Foster and Partners' retrospective exhibition moves to the British Museum later this year, but it is worth trying to catch it at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich during the summer. Perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of the show is the experience of seeing it in this setting, the practice's first public building and probably its most controversial at that time.
Today it seems a highly acceptable space in which to view art, with an almost contemplative quality and, now that undisguised industrialised construction has become a familiar part of the language of 'high' culture, it is difficult to appreciate why it aroused such antipathy in 1978. It is equally intriguing to browse through this exhibition dedicated to an urban theme - 'Exploring the City' - within the semi-pastoral context of the University of East Anglia (UEA) campus, where the sweetness of the air and open views compel one to question the desirability of urban density.
Foster and Partners has always found its work susceptible to accusations of urban insensitivity, and an over-emphasis on the virtues of the object building, and this initiative seems intent on prompting a re-evaluation of its oeuvre. Indeed, it states its case in no uncertain terms: not only has the studio made the most significant architectural contribution to the construction of twentyfirst century London, but it has also played a major role in the regeneration of Europe's post-industrial cities, and 'simultaneously helped to shape the explosive growth of the new metropolises of Asia. . .'
Notwithstanding these claims, underpinned by the reminder that Foster gained 'a planning qualification' as well as an architecture degree and regards the writings of Chermayeff as a significant influence, the main content of the exhibition is an impressive bank of monochrome models of buildings and projects, shown almost entirely without context. Round the back is a focus on the Reichstag and GLA buildings, dwelling primarily on the environmental systems employed.
Down in the Crescent wing are displays on Chek Lap Kok Airport and the Duisberg masterplan, but, despite suggestive headlines, there is little insight into the socio-urban conditions which framed the architectural response. Scepticism is fuelled by the strategic location of a small but significant display on 'Foster buildings as icons' which greets the visitor on entering.
This is a very broad survey of an exhibition, which reveals an interesting development in outline of ideas on materials, forms and systems, but nothing in detail, and nothing pertaining to the cultural context which has shaped the work over 30 years. What it demonstrates, above all, is that the Foster studio's output is extensive, and includes some of the most potent symbols of contemporary global capitalism.
'The Norman Foster Studio - Exploring the City', curated by Deyan Sudjic, runs at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, UAE, Norwich, until 10 September 2000 vital statistics A total of 1194 households at the Heygate estate are set for demolition under the new masterplan for the Elephant and Castle in south London.More than 3000 new private dwellings will be built on the site.
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