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Model compositions

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The Norman Foster Studio: Exploring the City At the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia, Norwich until 10 September 2000

'Just because I am a model doesn't mean I'm stupid.' The fashion model's refrain, annoyed that her catwalk sashays are the only things given any attention, could easily be the byline for this Foster exhibition at the Sainsbury Centre (and in London later this year).

On the one hand, the exhibition gives visitors what they expect: exquisitely-crafted models, heaped up on an enormous tiered bank, like a cross between a Modernist megastructure and Piranesi's impossibly fantastic views of Rome. Yet more examples, suspended from the ceiling or on tables, strengthen this impression of an exhibition hellbent on celebrating the model as an object of desire. On the other hand, Foster and curator Deyan Sudjic have more in mind than a parade of dumb beauty. A number of themes relate architecture to the city, ranging from 'Diversity and Density' and 'Creative Community' to 'Domestic World' and 'Landscape of Communication'. In the Crescent Wing, further sections investigate specific cities such as Hong Kong, Berlin and Duisberg.The aim is to refute the common charge that Foster's architecture is beautiful but context-less in form.

In some parts of the exhibition, this just about works. In 'Identity', for example, the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank is described as providing a new identity for skyscraper typology and for Hong Kong as a city. Likewise, the sky garden elements of the Commerzbank headquarters in 'Sustainable Imperative' demonstrate how to provide natural ventilation in offices. In 'Culture of Spectacle' projects like the Sackler Galleries or the Sainsbury Centre itself are evidence of places where people meet and interact. In these cases it is relatively easy to see the relation between architectural specifics and urbanism in general, particularly because this relation is itself constructed along lines of the simple provision of space and/or form.

Yet in other sections, the themes themselves, while laudable and justifiable, are rarely connected to architectural concerns in any meaningful manner. In 'Public Realm', little more is said about the public square in front of the Nimes mediatheque, or the 'World Squares for All'Trafalgar Square proposal, than that cars are banished and pedestrian access is heightened. Likewise, the section on 'New Infrastructure', while displaying elegantly composed bridges, telecommunications towers and petrol stations (the Repsol chain in Spain), scarcely explores the assertion that these are the equivalent of the great engineering projects of the nineteenth century.

Certain aspects of the exhibition do try to remedy these shortcomings. There are some excellent electronic screens, short videos, and a massive wrap-round video and sound installation about Chek Lap Kok. And there is also a large new book and CD-ROM, On Foster . . . Foster On (Prestel, 814pp, £45), with various essays either about or by Foster. But in the end the overbearing hagiographic politeness - is it really impossible for an exhibition on a living designer's work to be occasionally other than celebratory? - is simply reinforced by the exhibition format: models which are elevated, untouchable and ultimately unattainable in any intellectual manner.

It is not, however, the focus on the model which is wrong here, but the way so much is demanded of it unsupported by further discussion.This is made clear in the section on Swiss Re, where, suddenly, a round table of information, mixed with a row of different massing and form studies, do successfully combine to create a telling insight into the design process, not just for this particular building but for the Foster practice as a whole.

If models focus attention on the building as object then, as the Swiss Re element shows, the whole presence of the building as existential object in the city can come to the fore: an object which contrasts with present urban conditions, and which, through the exploration and expression of research, intimates new possibilities for architecture. These are objects which offer a mirror by which to know ourselves and the cities we live in, and in particular the different futures we might encounter.

It is not the purpose of Foster's architecture to tell us precisely what these futures will be, only to suggest some of the likely trajectories. Foster's buildings are objects of expectation, not prescript ion . But to comprehend th is cond i t ion , we need jus t a little more than the reductive form of the model alone.

Iain Borden is director of architectural history and theory at the Bartlett, University College London

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