If Norman Foster were a household item, he would surely be a Swiss Army Knife. Foster, who turned 80 this year, is unrelenting in producing architectural solutions to problems that other architects can only theorize - just last Wednesday, for example, his firm released their design for a previously-unheard-of building typology, a droneport in Rwanda.
It is surprising then to find the man or his eponymous firm Foster + Partners absent from a list like Fast Company’s “The World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Architecture,” organized into superlatives: MMA Architects, “for thinking outside the big box,” Heatherwick Studio, “for reimagining green space,” or C.F. Møller Architects, “for rethinking high-rise living.” This is not to say that Foster or his firm should be substituted for any of these deserved accolades, but rather that for five decades Foster and his firm have ceaselessly worked to enhance and expand on the human experience with architectural solutions that are both inventive and practical - a fact that is perhaps lost as a result of his position within the architectural establishment.
With that in mind, we thought it was worth highlighting the many occasions over the decades where Foster + Partners has shown themselves to be among the world's most innovative practices. Read on for more.
1971-1975, Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters, Ipswich, United Kingdom
Foster’s first green building came long before such accolades were in any sort of vogue, and even by today’s standards, the Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters building is a dramatic example of environmentally informed, respectful design. Requiring the scale of a small office tower, but wanting to be in keeping with its surroundings, the building is a mere three-stories that fulfills its spatial requirements with a blot-like shape that adheres to the surrounding Medieval street plan - “flowing to the edges of the site, like a pancake in a pan” according to the firm’s website. Eager to subvert the tenets of modernism, Foster created a building that was shaped by its surroundings and purposefully at odds with the waning tendency for ahistorical architecture.
The building’s all-glass facade, developed with Pilkington, hangs almost effortlessly from a clamping strip at the roof level. The panels themselves are connected by corner patch fittings and are jointed to each other with silicon. The highly-efficient, coated glass remains nearly black during the day and is translucent at night.
Rich in amenities, including a pool (now closed), roof cafeteria, and roof lawn, Foster was eager to create a sense of community in the office. While Google and other Silicon Valley giants now advocate for corporate culture that mixes work and play, Foster was promoting office camaraderie years before it was fashionable. In addition to amenities, the centrally located escalators made for a design that was open and community oriented.
Awarded Grade I listed status in 1991 for its ingenuity, it was the newest building ever to be given this honor, and has since been immune to future changes.
1992-1998, Chek Lap Kok Airport, Hong Kong, China
Foster’s own website prefaces – without pretension – that Chek Lap Kok Airport (airport code: HKG) is one of the most ambitious construction projects of the modern era. The island on which HKG was built was previously home to mountainous terrain with a 100-meter peak, which has now been leveled to 7 meters above sea level, and the island’s footprint has been expanded to four times its original size. Like a small city unto itself, the airport is expected to host 80 million passengers a year by 2040.
Pushing its building systems, baggage services and transit connections below-grade allows for a canopy that is airy and a terminal that, on most days, is entirely daylit. Despite its enormous size, the facility is made accessible and legible as an airport built as a complete design on one floor, rather than the piecemeal approach common in more typically space-starved airports that are developed in parts.
2000-2006, Hearst Tower, New York City, USA
In the era of preservation and adaptive reuse, Foster has joined this wave with several important commissions. Of the instances where his designs intervene on historic structures, the most dramatic is New York’s Hearst Tower.
Just south of Columbus Circle on 8th Avenue in Manhattan, William Randolph Hearst envisioned a new nexus for the city’s burgeoning media empires. A six-story building was designed by Joseph Urban and completed in 1928, but the Great Depression nixed plans for a skyscraper that would have risen above the podium. Nonetheless, the elaborate cast-stone facade, complete with allegorical figures of industries, and ornamental fluted-columns topped by funerary urns – which exceeded the height of the base in anticipation of the tower that never was – are testaments to the glam and excess of a Gatsby-era Manhattan.
Fast-forward 80 years and the building’s podium became an exterior landmark, with Hearst seeking to advance plans for a tower above the base, allowing the company to unite its workforce in a single building. Foster’s tower, a diagrid of profiled stainless steel and e-clear glass, emerges from the original base, and although there is a complete contrast of materials, the two structures share an Art Deco angularity that creates a harmony between old and new.
The first skyscraper begun after September 11th, 2001, it was also the city’s first building to achieve the LEED Gold standard. The tower’s rainwater is collected for use in its cooling systems or stored in the water sculpture, Icefall, in the atrium. The steel used in construction is comprised of 85 percent recycled materials. Daylight sensors control the building’s lighting, and 95 percent of the structure has natural light. The diagrid pattern also uses 20 percent less steel than a conventional framing, and creates a profile of triangular cuts that make the building a unique addition to the New York skyline.
2006-2014, Spaceport America, New Mexico, USA
In the American Southwest, home to notable Earthworks such as James Turrell’s Roden Crater, Michael Heizer’s City, and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, Foster + Partners' Spaceport America is meant to advance the same natural harmonies as these lauded artworks. Viewed from the neighboring El Camino Real trail, the spaceport looks like a natural rise and dip in land elevation, albeit it surrounded by trucks, buses, hardware and an air tarmac.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is behind the space enterprise, which is commercially known as the Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space, although enduring issues related to funding and spacecraft safety have indefinitely halted the completed building's operation.
As the world’s first private spaceport, the building pioneers a design for a yet-unknown future, one where space travel, either practical or for sport, may become commonplace. For those lucky enough to visit the structure either for a facilities tour or a flight, the low and sweeping design is meant to evoke the mysteries of space.
Visitors enter through a slice in the landscape that continues into the building as a viewing platform for the “superhangar” below. The western edge of the building is a glazed wall with a visitor's gallery above and astronaut’s quarters below. Administrative facilities connect to the hangar along its east side. Although similar to an airport, the spaceport is a facility intended to be both a tourist spectacle and a practical solution for celestial voyages. Known for his pragmatism, Foster brings logic and innovation to the design quandaries of uncharted territories.
The building uses local materials and regional construction techniques that have aided in its achieving of a LEED platinum rating. Partially below-grade, it relies on thermal energy cycles to moderate temperature, and its low-profile, coupled with westward facing windows, is a boon to ventilation and protection from the harsh New Mexico sun. Unlike a conventional airport, which is usually located in highly-developed areas and requires great ingenuity for spatial efficiency, the spaceport is a spectacle unto itself, because its remoteness requires no design restraint.
2012, Lunar Habitation, The Moon
The idea of extraterrestrial architecture typically conjures up images from science fiction stories or utopian fantasies of an impossible future. In opposition to this stereotype, Foster + Partners has taken on the practical possibilities of off-earth building, by postulating 3D-printed architecture on the moon. While Foster has always managed to find solutions to earth-bound architectural parameters, the move to space is without precedent both in concept and building strategy. Working with a consortium under the leadership of the European Space Agency, the firm sought to transcend the limitations of having to transport building materials from the earth, by proposing lunar soil, known as regolith, as an integral component to construction.
A base designed for four inhabitants would begin as a tubular structure, brought from earth, from which an inflatable dome would emerge as a membranous mound, around which regolith would be laid by a 3D-printing robot. Mixed with a printing agent, the lunar soil would be laid in a hollow cellular-like pattern, created by the firm and a consortium of partners, to mimic biological systems.
Designed to be located at the Shackleton Crater, near the moon’s south pole, the base would receive near-constant daylight, which would help to regulate temperatures. Additionally, the structure itself would protect inhabitants from solar-radiation and the moon’s constant meteoric bombardment. A series of cupola appendages would allow the interior to receive natural light.
The firm has created a 1.5 ton mock up of the design, using a synthetic regolith here on earth, and has created smaller models in vacuum conditions that more closely mirror those found on the lunar surface.
Implementing a reproducible system allows for the flexibility that contemporary design mandates. The success and usability of such an unprecedented structure cannot be modelled by any kind of study, but Foster+Partners averts the disaster of fashioning a facility too small or too large, by creating one that can adapt to changing needs.
2014, SkyCycle, London, United Kingdom
In an era of cities constantly pursuing ways to make their environs greener and more livable, last year Foster + Partners, in collaboration with Exterior Architecture and Space Syntax, proposed SkyCycle, a radical leap to inspire bicycle ridership in London.
With the city’s population speculated to grow by 12 percent over the next decade, and with transit systems already at capacity, new solutions for movement through London are essential. SkyCycle is a network of elevated cycle paths that follow the existing suburban rail lines. The proposal calls for over 135 miles of paths with 200 points of access that could support 12,000 rides per hour, in a system that would cover six million people and reduce commutes by an estimated 29 minutes.
Acknowledging the speculative nature of the project, in an era of reduced budgets and thrifty solution it is unlikely that funding would be diverted from more practical solutions for something so comprehensive and unprecedented. However, Foster’s proposal has helped to spur conversations on how to address climate change and acknowledge an exponential spike in cycling around the world. Studies conducted emphasize that the paths of suburban rail lines, originally intended for steam engines, have optimal contours to reduce energy with limited changes in gradient. Neglected properties adjacent to the paths would benefit from new social functions created by the cyclists having greater freedom to access previously transient spaces.
Proponents have argued that entrances to cyclepaths could be linked with London’s bike share program, thereby uniting a money generating venture with the public amenity. In whatever form, a way to make cycling safer is a global necessity both for the benefit of riders, city dwellers, and the future of the planet.
2016-2020, Rwandan Droneport
Working with the technology company Afrotech, Foster + Partners hopes to develop the world’s first medical supply shipping facility operated by drones in Rwanda. While medical supplies are presently delivered by roads, the country is mountainous and the current infrastructure is insufficient for its needs.
With the population of Africa expected to double to 2.2 billion by mid-century, Foster sees an exponentially increasing gap between the people and their infrastructure. "We require immediate bold, radical solutions to address this issue," said Foster, "The Droneport project is about doing more with less, capitalising on the recent advancements in drone technology – something that is usually associated with war and hostilities – to make an immediate life-saving impact in Africa."
Taking the form of a series of brick vaults, the open-air structure will be broken up into medical center, mailrooms, an e-commerce trading hub, and a space for drone manufacturing. Each facility would support two different modes of transit: a smaller Redline for medical and emergency supplies, and a larger Blueline for equipment, electronics, and e-commerce items.
Building on a plan similar to the expandable architecture of the Lunar Habitation, the Droneport is designed to be infinitely mutable as merited by need. Unlike a closed system, Dulles Airport for example, which required a complete overhaul to expand on its existing form, the Droneport would exist in a perpetual state of flux, both finished and unfinished. Although Foster believes that Droneports could one day be as common as gas stations in an integrated system across the African continent, the design acknowledges that the success of a new typology will be unpredictable, and, therefore, its size will mirror its needs.