My name is Ozymandias
Norman Foster: Works, Volume 1 Edited by David Jenkins. Prestel, 2003. 580pp. £60
This is the first volume of the six-book Foster oeuvre complète and covers the period from 1963 and Foster's student days to the Renault building of 1983. It is a massive tome: wide A4 format, grey cloth cover, dark silver plastic jacket, and almost 600 pages. It has been meticulously designed by Thomas Manns and Co and edited by former AJ buildings editor, now at Fosters, David Jenkins. It is a major achievement - not least because the book itself mirrors so well the quality of the architecture.
A singularity of the design is a 50mm zone across the top of the printable area of each page. It's probably a coincidence that the book is also 50mm thick, though given the Foster obsession with detail, possibly not. This strip contains additional commentary for 'the reader's enjoyment' - a nice idea, especially when there is, graphically, quite a lot going on underneath: photos, drawings, sketches, usefully long captions, and descriptive texts from the time of the buildings' completion (some by Foster, some by Jenkins, and the rest by the usual architectural suspects from Reyner Banham to Martin Pawley).
Those of us who have grown up with post-war British architecture will know the early Foster story pretty well, because his architecture has been innovative and important right from the beginning. Former Team 4 partner Richard Rogers might have done sexier and more interesting buildings but Foster's seem to have an inexorable logic - with occasional forays into logic plus sublimity, as at Willis Faber Dumas.
We are intimate at arm's length with the work thanks to the constant, tightly managed stream of books, hagiographies and articles. These include the relatively recent multi-volume Ernst & Sohn Buildings and Projects, edited by Ian Lambot - and a score of other such texts on sale today. So you might imagine that by now we are all suffering information overload. But this volume manages the difficult trick of presenting everything more or less afresh - even though we are familiar with the drawings, the buildings and at least some of the texts.
Although the publisher, Prestel, is independent enough and Jenkins has worked really hard at getting independent writing into the book, this is not an independent study. It is the official version.Of course this is true of practically every modern book about an architect or architectural practice, simply because authors need the cooperation of their subjects and, these days, that includes cooperation about providing fee-free photographs of the buildings. I recently priced a proposed book and the cost of just the photographs from stock libraries would have been more than the whole publishing budget - including marketing and printing. I suppose, too, you wouldn't bother writing a book about an architect whose work you didn't like.
With this in mind, and having followed the Foster office progress, especially that shameful attempt to wriggle out of collective responsibility when things went wrong with the Millennium Bridge, you inevitably want to know whether some of the key 'iffy' items have been excluded from the book. One such is the corrugated-metal Bean Hill housing estate at Milton Keynes, which eventually got reroofed, though not necessarily to the scheme's benefit. Another is the cladding, especially the curved corners, at the Sainsbury Centre, UEA, which was all replaced to a massive non-fanfare of publicity. Journalists can be remarkably supine when it comes to the rich and famous.
It needs to be said that most of the problems are dealt with openly. Not entirely surprisingly, they were apparently resolved more or less in favour of the Foster office.
You ask yourself what an alternative, independent study of the Foster office might comprise. The difficulty is that you would want to include practically everything that is included here, and you would want Manns to design it. But you might also want to widen the inquiry because, like the architecture, this book keeps emotion in check. There is not all that much about the people who helped to create the buildings, got sacked, became independently famous, or had leaps of blinding intuition. There is an odd want of generosity of spirit. You might have thought that a man of such international eminence could loosen up a bit in the sunset years.
Whatever, this is a terrific book about one of the most interesting eras of the Foster office, which contains absolutely everything the office wants you to know. The big question is whether we will still want to be reading some years hence when the final, sixth volume appears.
Sutherland Lyall is a journalist