We chat with Norman Foster, an outstanding creator of inexhaustible innovation
The award-winning British architect, a benchmark in inexhaustible innovation, a pioneer in sustainability and a still a self-described student at age 84, shares his vision of a better future for which he works with the Norman Foster Foundation from Madrid and around the world.
What does flying represent for you?
I have always been inspired by flight – by the gravity defying aspect of it. Viewing an aircraft take off from a runway is to me like a magic event, even when I know the physics of high and low pressure on the aerofoil of a wing or rotor blade. The spectacle of invisible forces taking a heavy machine aloft into the sky is something that seems to defy explanation. It is a wonderous moment that I have never tired of viewing and never will - but these flying machines have an aesthetic abstract beauty all of their own. The early triplanes with their gossamer wings tied together with struts and a delicate tracery of cables in tension gave way to the monoplane – a single wing cantilevered from a monocoque fuselage - where the skin was not a fabric glued onto a wooden frame, but a metal cocoon that worked structurally with the invisible metal ribs within. The birth of this technological breakthrough was coincident with the discovery of streamlining. This was the idea that a smooth flowing shape, refined in a wind tunnel, will travel faster through the air than the boxy shapes of the past.
Do you connect it to art?
The beautifully sculpted classic aircraft – from the nineteen thirties until today, were anticipated by artists casting their structures in bronze. Compare the works of Boccioni, Brancusi and Moore with the flying machines that were to follow. The cantilevered wing that would release its craft from the forces of gravity also had a gravity-defying equivalent in the architecture of its era that remains with us today. Consider the jutting balconies of Frank Lloyd ‘Wrights Falling Water’ that seem to hover weightlessly over the waterfall below or the vertical cantilever of any tall building that resists natures mighty forces and is held solid by a tiny footprint on terra firma. One can also weave the visual links from flying machines into the world of nature. The sailplane with its skinny outstretched wings can, like its feathered friends, travel vast distances at high speed powered solely by up currents of rising air – driven totally by solar power. And when you sit at the controls and operate a machine through space, across continents, oceans and time zones, there is another aesthetic and spiritual experience – an immersion in the sky, clouds and big patterns of weather. As a student you draw the sun above a building that has evolved from your imagination. Then, a decade later, you are precariously inhabiting that world for real. You look down and see the celebrations and conflicts of the built world on the ground – it is a perspective that both awes and shocks.
Do you keep all your drawings?
I have lost drawings over the years but, nonetheless, a vast number of sketches and drawings remain – particularly in A4 books which are my constant companions. I sketch and write all the time, including when I am travelling. These are invariably in pencil and occasionally in ink, sometimes with added colour.
Despite of being global, how important is for you remaining local?
I sometimes use the phrase ‘thinking globally, acting locally’. No two sites are the same and there are often cultural and intangible differences between countries which lie below the surface – like Feng Shui and the advice of geomancers, for example.
How do you envision the future of cities?
It is tied to the future of mobility. Right now, younger generations eschew car ownership and embrace ride sharing apps. Artificial Intelligence is ushering in a new generation of robotic vehicles, most likely electric powered, quiet and clean. These could formulate, nose to tail, in dense clusters. In parallel, drone technology has already advanced to passenger carrying prototypes. The phasing out of fossil fuels could reduce the availability of by-product fertilisers. Add to this a likely scarcity of water and agriculture could shift to the cities using hydroponics to produce fresher crops with dramatic increases in yield and minimum use of water. If I try to fast forward these trends into a vision of the city of the future then, in essence, it is greener, quieter and more pedestrian friendly. The future city could have all the best qualities of a compact, traditional city of the past without its pollution and congestion. Huge areas presently occupied by spaces for cars could be liberated and greened. Urban farming would bring the production and markets for fresher produce into the heart of the city. Noise cancelling technologies could provide aerial mobility with faster responses for ambulances, firefighting and other emergency services. The mega power stations and sewerage works will have given way to more localised sources of power and micro-grids harvesting energy and converting waste to power and fertiliser.
Rural depopulation has become a political issue. What is your view on it?
I am closely involved with this issue in one such community in the Swiss Engadin Valley in a village called La Punt. Last year 40 young people out of a population of around 700 left for the city. Trains no longer stop at the station, the school and village store are under threat, hotels and restaurants have gradually closed and life is slowly being drained out of the community. Working with two entrepreneurs who have close ties to the place, we have created a hub – a new kind of building, to attract a new kind of visitor – a working sportive tourist. If an individual’s first place is home and the second place is the workplace then the hub is an away-place or third place. Inspired by the traditional architecture, art and landscape of the region, the proposed hub will combine spaces for working, living, sports (related to outdoor pursuits), local shops and areas for artists, craftsmen and galleries.
What is innovation for you?
Innovation is about to change for good in the future. It is rooted in the ideals of the Norman Foster Foundation and is most likely to emerge from different disciplines working together – breaking down the barriers between professions and interest groups. One example of the search for innovation which currently brings the Foundation together with MIT is the quest for autonomous sources of energy, an alternative to present day large power stations and sprawling networks of cables: container sized power sources and micro grids or even ‘power-in-a-box’ for an individual building. The incentive is several fold. Use of new generation fission as a stepping stone to fusion makes the concept immediately available as the only sure way of reducing carbon and meeting limits to address global warming – even assuming massive investment and research into renewables. The starting point for this initiative was to address the plight of slum dwellers – those more than 1 billion of humanity who, by varying degrees, do not have adequate shelter or access to electricity, clean water and modern sanitation. A Foundation team, based in the Odisha province of India, collaborating with the provincial government and the Tata Trusts, has demonstrated the potential to transform slums from within rather than bulldozing and relocating such communities with the dire social consequence that inevitably follow.
You started to think about the environment anticipated more than 50 years ago.
Our advocacy of a green approach to architecture and infrastructure goes back to our roots in the late nineteen sixties – before the term ‘green’ has been used. Our projects at that time showed how we could harness solar power and wind to desalinate sea water, convert human waste to fertiliser and use technology to dramatically reduce the energy consumption of buildings. This approach was truly radical for the period. Since then, with colleagues, we have demonstrated in one experiment that a university in the desert can be driven entirely by solar energy. To do so we have combined the lessons from indigenous desert buildings in an age before electrical power can then combine with the technology and materials of our own age. To be sustainable is to work with nature and the challenge is to create buildings which are healthy for the occupants as well as addressing the issues of global warming. Because buildings contribute 6% of greenhouse gas emissions then, to meet the 2018 Paris accord, we have to go beyond the rating systems such as LEED and BREEAM. We also need to encourage an holistic approach in which buildings are linked to the infrastructure of mobility, power and waste management.
The Foundation has opened conversations on urban mobility, robotics and the digital revolution. Is architecture changing faster now?
In the entrance hall of the Foundation there is a work in neon by an artist friend which proclaims our family motto - ‘The Only Constant is Change’. Perhaps the significant difference between today and the past is not the phenomena of change but the dizzyingly increasing rate of change.
What do you enjoy the most when working with young students?
The freshness of freedom of thinking, a less inhibited dialogue and the opportunity to learn as well as share. At the public launch of the Foundation in a forum in 2017, to a mostly youthful audience in Madrid’s Royal Theatre, I was asked what advice I would give to a young graduate. My answer was – “stay a student” – advice that I still try to follow myself.
You based the Norman Foster Foundation in Madrid. Has that city influenced it somehow?
Madrid is a positive influence in so many ways. Through its institutions there is a strong tradition of architecture and engineering. There is a great collective attitude of mind – and an optimistic ‘can do’ approach to life and work. The city itself is inspirational – walkable, friendly, great light and buildings (past and present) outstanding galleries, museums and restaurants – all of these influences rub off on the Foundation – what more could one want?
What is the latest thing that you have learned?
Last month we had a workshop on robotics and the students had access to three dimensional printers and recycled plastic. Their final presentations showed the potential for an architecture inspired by the biology of human beings. There were large models with beautiful translucent skins which could integrate structure and the systems that might carry information, heating, cooling, light and ventilation. It gave me an exciting glimpse of what an architecture of the future might look like. To reinforce my summary, I recounted how an architect friend – a contemporary – wrote me a letter after visiting one of our recently completed buildings, saying how much he loved it and that there were so many ideas he couldn’t wait to copy. So, on a humorous but complementary note I was really trying to tell them how much we had all learnt.
Images courtesy of Norman Foster Foundation / Portraits by Jose Manuel Ballester