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Norman architecture

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Review: The Norman Foster Studio: Consistency Through Diversity by Malcolm Quantrill. E & FN Spon, 2000. 234pp. £49.50

There is a point of view that all new public buildings in Britain ought to be designed by Norman Foster. This is a perfectly reasonable view, for no other architect practising on a large commercial scale has shown such consistent dedication to, and achieved such success in, quality of product. Whatever one's opinion of individual buildings, it is impossible to argue with the seminal importance of the Willis Faber Dumas building, the Sainsbury Centre at UEA, or the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters. One might be dissatisfied if one had commissioned the Birmingham Sea Life Centre after having seen the Carre d'Art at Nimes, but such quibbles must be rare indeed among Foster's clients.

Now that Foster's practice is fully international, one has less opportunity to visit his buildings and so depends on publications, of which there is no shortage. The latest is this book by Malcolm Quantrill, which combines the 'greatest hits' package with fairly extensive biographical background material and interviews with the partners in the practice, including Foster himself.

The survey of work is less comprehensive than one might find elsewhere, but there is ample space for the featured projects. As always in such books, the photographs of buildings form the single most important element. In this case, contemporary photographs are used to sometimes delightful effect; it is worth being reminded that the Wllis Faber Dumas building was created in an age of flares and power cuts rather than one of mobile phones and Microstations.

The photographs which post-date the Hong Kong Bank are relatively characterless, but that might reflect the effective dominance which Foster has come to exert over British architectural taste since that time. Rare, but pleasing, quirks can still crop up in the pictures of the German and French buildings, where glimpses of people hint at a vague stylistic disjunction with the imported architecture.

The book's 'practice in action' photographs were, presumably, specially commissioned. These are, for the most part, thoroughly pedestrian. In the practice chronology, evocative, energetic shots of the early days (with the participants full of determination and fun) are superseded by pictures of middle-aged men in open-necked shirts standing around, gesticulating, holding meetings, visiting sites, as architects would appear in the sets of character figures one can buy to give scale to a model.

The technical drawings are well-selected, not over-familiar, and in many cases are reproduced large enough to give some idea of their complexity. These drawings are not numerous enough to illustrate on their own the practice history, but often encapsulate perfectly the background to the text. Spencer de Grey's description of the difficulties encountered dealing with London Transport is more comprehensible when one sees the Archigram aesthetic in which the disputed scheme was proposed.

The sketches included are few and not especially revealing, reminding one of a world of craft and potential fallibility at odds with the rest of the practice's output.

Norman Foster's sketching prowess (although considerable) is as relevant to his buildings as Gordon Brown's ability to do sums in his head is to his handling of the economy.

The pretext/excuse for the publication of so much familiar work is a set of ego-stroking discussions between Malcolm Quantrill and the Foster partners. These are not revealing in any way of the personality of Norman Foster or those around him. All concerned seem to be ideally-drilled, almost FBItrained, in their disciplined promotion of the firm, and perfectly in keeping with the institutionalised creativity which is now the practice's primary distinguishing feature.

As a vehicle for this exercise Quantrill might have been better advised to stick to the Foster biography with which the book opens.

The now familiar story of the working-class Foster growing up and struggling to become an architect in 1950s Manchester is, in this version, positioned centrally in the 'kitchen sink' drama genre.

Expanding on this theme would have given Quantrill more scope to extract interest from his subject than do his interviews with the five people in the world with least to gain from an objective critical evaluation of the practice.

Gerry McLean is an architect in London

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