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‘Self-serving twaddle, at best’

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Patrick Lynch throws the book at Norman Foster (or would, if it wasn’t so damn heavy)

Norman Foster Works 3, edited by David Jenkins, Prestel, 563pp, £65

Norman Foster Works 3 is 24.5 x 30.3 x 5cm, and so heavy that it just overloaded our franking machine when I attempted to check its weight, to see how much it must cost Lord Foster to post it to his clients. The cover is shiny grey and clear plastic with identical text on the front and the back. Everyone I’ve seen open it has opened it upside down. It is too heavy to read in your lap, or to hold; presumably it works best at a lectern or across the table from a client, although I don’t think you’re supposed to read it, because if you do, you feel dizzy and nauseous. Not only is it physically imposing, the ‘writings’ are so self-congratulatory and the sentiments so contradictory that you feel as confused as someone trying to find the entrance to a bad Modernist building.

This volume presents Foster’s built projects since 1991 as case studies, accompanied by interviews with the project architects and some sycophantic and pretentious promotional essays that deal with ‘Poetry and Prose’ for example, from the point of view of those who don’t have the time to find out anything about either. The essays are arranged beneath a frieze of quotations that almost relate to the points being made below, but are mainly just boasts or garbled epigrams from the hundreds of interviews Foster has given. When you finally find the way into his ‘attitudes towards the process of design’, you emerge disorientated. We learn that he was a trainspotter; that unlike his classmates at Manchester University he made measured drawings of barns rather than temples; that everyone thinks he’s a ‘visionary’, or a ‘revolutionary’, ‘extraordinary’ and/or ‘passionate’. Any number of self-publicising, and meaningless clichés are presented in lieu of critique, and you despair at the lack of an argument.

Speaking to Japan Architect, Foster reveals more than a repressed desire to preach, admitting to an almost socio-pathological desire ‘to be able to blank off views which are busy or disturbing’. He says: ‘To be able to focus on a big view, is about a certain attitude towards the way things might feel, or look, which is quite sensitive.’ This evidently goes down well with clients who want to maximise their yield on edgy sites (which is nice). Foster seems very impressed by the cleanliness of Japanese building sites, and hygiene and organisation are compared to efficiency and thus to quality. Lurking within this Calvinistic celebration of neatness, I found just one moment of honesty that might offer us a clue to the value of this architect. He declares a serious belief in the ‘moral responsibility to design well – to design responsibly’, continuing, ‘If I were to attempt to define how the design process works I suppose I would say that it has a lot to do with listening and asking the right questions… that holds true for a city, its infrastructure, buildings, public spaces, services, furniture and equipment’. He makes sense for a short period, before lapsing back into ‘lift the spirit’ clap-trap.

It is clear that Foster thinks that architecture is not just branding (despite the evidence of this PR pamphlet pretending to be a book), and in certain projects that deal explicitly with function and flow – Stansted is the apogee of this arc – he has clearly reinvented a modern building type, making it (as much as possible) an easy and pleasant building to use.

The trouble starts, I think, when what Foster calls his ‘tendency to challenge established solutions’ translates into the avoidance of any architectural problems that preoccupied architects before airports and office buildings. Therefore his work suffers, for all of his attempts to avoid it, from too much modernist rhetoric and not enough study of use, decorum, orientation, inhabitation, materials and construction. The houses are like film sets, as focused on distant views as temples; The Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, with its noisy hovercraft air-con on display above the entrance, seems to borrow so literally from aircraft design that the building’s inhabitants are an afterthought (one of my clients, whose office is a window-less hutch in the centre, tells me that he wants to punch Foster); The Cambridge Law Library deservedly won Private Eye’s Piloti’s worst building of the year award in 1996 for its innovative abolition of quiet, etc.

A critical editor and a confidant are needed perhaps. There is something troubling in this confusing book: are we considering a powerful collaboration between talented architects and engineers, or simply the heroic 20th-century insistence upon individual genius? The shameful erasure of Ken Shuttleworth from these pages is a symptom of this animus, and is quite at odds with the listening architect who let his guard down, and made even flying enjoyable.

Resume: Foster’s tome would make a great doorstop, if it wasn’t so full of hot air

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