Mike Morgan

It’s astonishing how little we know about the lives of architects. This is the era of the starchitect, after all, the celebrity architect, but our biographical sense of even such luminaries as Frank Gehry or Zaha Hadid is Wikipedia-thin. The deficiency is especially glaring in comparison with other creative professionals—actors, artists, musicians, writers—with whom we seem to be familiar on an almost intimate basis. We see their work as a form of personal expression, so the better we know them, or think we know them, as individuals, the more resonant their work becomes. A song about a heartbreak seems more meaningful if we know about the singer’s last romantic flameout. Architecture, on the other hand, is an inherently abstract medium; an architect’s divorce isn’t going to offer much insight into the folded planes of his or her latest project, let alone its circulation plan.

There are those who will tell you that it’s a good thing we’re not interested in architectural biography, that the “great man theory” it implies is not reflective of collaborative practice and otherwise suggests an unfashionable model for interpreting history. I find something distasteful and dangerously wrong in these attitudes. What is lost is a sense of human agency and its consequences. Architecture is more than entertainment; it orders our lives and shapes our cities. Understanding the men and women who create it—their intellectual roots and the experiences from which they draw—would seem to be a reasonable imperative, now more than ever.

Norman Foster: A Life in Architecture, by Deyan Sudjic, director of London’s Design Museum, is a welcome addition to the architectural biography field, even if it is of the authorized variety. You will not find here, for instance, any discussion of the British tabloid controversy over Foster’s tax status (and the subsequent calls for him to renounce his lordship). Sudjic is no lapdog, though, and while his admiration for Foster weighs heavily throughout the book—as you read, it’s hard not to share his conviction—he generally steers clear of sycophancy.

Sudjic gives an evocative description of Foster’s decidedly wrong-side-of-the-tracks youth in working-class postwar Manchester: crummy floral wallpaper, the nearest phone a five-minute walk. (The architect, even in his 70s, has the look of a heavy in a Guy Ritchie film.) His parents, hard-working strivers themselves, wanted him only to land a safe government job, and when he did and then left it, they were mortified. That Foster made his way to architecture was a prodigious feat of self-invention. After a stint in the military, he discovered his interest in design and took a job as an office boy in an architecture firm. He gained admission to study the subject at university by plagiarizing the firm’s presentation drawings for his portfolio. He worked his way through school on the strength of his gift as a draftsman, his restless creativity, and his seemingly unending capacity for work. Eventually, Foster won a scholarship for graduate study at Yale University, where he befriended Richard Rogers, studied under Paul Rudolph, and was inspired by the techno-utopian ideas of R. Buckminster Fuller.

The book’s strength is its first half, in which Sudjic deftly narrates Foster’s improbable rise. There is a natural tension here: Will Foster succeed in lifting himself from his humble beginnings? Can he establish his own progressive practice, when others might settle in comfortably at a larger firm, their futures secured? A good biography is generally inspiring—that’s part of why we read them, to feel better about our own prospects—and over its first 150 pages, Foster’s story fits the bill. It’s hard not to cheer such early successes as the Willis Faber & Dumas headquarters in Ipswich and the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, which clearly establish the signature of Foster’s work to come: cutting-edge technology paired with programmatic innovation.

Mark Lamster is at work on a biography of Philip Johnson.
Mark Lamster is at work on a biography of Philip Johnson.

Sudjic’s narrative inevitably flags as Foster’s office becomes the well-financed, corporate juggernaut that it is today, with hundreds of employees and projects around the globe. “Now that there are so many new designs coming from the office, it is impossible to regard them in the same way that they once might have been,” Sudjic writes. The sheer output of Foster’s office over the past four decades is, indeed, staggering. The laundry list of highlights includes skyscrapers for HSBC, Commerzbank, Swiss Re, Hearst; the Nimes Médiathèque and the courtyard of the British Museum; the Reichstag and the London City Hall; airports for London, Hong Kong, and Beijing; the Millennium Bridge and the stupendous Millau Viaduct. Sudjic artfully describes these works and manages to inject a good bit of drama into their making, but it is, unavoidably, something of a litany. Sudjic is frank about what might be the most controversial aspect of Foster’s practice: his willingness to take on clients regardless of their political baggage. “[H]is approach to politics is more concerned with the tactics of building in a complex world,” Sudjic writes. This philosophy is neatly illustrated in the opening pages of the book, in which Sudjic visits Masdar, Foster’s “carbon neutral” educational city in the desert outside of Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, which seems at once a realization of Fuller’s futuristic fantasies and a segregated community in a nation without free elections. By any measure, it is a long way from the back alleys of Manchester. But whatever one thinks of Foster’s decisions, simply by presenting them for discussion, Sudjic does the profession a service, at the same time demonstrating why biography is such a useful art in its own right.