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Norman Foster on 'Performance' at the RIBA

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[THIS WEEK] The lights dimmed, the crowd hushed and the synth music started. And from a side door in the RIBA’s lecture theatre, Norman Foster entered the room, writes James Pallister

He was in London for the RIBA Trust Annual Discourse, a series started in 1957 that has given a platform for polemic to speakers including Alvar Aalto, Ralph Erskine, Philip Johnson and Bianca Jagger.

Masdar in Abu Dhabi

Masdar in Abu Dhabi

Forty three years after founding his practice, Foster is still very much a vigorous presence. As one RIBA member remarked after the lecture: ‘I hope I look that good when I’m 75. That’s why you should marry your sex therapist.’

The references in his presentation underscored his super-macho exploits – cross-country skiing, competitive cycling, flying and fast cars. The vector for these was the theme ‘Performance’: In this case, environmental challenges and how his practice’s projects in Mumbai and Masdar, Abu Dhabi (AJ 11.02.10, pictured below) were tackling them.

One of his many graphs dealt with the socially concerned environmentalist’s paradox that though peak oil production is imminent, life expectancy and a low infant mortality rate is directly linked to a country’s increased consumption of it.

Foster nodded to James Lovelock’s Gaia theses, without choosing to dwell on the pertinent but politically tricky topic of what some describe as the earth’s overpopulation.

He ended with a video journey through Masdar’s hi-tech transport system, his mellifluous-toned commentary a reminder of his status as an accomplished salesman. As he remarked in the lecture, ‘architecture is only as good as the architect’s advocacy’.

Paul Hinkin from Black Architecture asked whether modernism was a spent force. ‘It’s not my job to get too excited about -isms,’ replied Foster. ‘I don’t know whether my work is modernist or not. It just seems that great buildings of the past have always used the cutting-edge technologies of their time.’

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