312 employed architects, 33% female architects, first position in 2014
More from: Foster tops AJ120 for fourth year in a row
The idea of an island retreat where scientists, artists and writers come together to create a new vision for the world is a recurring one in fiction. From Aldous Huxley’s final novel Island – his attempt to find a third way fusing Western and Eastern philosophies together – to Alan Moore’s comic book Watchmen, which shows how a billionaire polymath uses the combined brainpower of various talents holed away on a secret island to ‘design’ world peace, it crops up time and again. The root of this idea, in Western literature at least, is the Atlantis myth, which inspired both Thomas More’s Utopia (again, set on an island with a ‘perfect’ society) and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, which promotes an advanced human culture.
Fosters’ Battersea campus is populated with bright minds intent on designing the future
You might wonder what this has to do with Foster + Partners being number one – again – in the AJ’s annual chart of Britain’s biggest architecture firms. But there is a link. First, there is the secluded nature of its hard-to-get-to Battersea headquarters, which seems almost like an island hiding in plain sight of central London. And second, there is a certain photograph recently shown at the RIBA by Foster + Partners’ head of design David Nelson during a ‘total architecture’ debate, an annotated snapshot of the main studio floor, focused on three rows of desks and the staff who work there. Floating above their heads, we see job descriptions. Only one reads ‘architect’. The rest highlight a bewildering array of specialisms: there is a computer scientist, a mechanical engineer, an aerospace engineer. A material scientist. An acoustician. A geometer. And there is a specialist in building physics. Anyone who has visited Fosters’ Battersea campus, however, will tell you there are many more ‘experts’ based there, from illustrators and graphic designers, to model makers, animators and structural engineers. It is, in other words, a kind of private island that, much like those in Atlantean fiction, is populated with bright minds intent on designing the future.
Is Fosters’ success built on this foundation? One based on ability and vision rather than architectural qualification? Partly – but there is another key ingredient: underpinning this structure is a desire to transform the world. From staple fare such as workplace and homes, to government buildings and superyachts, via airports, bridges, an elephant enclosure and a 3D printed moonbase, Fosters’ ‘islanders’ shape swathes of the built environment. It does masterplans, too, and hospitals (and a Maggie’s Centre) as well as schools, campuses and door handles, turbines, pylons and desks. What drives this Utopian desire to remodel everything in sight?
It comes down to how the young Foster learned about the world, and whom he chose as heroes. There was Buckminster Fuller, the maverick thinker who was neither an architect, engineer nor designer by training (he studied classics, in fact, at Harvard, until he was expelled). Fuller’s Futurism – he dismissed the Bauhaus as a school for mere stylists and his ‘Spaceship Earth’ manifesto called for a redesign of the entire planet – inspired and challenged Foster. Jean Prouvé was another, with his architectural, engineering, design and manufacturing skills, while another still was the German graphic designer Otl Aicher, whose Rotis font has become synonymous with typography used by Foster + Partners.
Perhaps even more importantly, however, were Foster’s teenage years spent in Manchester’s Levenshulme Free Library. There, Foster read his first architecture books, including Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s In the Nature of Materials and Corb’s Towards an Architecture. As he told Hanno Rauterberg in 2008: ‘By then my Flash Gordon was Frank Lloyd Wright.’ For Foster, these ‘were like adventure books. They opened up a world that was completely alien to me, a Utopia, if you like, a long way from Manchester.’ And that could well be the secret here: to treat business like an adventure and to build your own island culture, with the best people you can find, regardless of their professional training. Foster + Partners may be number one because it employs the most qualified architects but Nelson, the purveyor of that photo, and Fosters’ head of design – perhaps the most important role in any of the AJ120 firms listed this year – isn’t one of them.