Norman Foster, review: is Britain’s greatest architect now aiming for the Moon?


Is there a building on this planet that Norman Foster hasn’t designed? Around 130 projects by the British architect feature in his new retrospective in Paris. Yet, such is their variety – over six decades, he’s dreamed up everything from private homes and pavilions to skyscrapers, airports, and even an elephant house for Copenhagen Zoo – that the show’s impact is overwhelming. By the end, humbled by his high-tech achievement, I felt like one of those faceless figurines, barely a few millimetres high, populating his architectural models. This is, it’s fair to say, an awe-inspiring exhibition.

Consider the contribution to Britain’s built environment of this 87-year-old demiurge, who grew up near Manchester in modest circumstances, and left school at 16. London’s City Hall, the bulging tower at 30 St Mary Axe commonly known as “the Gherkin”, a reinvented Wembley Stadium: Foster’s behind them all.

Norwich’s hangar-like Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, which he created during the 1970s (while his former partner, Richard Rogers, was hard at it on the Pompidou), revolutionised the layout of museums; the open-plan, glass-walled edifice of Stansted, with – in a characteristic Foster move – its services hidden beneath the hall, transformed airport design. (Although, I suspect, few passengers jostling amid the scrum at Ryanair’s check-in desks at 4am would savour this.)

And it isn’t only Britain. The Pompidou’s show opens with a spectacular photograph of the Millau Viaduct, topped by slender pylons, curving above the clouds across a valley in southern France. If the exhibition were happening in Berlin, its introductory image would be Foster’s glass-and-steel cupola for the Reichstag; in Hong Kong, his first (and, again, revolutionary) skyscraper, HSBC’s coreless 47-storey headquarters, held up by a Meccano-like exoskeleton.

Other architecture, perhaps, has greater sprezzatura and finesse (see: the buildings of Renzo Piano), but the visionary output of Foster + Partners, which today employs 1,800 people, is universal.

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