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Let there be light

review - Norman Foster: Works 4 Edited by David Jenkins. Prestel, 2004. 568pp. £60

The first volume in this series was characterised, I thought, by a want of generosity (AJ 11.9.03). There was not much about the people who helped to create the buildings, or got sacked, or became independently famous.

Things have not really changed in the fourth volume, the second to be published by Prestel for the Foster office.

After noting wryly that the books are called Norman Foster: Works, not Foster and Partners: Works, you turn to the group photo across pages 532 and 533, with - as the Sunday papers have gleefully reported - Ken Shuttleworth cut-and-pasted well away from his original position on the master's right hand. You wonder how Shuttleworth and his ex-Foster colleagues now at Make will be treated in volumes two and three, the next to appear - and in the volumes after that. You must also wonder gloomily what else has been doctored.

That is the last bit of fun you will have from this 50mm-thick, beautifully designed, silverjacketed volume, for it is not only physically heavy but deadly serious. It covers the more important buildings designed in the first part of the 1990s: the Reichstag, Frankfurt's Commerzbank, the Design Centre, Essen, the British Museum's Great Court, Canary Wharf Tube Station, the MusÚe de PrÚhistoire des Gorges du Verdon - and a lot more, including masterplans and unbuilt projects.

This is the decade, says Foster, during which the office went all-computer, and it was possible to test many of 'the 'green ideas' that we explored in the early years of the practice, [which] are only now becoming a reality because of the computerised methods of predicting and monitoring environmental performance now at our disposal'.

Such a large office as Foster's does a lot of bread-and-butter work to survive. Because of this, and because there are only so many facade systems with which to ring the changes on an elevation, it is sometimes quite difficult to distinguish a Foster commercial building from one by the big developerfriendly companies - at least in photographs.

You hope that on the ground you would be able to detect the difference in the detailing and thinking. So one important message of this book is that what differentiates the Foster office is that it produces a knockout winner at least every couple of years.

The book is organised as a series of essays surrounding particular buildings and projects, written by the illuminati of the architectural press - Catherine Slessor, Deyan Sudjic, Kenneth Powell, Richard Weston, Annette LeCuyer, Colin Davies among them. As before, there is a 50mm strip across the top of each page with images and small quotes from old articles by a miscellany of people - including a good sprinking by Foster himself. This is known internally as 'the film', explains editor David Jenkins, a species of visual footnotes: 'It is hoped that this material will add to the reader's enjoyment and aid those who wish to research the work of the Foster studio further.' Foster makes much of the theme of energy conservation. Other architects pay lip service to the idea but they are frequently frustrated by their clients. You feel that at least with the public - and even with some of the commercial - work, the Foster office does try very hard, because techniques for conserving energy can generate architectural form. What the book allows the office to do is to explain in detail exactly how this all works and how it came about - which the usual magazine article, however well illustrated, can rarely do.

Foster is outstanding because of 'his ability to turn abstract ideas into a physical reality of unprecedented lightness and grace' (as Frank Duffy puts it). Duffy goes on to characterise the Foster way of designing: 'Every element is as simple and refined as it can be made? nothing is hidden? planning, structure, servicing, circulation and fenestration are all designed to work together.' The Foster magic has been to do all this in fresh, and sometimes unexpected, ways. And that is why this collection of Foster works is so agreeable: it has the quality of a quarry not yet touched by many archaeologists.

At the same time, this volume is a part of the memorial edifice to the Foster phenomenon - Foster's bid for eternity, the ultimate record of the work. The buildings are not enough.

There is the corpus of unbuilt schemes; there is the underlying thinking; there is the process of searching for new and more interesting materials, and of ways of using them. Then there is the (always favourable) opinion of contemporary critics; and the body of sketches, formal drawings and photographs which, in these volumes, will endure as long as the buildings - and, since the information will be stored in a thousand architectural libraries around the world, maybe even longer.

You think of the lesson of Corb and Andre Lurcat - in the interwar years they were the towering figures of Modernism. The main reason why Lurcat has been forgotten is not that he was a second-rate architect but that Corb published constantly and relentlessly - and he too cut-and-pasted for publication when it suited his cause. He knew that subsequent generations, unless they were historians, would use the official texts rather than trawling through old newspapers and magazines for the fuller picture.

So while you may not respect it at all, you understand the reasoning behind this and the volumes to come; and you understand why the Foster office, not an independent writer, has produced the book. You only hope that future generations will understand that too.

Along with the fact that the work is, indeed, mostly unprecedentedly light and graceful.

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