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Foster's legacy: upping the ante for the run of the mill

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How do architects gain the respect of their peers? Not, it would appear, by producing buildings which are universally admired.While the Eden Project scored joint first in this year's AJ100 poll of readers' favourite buildings, its architect, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw, only made joint eighth on the list of most admired living architects.

Lord Foster, in comparison, shared the accolade of 'most admired living architect'with Renzo Piano - yet feelings about his buildings were decidedly mixed. The British Museum Great Court scraped into the top 10 favourite buildings while the GLA building was the second most disliked building, making Foster and Partners the only practice to appear on both lists.

Lord Foster has come to represent much more than his buildings. To some, including Rowan Moore (page 16), his elevated status represents a barrier to younger talent, and a straitjacket to architectural diversity. To others, including various AJ readers who voice their opinions on this week's letters page, he has become a byword for quality. On both sides, the fact that he has given us some of our finest buildings is taken as read.

But in some respects the showstoppers - the Reichstag, the British Museum - are not the most significant part of Foster's contribution. They may be wonderful, but others could have tackled such commissions with equal aplomb. Foster's detractors are quick to sneer at the drop in quality which is evident in some of the practice's less prestigious projects, but it is at the lower end of the market where Foster's legacy is most significant. In creating an oeuvre which can readily translate into cut-price, fast-track architecture, he has set new standards for run-of-the-mill architecture. Prolific though it is, the output of the Foster office pales into insignificance when compared to the mass of imitations it has spawned. It may be that, without Foster, staff at the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank would have been graced with an equally remarkable workplace from an equally gifted practice. But for the vast majority of those who work in, say, a sub-Foster light-industrial building, the most likely alternative would have been a claustrophobic shed.

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