buildings that didn't even count as architecture, the windmill, for example. And presumably the lecturers would have failed me if I hadn't won the prize. It was £100, which was a huge sum for me at the time.

    What did you do with it?

    I immediately spent it on travelling. I went to Scandinavia because I wanted to look at the social schemes there. I had a look at all the buildings by Jørn Utzon on that trip, long before he built the Opera House in Sydney. And then of course Italy. Particularly the squares appealed to me, the public spaces. I analysed them, and measured out the Campo in Siena, the main square in Verona and many others. I think my fellow students found it rather ridiculous.

    Why so?

    That's still the way it is. Many architects are interested in architecture and only architecture.
    They only have to hear the word infrastructure, and their hair stands on end.
    That's a job for town planners, if you please, nothing to do with them. But where would we be without infrastructure? Anyone can see for themselves. When you travelled from Hamburg to Geneva, because we agreed to meet here, what determined your impression of the city? Most probably, what it was like passing through the urban area, whether it's noisy here, or it stinks, or you feel welcome. It doesn't really depend on architecture to start with.

    Are you saying architects take themselves too seriously?

    Exactly (leans towards the microphone). Architects of the world, can you hear me? Please don't take yourselves so seriously! (laughs)

    Does that apply to you, too? Your architecture is not exactly known for being particularly modest.

    I'm only warning against arrogance. There are many things in the world that are more important than architecture. Of course, that doesn't mean I'd say goodbye to my architectural ambitions. If, for example, I'm building the Millennium Bridge in London, then it does matter to me what it looks like and how it's constructed. But much more critical than the appearance or the construction is the fact that 7 million people a year walk across that bridge and so the two parts of the city it links are uncommonly busy. That's what I mean. That's the kind of infrastructure that concerns me.

    Does that mean technology comes before design?

    Why do you want to set one against the other? Technical progress was always important for architecture – it's been so since Stonehenge. And infrastructure is the skeleton of the urban fabric, and what would a body be without a skeleton? Conversely the skeleton of course needs flesh and skin and hair, and an attractive external appearance. In a word: good architecture.

    What would you mean by good architecture?

    There are of course many answers to that, everyone has his own views. What I like mainly is architecture that is clear, open and bright.   >>>

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    The Willis Faber & Dumas Building (1975) in Ipswich, England, was one of Norman Foster's early successes. The building is also one of the very early examples of a structural glass facade, incorporating glass fins as a stiffening element against lateral loads. Image does not appear in book.
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