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Is it time for Lord Foster to face the future?

It isn't Lord Foster's finest hour. Opponents to his redevelopment plans for Spitalfields market in London's East End are unlikely to be silenced by the latest reworking of the scheme (page 8).While Lord Foster claims that the change in height from 12 to six storeys represents a 'logical transition'between the larger Bishopsgate buildings and the smaller ones of Spitalfields, the complex dwarfs its neighbours - an outsized impostor whose sloping end elevations hint at nothing so much as the existence of an indoor ski slope.

Meanwhile, over in the west end, Selfridges has submitted a planning application for a major Foster development on the northern part of its Oxford Street site (page 5). Justly proud of its existing 1906 premises, Selfridges is quick to point to Foster's experience of working with historic buildings. But the Selfridges scheme is far removed from the masterly interventions at the Royal Academy, the Reichstag and the British Museum where, with a single clear gesture, Foster deftly made sense of previously neglected space. Selfridges is not a building with gaps to fill. A classic example of building as city block, it is both dense and complete - a self-contained structure where every last inch of space has long since been called upon to earn its keep. The only possibility for major expansion lies in building anew.While a lacklustre glass bridge weakens the isolated dignity of the existing building, the vast new-build block seems to be suffering from an identity crisis. It has none of the presence and solidity of the old, yet lacks the transparent simplicity of the best of Foster's new-build work. Instead, it is 'dressed up' in a sinuous steel-grid screen with none of the filigree lightness you would expect from a modern-day HighTech genius.

Like so many of our leading talents, Lord Foster is at a stage in his career when succession is a key concern, and a degree of instability is, perhaps, inevitable.With its unparalleled track record of nurturing talent, Foster and Partners deserves to survive.Let's hope for the practice's continued prosperity - and a change of direction in 2002.

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