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Why Foster is fair game for the critics

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Is Lord Foster treated with too much reverence by the architectural press?

Rowan Moore argues that it is time to push the practice off its pedestal.

So that's me slapped down: twice reprimanded in a single week's Astragal (AJ 7.3.02), firstly for failing to understand the stresses and strains of running a mighty practice, and then for corrupting the young.My offence? I had dared to suggest, in Prospect magazine, that Norman Foster might sometimes do a duff building, and that he was not equally superb in all aspects of the practice of architecture.

I don't think my argument will come as news to most of AJ's readers. Prospect is not a bestseller, with a twentieth of the circulation of my main employer, the London Evening Standard, but of the million or so words of architectural journalism I have written, very few have prompted such a large and positive response as this article. Many of these reactions came from architects - young, old, famous, obscure, successful, struggling. Each one felt it was high time that the profession's biggest name was subjected to a little measured criticism.

Yet it was all too much for Astragal. It described my article as 'a long series of complaints about almost everything Foster has ever done, ' a statement that overlooked my descriptions of his 'heroic life story', his 'supreme skill in some aspects of architecture', the 'virtuoso' roof of the British Museum Great Court, the 'clarity and intensity' of some of his early works and the 'grace and precision' of some of his later ones.

So the article was hardly undiluted rage. Astragal quoted me as saying that the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank's structure was upside down: actually that was said by the structural engineer Frank Newby. 'What this critic can never get to grips with, ' said Astragal schoolmarmishly, 'is that the running of a great commercial office has consequences. If you have designed 50 office buildings they will not all be masterpieces.' Later the column reported how young architects refer to Foster as the 'F word', which Astragal interpreted as the 'envy and resentment' of the 'less successful and the up and coming'.

'I blame Rowan Moore, ' it added.

Well, here's a thought for Astragal. Let's run, for a minute, with the hypothesis that criticism of Foster is not just an aberration of embittered youth, led astray by an obstreperous critic. It's tough, I know, but try it. Let's suppose that these young architects have a point, and that the GLA building truly is an aggressive way of representing local democracy, or that the concept of the Great Court was played out more memorably a decade ago by IM Pei's Louvre pyramid. Or that beneath that virtuoso roof, Alvaro Siza, Rafael Moneo or David Chipperfield might have worked better with the project's themes of antiquity and modernity.

You could also imagine that an alarming number of those 50 office buildings are so far from being masterpieces that they are positive blots, including the Spitalfields market development or a dazed and confused office block on Wood Street in the City.You could start to notice other failures of quality control in the Foster machine, like the cumbersome block of flats proposed for Albion Wharf, next to Foster's own office in Battersea.

Finally, Astragal might examine its argument that a few unfortunate 'consequences' are a reasonable price to pay for the achievement of a 'great commercial practice'. If these consequences include great public commissions indifferently realised, or lumpen commercial developments on prominent sites, what compensation is it to the public that these were the work of a 600-strong office on an off-day?

And, if the point of Foster and Partners is to be an American-style mega-practice, he should stop presenting his operation as a 'studio' on the creative side of cutting edge.

If there is some truth in these objections to Foster's work, it would then be important to ask whether it was good for British architects and architecture that a single practice should so dominate major public commissions. Why are the 50-something generation of Coates and Hadid still awaiting their major breakthrough here, while those in their 40s and 30s struggle to get anything significant at all? Why, in contrast with other European countries, is there so little room for foreign talent? Why are we so slow to let in Nouvel, Siza, Gehry or OMA? The dominance of Foster is not the only reason, but a major one. If public clients are told that Foster is an unqualified genius, they will never encourage more diverse talents.

These are the questions that architectural critics and architectural magazines should be asking.Other sections of the AJ than Astragal have done so. If critics and magazines do not ask these questions, they encourage complacency inside the profession and cynicism and apathy outside it. Yet Astragal rushes to defend the status quo. All I was saying was that Foster was not God. That seems to be heresy.

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