Norman Foster: Works 2 Edited by David Jenkins.Prestel, 2005. 566pp. £60
In the second volume of Prestel's magisterial Foster oeuvre complète, the architect comes to town and out into the world.
The book covers the immensely fruitful 1980s, which means that major works are the fabulous Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank, the urbane Nîmes Carré d' Art and the sadly aborted BBC Radio Centre, with its internal street that would have greatly added to urban life in a rather dull part of London. Other important inclusions are the American Air Force Museum at Duxford and the extraordinarily ingenious Sackler Galleries that totally transformed the Royal Academy's part of Burlington House.
Hong Kong was one of Foster's great triumphs. He had a client with apparently bottomless pockets determined to have 'the best bank building in the world'. Though the costs will never be fully known, the money was not wasted in flash and gesture. As Chris Abel imaginatively points out, the bank pioneered new ways for architects to work with manufacturers, new forms of structure and, in the scoop that tracked the sun and projected its rays into the central nave, new ways of building that respond to climatic changes.
At the same time, the Foster practice was learning about urbanism and context. Willis Faber Dumas had already brought High-Tech to town, but it was an amorphous form that succeeded in scale by reflecting surrounding traditional buildings. Few urban sites could have been more challenging than the neighbourhood of the Maison Carrée, where the Roman temple was brilliantly complemented by Foster's Médiathèque across a dignified and popular new urban space in the Classical heart of Nîmes.
At the same time, the office was working on the Sackler Galleries which, in a perceptive essay, Richard Weston claims 'marked the moment when the tide finally turned for Modern architecture in Britain' because the old building was respected by elegant interventions in new materials and technologies. Old and new, though completely different, enhance each other, making the whole much more than the sum of the parts. It was the first step in an approach to working with existing buildings that was developed with great flair in the Reichstag and the British Museum's Great Court.
By publishing the second volume of Norman Foster: Works out of sequence (volumes one and four are already in print), the oeuvre is shown, perhaps misleadingly, to have inexorable logic and inevitable progress.
As Foster emphasises 'design is a continuous process in which individual elements evolve through constant reworking', yet the buildings, when they emerge, always look assured and complete.
The same is true of these volumes. Of making many books about Norman Foster there is no end, for he continually elaborates and develops the record. A few years ago, the Ernst & Söhn series seemed to most of us to be the acme of oeuvres complètes. Why would anyone want anything else? Yet Foster's perfectionist daemon drives him ever onward, searching for the account of his work: the pursuit will never cease.
It will be hard to beat the comprehensive, excellently designed Prestel volumes. But in the end, like all books produced on their own work by architects since Palladio, they remain a (very impressive) form of PR.
There is not a word of adverse criticism, nor even speculation on some of the claims (for instance, did the bank really have such a revolutionary effect on commercial towers as it was expected to? ). There are no north points and precious few room names on the drawings (an arrogant touch which seems odd in a study of work that claims to be so contextually conscious and user friendly).
And occasionally there is some very odd presentation - for instance, I burst out laughing when I realised that in one double-page picture of the Hong Kong waterfront, I M Pei's hated Bank of China tower, much taller than Foster's building, had been all but swallowed by the gutter (the bit in the middle where pages come together): brilliant manipulation which, like everything else in the book, has been very carefully thought out.
More subtle than the moment in volume four when Ken Shuttleworth was demoted by montage in a group photograph, but just as pointed.
Other new books on Foster and Partners'work are Norman Foster:
Reflections (Prestel £39) and Kenneth Powell's 30 St Mary Axe:
ATower for London (Merrell, £35)