The invitation was positively nuptial. Half an inch thick, on fine stock with handsome print, it declared that the inaugural symposium of the Norman Foster Foundation, “Future Is Now,” would be taking place on June 1 in Madrid, Spain, in time for the official opening of the institution’s new headquarters there. All of which was a bit bewildering: What was this portentously named symposium about? And what, for that matter, was the Norman Foster Foundation, which was itself unknown to many of the invitees? It seemed like a lovely wedding. If only it was clear who was getting married.
And why in Madrid? “We were looking for a base,” said Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA. The day before the summit, slated to feature a cavalcade of design stars, politicos, and other bold-faced names from Foster’s rarefied orbit, the Pritzker Prize–winning architect (now 82) explained the rationale behind the whole vexed enterprise. His wife, Elena Ochoa Foster, is a native Madrileña, and the couple owns an apartment in the historic Castellana district. More importantly, said Foster, Madrid is “such a well-connected city,” its global presence strengthened by age-old colonial ties to the New World. The appeal of the place was only enhanced when, in 2013, Foster chanced on a sensational property, an early-20th-century villa just a few minutes from his family’s home, with an enchanting outdoor terrace and ample square footage for the archival materials his foundation had been quietly amassing.
While the organization has been operating under the radar, its founder has certainly not. Lord Foster of Thames Bank (a title he rarely uses, and uses even less since he resigned from the House of Lords in 2010), operates 12 offices on four continents tackling such hotly anticipated projects as the new Apple campus in Cupertino, Calif., and the vast new airport for Mexico City. “I’m always immersed in practice,” Foster says, “but there are limitations.” The foundation, in his view, is an opportunity to expand his reach and become a hub for transdisciplinary conversations—like “Future is Now”—as well as exhibition and storage space for his voluminous archives and collections of art and industrial design objects. “At some point I’m not going to be around,” he says. “But this will go on, not just as a static archive, but one with an educational program that can make it reactive in terms of addressing issues related to change in the environment and the world.”
Those issues have preoccupied the designer for decades, dating back to landmark projects like his Stanstead Airport in England (1991)—touted by Foster as the first to put the service level below the concourse, freeing up the latter to accommodate light and views—and the Torre de Collserola (1992), a giant television tower outside Barcelona whose 14-foot base leaves its rustic hillside almost untouched. An acolyte of Buckminster Fuller, Foster has always posited technology not just as a driver for design but as an engine of social change. “We are witnessing, globally, a world that’s more connected than ever before,” he declared in his keynote address for “Future Is Now” at Madrid’s Teatro Real.
And yet, that same morning, the President of the United States announced that the world’s largest economy would be withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement. Thirty-six hours later, terrorists launched an attack on London Bridge, just downstream from Foster’s own Millennium Bridge. If technology really has been propelling us toward a more rational, more unified future, not everyone—as of late—appears to be cooperating.
The Spoils of a Rarefied Career
More so than any designer of his generation, Foster embodies—both in his life and his work—a certain ideal of architecture in the service of a globalized economy. His client list includes major multinational corporations (he is currently designing the London headquarters for New York financial giant Bloomberg). And he has collaborated with international NGOs on speculative nonprofit schemes, most notably his series of proposed “dome ports” to distribute much-needed aid throughout sub-Saharan Africa. His charitable activities, such as funding scholarships at London’s Royal Academy of Arts and an endowed chair at Yale University, suggest a degree of largesse associated less commonly with architects and more with their clients. In professional folklore, Foster is often reckoned the wealthiest designer in the world, and if not he is doubtless very close. He owns his own aircraft, which he flies himself; he has considerable private holdings of real estate, paintings, and sculpture; he buys and restores rare automobiles which he tools through the winding roads of the Swiss Alps, where he lives most of the year.
Many of the spoils of this privileged style of life have been socked away at the foundation’s new space in Madrid. On one side of the mansion’s peripheral courtyard, Foster’s team has built a new exhibition pavilion to house some of his most impressive toys, including Le Corbusier’s 1926 Avions Voisins motorcar, replete with its all-tartan interior and original airplane components. The pavilion itself is more than a little aeronautic itself, with its simple glass enclosure topped by a gleaming, wing-like roof of polished steel. The more substantive Fosteriana are housed in the elegant Beaux-Arts main building, where hundreds of renderings and models, some vintage and some created especially for the foundation, attest to the astonishing breadth and depth of the firm’s output since its founding in 1967. Taken together, the materials illustrate Foster’s techno-utopian vision for the urban prospect.
Divided into thematic sections, the displayed works show the remarkable consistency of Foster’s approach. As early as 1975, with his breakthrough Willis Caroon Building in Ipswich, England, he took the givens of Modernism—the curtainwall, the typical floor, the free plan—and wedded them with a kind of euphoric, kid-with-an-Erector-Set joy for machinery: he made the darkened glass façade transparent at night, in order to show off the building’s elaborate mechanical plant. In the 1970s and ’80s, buildings like the HSBC headquarters in Hong Kong, with its forthright structural expression, and the Renault Center in southwestern England, bristling with taught steel cables, epitomized the period’s High-Tech movement, which purported to advance an architecture of maximum human service and zero rhetoric. Yet Foster’s work was never without symbolic content, acquiring more and more of it as his career progressed. By the time a visitor reaches the massive section model of his 1999 Reichstag renovation in Berlin, it is as clear as the building’s coruscating glass dome that Foster is engaging in a concerted polemic about openness, the democratic process, and the triumph of the future over the past.
That particular future, and that particular past, is recalled once again in the foundation courtyard. Standing in a small garden plot just beyond the pavilion is a slab of graffito-tagged concrete: a portion of the Berlin Wall. The collapse of Soviet Communism is a signal political moment for Foster, a brief interval when it seemed that the march of free markets and liberal democracy would bring about a just and cosmopolitan order. It is still largely the world he sees today, as he made clear at the Teatro Real: “a more mobile society, with migrations from the rural areas of nations into the urban areas on an unprecedented scale, and migrations across continents.” The fact that ours is also a world where walls are coming back into vogue did not much seem to worry him.
Neither did it trouble most of his invited guests, whose names read like a class reunion of the early-aughts global creative class. There was Michael Bloomberg, the former New York mayor and Foster’s billionaire client, appearing on a panel alongside artist-designer Maya Lin and the architect himself to warn that the world must not “walk away from global trade.” There was Apple designer Jony Ive, fielding repeated (and somewhat impertinent) questions from the moderator about the longevity of iPhone batteries, and confessing that what he’d most like to design for himself would be “a nice soap dispenser.” There was designer Marc Newson, artist Olafur Eliasson, and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in conversation with the Netherland’s Special Envoy for Water Affairs. It was, all in all, only slightly less baffling than first anticipated—a conclave of extraordinarily accomplished people discussing human progress in the 21st century, even as powerful forces were at that very moment endeavoring to drag it back to the 14th.
The Limits of Technocratic Liberalism
There was one moment of discord. During a panel on technology and design, conservative historian Niall Ferguson jumped on a passing (and by no means cogent) metaphor proffered by MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte about “fried eggs and omelets.” Ferguson explained that en route to the Teatro Real, a local taxi union, protesting the encroachment of Uber into the Spanish market, had struck his passing car with yolky projectiles. “This bright future will not be as bright and shiny as you think,” declared Ferguson, “and the rotten eggs have only just begun flying.” His remarks were greeted by a shower of applause. Amid all the technocratic boosterism, it was refreshing to hear a note of realism in the Teatro Real. It was only unfortunate that Ferguson, a noted denier of social progress, had to be the one to deliver it.
The keynote for the day’s final panel was delivered by Alejandro Aravena, a Pritzker-winning architect of an altogether different, if no less ambitious, social mission than that of his host. In presenting his small-bore, low-tech system for mass urban housing, Aravena noted the importance of building “good infrastructure,” not “stupid infrastructure, like a wall to separate Mexico and the United States.” One only wishes he had gone further—to posit an alternative between Foster’s technocratic liberalism on the one hand, and Ferguson’s Hobbesian reactionism on the other.
Nevertheless, Foster remains unrepentant in his outlook. Sitting upstairs in the villa, surrounded by models of his buildings, he took the long view: “There’s a certain arrogance about technology and globalism, as if we invented it,” he said. “It’s a tradition that goes back centuries, to the beginning of civilization.” What’s clear in looking at Foster’s work in toto—from his early childhood sketches of medieval mills to his proposals for a self-building moon base—is that his gee-whiz techno-euphoria has never been far removed from a key intellectual and political premise: the Enlightenment ideal of a society based upon reason. That may not quite account for all the good cheer of the Madrid panelists, merrily toasting the nowness of the future; but then again, Norman Foster, presently in his ninth decade, can at least be said to come by his optimism honestly. The alt-right, Brexit, terrorism? “Someone looking back in five or 10 years will say they were mad,” Foster said. “They thought this was the end? It isn’t even the beginning.”