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Foster's birthday party

The shade of Robert Smirke must have smiled down benignly the other evening as smoke drifted across his magnificent British Museum portico and strange immensely tall white figures performed arcane rituals in a slow and complicated dance.

Doric columns, pale dry ice vapour and graceful ceremony were irresistible reminders of great nineteenth century perspectivists from Joseph Gandy to William Walcot. In the soft darkness walking up the great steps, we were in the middle of a myth among stilt dancers. This was the overture of the grand fortieth birthday party of Foster+Partners.

Once through the vestibule, we joined a long queue to congratulate Norman, Lord Foster, on having achieved such a notable anniversary.

In the Great Court, it was clear that virtually everyone on the London architectural scene was there, from Richard Rogers (remember Team 4?) to Terry Farrell, Ted Cullinan to Chris Wilkinson, Eva Jiricna to Louis Hellman , Charles Jencks to Marcus Binney of The Times.

But it was difficult to talk. Brilliant though the renovation and the glass roof of the Great Court are, all surfaces are hard, and notwithstanding large areas of black cloth on the backs of the architectural establishment, the racket was colossal, inflamed by the labours of the Madrid Latin Jazz All Stars Quintet. Everything else was immaculate, from the massed ranks of white tulips (all bowing in perfect order) to the sumptuous food (in which flavour matched appearance) and the never-ending supply of excellent wine.

Presently, our host took the stage, quietened the masses, and made a remarkably modest speech about the extraordinary achievements of his 40 year old creation. It employs over 1,200 people round the world; they speak some 50 languages and work out of numerous ‘centres’. The average age of everyone working for the firm is now 32, just the same as it was when Foster+Partners started up long ago.

On top of so many successes, has he found the secret of eternal life? He stepped down to give the stage to ‘an innovative theatrical group from Barcelona’ who performed ERDA, a strange extract from Wagner in which heroic Wotan clutching his spear staggered up back-projected mountains to mate with Erda, goddess of earth. Could Norman really be comparing himself to the King of the Gods? We were unable to discover, at least in our part of the Court.

Rumour and confusion were relieved by the sudden appearance of a crowd of children who inexplicably but rapidly assembled themselves into a tower many nippers high. When the last brave tot climbed up to act as the finial, several of us were nervously looking around for the Health and Safety police. But they didn’t turn up; the kids jumped down from each other’s shoulders and left in a cheerful mob up Foster’s grand stair round Sydney Smirke’s reading room.

It was a sign that we could enter the cylinder itself to see the First Emperor exhibition. I hadn’t been to the show before, and was anxious to see it, and how it has been accommodated in the reading room.

A temporary platform has been erected over the sacred desks where Marx and Co sat and changed the world. On this (rather crudely made) structure is displayed the exquisite craftsmanship of the solemn terracotta warriors and their beautiful horses – a tiny sample of the 7,000 figures discovered in ancient Qin, but enough to evoke the awe inspiring battalions in their frightening pits. A great event, but I hope the precedent of using the reading room as a stage for temporary exhibitions will not be adopted regularly: the space is itself one of the Museum’s most important exhibits.

At the end of the evening, we were all presented with the latest publication on the firm (of the making of books about Foster, there is no end). Foster 40 (published by Prestel) is quite the oddest modern book I have. At first, it seems to be a couple of volumes in a slipcase. But when they are taken out, the two seem strangely attached to each other. An attempt to open the heavy solid aluminium covers reveals that the books are linked so that they have to be opened as two spreads, one above the other.

One volume is devoted to themes (aerodynamics to windmills) and the other to projects from Reliance Controls to Beijing airport. The idea is that you can cross-reference from one biblio-Siamese twin to the other and make multifarious connections between the two: in effect, making solid what is normally done electronically – like the magic of the king of Qin, who transmuted water into mercury and living people into fired clay for his postmortal world.

On the way out, going down Smirke’s stairs, the huge sign for the First Emperor exhibition glowed redly in the warm mist - an appropriate summary of Foster’s brilliant career? He may or may not be Emperor or King of the Gods, but he has certainly learned how to give memorable and remarkably jolly parties.


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