Norman Foster has nothing left to prove. He has designed every conceivable type of building, from the glass pyramid that houses Kazakhstan’s Palace of Peace and Reconciliation to a winsome dome of a dog kennel made of cherry wood. His skyscrapers tower over Shenzhen. He is building in Mumbai and Seoul — and sleek Apple stores adorn city centers across the globe.
In London he reshaped Wembley Stadium, the British Museum and Trafalgar Square. He built the Gherkin and City Hall and even came up with an affordable transparent pop-up parliament to be used while the Palace of Westminster is being fixed — although he has yet to convince the government that it will work.
Foster has been everywhere, done everything and won every conceivable architectural honor. His firm, Foster + Partners, is Britain’s largest architectural practice.
Next month he turns 88. He has made a full recovery from cancer and a subsequent heart attack, which makes his project to design the Maggie’s Centre at the Christie Hospital in Manchester, the city in which he was born, particularly meaningful. Just before Christmas, he went to Kharkiv, 40 miles from the Russian front line, soon after Ukraine’s power supply had been knocked out by missiles, to plan a reconstruction scheme with the city’s mayor.
Like many great artists, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Picasso, Foster is in the midst of a late burst of creativity. His vision and curiosity is undimmed. His firm has designed a taxi stand for electric flying cars in Dubai — a “vertiport” — and is exploring how humans might make their home on Mars.
Foster is pouring as much energy into the opening of his new exhibition at the Pompidou Center in Paris as he did into the first house in Cornwall that he designed with Richard Rogers when Britain’s two most influential modern architects were starting out together 60 years ago.
When we speak, he is in Paris coordinating curators and technicians from the Pompidou, his London office and the Foster Foundation in Madrid to install the exhibition. “It’s a very hands-on process. You can predict, up to a point, how things will turn out, but there is nothing like being on site, whether it’s for an exhibition or on a building. You need to be where the action is. It goes to the core of designing.”
The Pompidou, with its colorful inside-out structure, designed by Rogers in partnership with Renzo Piano, usually tucks architectural exhibitions in a corner gallery on the first floor. Foster persuaded it otherwise: his exhibition is in the same space that the Pompidou used for its landmark shows on Dali, Kandinsky and Duchamp.
His firm has designed a taxi stand for electric flying cars in Dubai.
“We got involved in a discussion with the president of the Pompidou. We talked about the exhibition that I did last year at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, which involved art, architecture and cars. I was offered Gallery One, up on the sixth floor. It has great views, which we have exploited. There was a worry that we could not fill it. But we have certainly done that.”
Of course, there have been disappointments and controversies in his career. Foster designed a broadcasting center for the BBC on the site of the Langham hotel in London, but it was cancelled by Margaret Thatcher’s government. And he still remembers the shock of the phone call telling him that the newly completed Millennium Bridge in London had been closed to pedestrians because of an unexpected wobble on the day after its official opening. It took months to fix.
At the Pompidou Foster’s drawings are on show — he is a gifted draftsman — along with beautiful models. There are also dynamic sculptures by Constantin Brancusi and Umberto Boccioni that have inspired Foster, along with a painting by Fernand Léger and work by Ai Weiwei. A selection of remarkable cars includes the Voisin limousine, once owned by Le Corbusier, that Foster carefully restored.
It is not a celebration of the past, Foster suggests, but a forward-looking exploration of themes that have underpinned his work — and which will go on shaping architecture.
Foster is a modernist. His heroes are Buckminster Fuller, the American guru associated with geodesic domes, and Joseph Paxton, the Duke of Devonshire’s gardener who, in just six months, built the Great Exhibition’s Crystal Palace, which used a third of Britain’s annual production of glass and in 1851 was the world’s largest prefabricated building.
It is perhaps a paradox of this new Carolean age that the King’s dislike of modernism has been politely muted, at least in public, now that he has come to the throne. He once compared the impact of Britain’s architects on the country’s cities to that of the Luftwaffe.
Rogers, who died in December 2021, was Charles’s principal target, vetoed for the National Gallery extension in Trafalgar Square and dumped from Chelsea Barracks when Charles wrote to the Qatari royal family suggesting that they find a more traditional design. Foster managed to avoid the same treatment. But, along with David Adjaye, Zaha Hadid and Frank Gehry, he did sign a letter, published by The Sunday Times in 2009, protesting, unsuccessfully, that the prince should not use “private comments and behind-the-scenes lobbying” to “skew” the progress of the Qatari Diar development’s planning application.
But now when Foster talks to me about architecture, he sounds remarkably in tune with that one-time scourge of carbuncles and glass stumps. For, like King Charles, Foster believes that what is good for our spirit can also be good for the environment. “The tree is a metaphor for the ideal building,” Foster says.
For him, great architecture should breathe and respond to changes in the seasons. “It should be in harmony with nature. Like a tree, a building can be a self-sustaining ecosystem, harvesting water and solar energy, recycling waste and absorbing carbon dioxide.”
At the Pompidou Foster’s drawings are on show — he is a gifted draftsman.
It is not that Foster has changed his mind about modern architecture; rather, he says that “sustainability and issues of recycling go back to the birth of the practice”.
Did Foster discuss their views at the annual lunch that the monarch holds for the 24 members of the Order of Merit, which Foster was elevated to in 1997, that the new King hosted at Buckingham Palace for the first time last November? “We didn’t get to talk about architecture. The conversation was more about people,” Foster replies diplomatically.
Foster talks about the importance of history and a sense of place, but it is clear that they mean different things from the chocolate-box Palladianism of Poundbury, the new town in Dorset that is the King’s most visible architectural achievement. “Historic structures are typically marked by layers of growth — each of its own period — and our approach has been to continue that pattern with a respectful imprint of today rather than a pastiche of the past,” he says.
But then Foster is an adept diplomat. Over his career he has learned how to make the most of the dance with the rich and powerful that all architects who aspire to build must learn. He withdrew from Saudi plans to build Neom, a futuristic city of nine million people from scratch, after the murder of the dissident Jamal Khashoggi, but was deft enough in his relationship with the country to be able to design part of the Saudi resort of Amaala last year. Despite having been close to Ai Weiwei, he has continued to build on a large scale in China.
He built an important relationship with the famously exacting Steve Jobs, for whom he designed the Apple HQ in Cupertino. “We met for what was meant to be an hour-long meeting and ended up talking for the whole day in the kitchen of his house.” And he learned how to work with the media mogul and former mayor of New York Mike Bloomberg, who was keen to be involved in every step on his 2017 London building — “I remember him calling me one morning to tell me about his latest idea for the furniture.”
Foster is as busy as ever. He is starting his own school for city planning in Madrid, where he spends part of the year. His third wife, Elena Ochoa, a curator and publisher, is Spanish. They have two children. Foster’s first wife, the architect Wendy Cheeseman, with whom he had three children, died in 1989.
Every week he has a Zoom call with the team working on a pilot scheme for the reconstruction of Kharkiv. Foster met the city’s mayor Igor Terekhov in December to discuss the postwar reconstruction of the city.
“I put together a pro bono team, with an economist from Oxford and an urbanist from Harvard. But it’s very much a bottom-up approach,” Foster says. They put out 60,000 questionnaires to Kharkiv’s citizens, asking them what they wanted. “Even under the immense pressure of war and destruction, they want the things any city would want,” he explains. “To upgrade their Soviet-style apartments, to achieve sustainable jobs, to make the most of green riverbanks, and to build on Kharkiv’s existing strengths of industry, culture and learning.”
Deyan Sudjic, O.B.E., is a London-based writer and broadcaster, specializing in design and architecture. Previously he was director of the Design Museum in London