NORMAN FOSTER IS THE UNDISPUTED MASTER OF REFLECTED GLORY
Norman Foster's commission to design a 62storey tower next to the Seagram Building on New York's Lexington Avenue (pages 10-11) can be seen as the culmination of Manhattan's love affair with skyscrapers and superstars. This is the commission to seal Foster's status as one of Tom Wolfe's 'Masters of the Universe'; a logical addition to a high-rise, high-tech portfolio that includes the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank, the Frankfurt Commerzbank and Swiss Re.
It makes for a convincing story, but a spurious architectural strategy. It suggests that Foster's challenge is to deliver a more sophisticated, more elegant, more sleekly corporate architecture than ever before. Which leaves him in a paradoxical position. Foster must champion his design on its architectural showmanship, while simultaneously allaying fears that it will compete with Mies' Seagram building next door. On the one hand, he must guarantee a show-stopper, on the other, he has to promise to produce an architecture which is both self-effacing and discreet.
In reality, the most fruitful way of understanding and presenting Foster's scheme is to locate it in the tradition of his historic buildings work. Viewed as a foil, as opposed to a rather apologetic neighbour, to Seagram, the new tower can afford to take on greater prominence. The way to get a first-rate building is not to strive for the invisible, but to establish dialogue - to celebrate the way in which the two buildings can share the limelight, reinjecting Seagram with a new lease of life. At the Sackler Galleries, the Reichstag and the British Museum's Great Court, Foster has shown himself to be the undisputed master of reflected glory, deftly exploiting a language of transparency to reflect, reassert and multiply the grandeur of the existing buildings on the site. Foster is at his best when he pays homage to an architecture which is rather richer than his own.