Architectural Dynamo: Norman Foster

Norman Robert Foster, also known as the Baron Foster of the Thames Bank, is known for his unique and modern designs molded in steel and glass. The architect is never the one to shy away from implementing the latest technology in his projects, his architectural designs have been both lauded and disparaged. But it takes a lot for a man of his calibre to be discouraged. He is extremely mindful of the environment, and creates designs that bear minimal impact on the environment, so much so that it is noted that most of buildings are LEED certified for energy efficiency.
 
EARLY YEARS
 
Foster was born in a working-class family in Stockport and later moved to Manchester. As a young kid, he was bright and  performed well in school. His affinity to architecture began somewhere around the time when he was first introduced to a copy of Le Corbusier’s Vers un Architecture in a local library. Thus his journey began. He worked his way through the Manchester School of Architecture, later won himself a scholarship and graduated from Harvard. There he met two people who altered his perception about architecture and laid the foundation to his creative works. It was Paul Rudolph, who taught him at the college, and the iconic Buckminster Fuller under whose guidance he created masterpieces. At Harvard, he also met Richard Rodgers with whom he later embarked on his architectural career.
 
THE INCEPTION OF FOSTER + PARTNERS
 
Foster set up his first practice called Team 4 with Richard Rogers and Rogers’ sisters. When Team 4 disbanded in 1967, he and Wendy, one of his associates (whom he later married) started Foster Associates. The firm later became Foster and Partners. Foster worked in close association with American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller from 1968 until the latter’s death in 1983. Together they worked on projects that identified and characterized the environmentally sensitive approach to design.
 
Amongst his first project was a private glass house built on the steeply sloping site of Creek Vean in Cornwall, that marked his dedication to architectural detail and craftsmanship. The firm has always been way ahead of its time making ample use of prefabricated off-site manufactured components for their projects. Foster Associates has worked on massive transportation projects, large public structures, and private residences. Foster’s collaboration with Fuller resulted in impressive outcomes, right from their Climatroffice project to the administrative and leisure centre for Fred Olsen Ltd., in London. But his firm’s first ever widely acclaimed project came out in 1974 – the Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters in Ipswich. He created and mastered the concept of an open-plan office long before it even became a norm. The building is covered in full length glass curtain wall and the facade shifts from transparency to opacity to curb the glare and absorption of heat for most part of the day. 
 
Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters in Ipswich
 
FIRST EVER SKYSCRAPER
 
He built his first ever skyscraper at the age of 44, when he bagged the project for the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation’s headquarters in China. Michael Sandberg, president of the multinational bank invited architects from all over the world to present designs for the bank that would exude the corporation’s long standing power, wealth and virtue. Foster won with unanimous votes in his favour. The 590 metre powerful glass and steel design cost 5 billion HKD at the time of construction and was deemed the most expensive in the world. The project was completed over a period of seven years, from 1979-86. A ten storey atrium rises well above the main hall which holds the glass elevators on the extended curved belly of the building. The area is flooded with natural sunlight due to its skylights. The two majestic bronze lions are retained from the original building design as they are considered auspicious by the occupants and the visitors. The building’s powerful facade created a statement winning Foster an international acclaim.
 
Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation HQ in China
 
THE PARLIAMENTARY DOME: REICHSTAG
 
Foster’s yet another widely acclaimed project from his early years was the redesign of Reichstag, site of the German parliament in Berlin. He attached a glass dome adding his touch of contemporary element to an otherwise antiquated yet historical structure. The idea of including the glass dome with intricate skylights was to fill the gloomy interiors with light and to provide the visitors a sneak peek into the proceedings of a debate session. This idea revolved around his belief that “democracy must be made visible to the people.” The unique features of this building include an inverted conical dome that absorbs light and reflects it into the chamber below. An installed sunscreen follows the movement of the sun preventing the chamber from overheating and regulating the temperature in the premises. Air shafts constantly push in fresh air into the chambers and extractors release the warm air rising upwards.
 
A panoramic view of the Reichstag glass dome
 
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