A-Z of Design: F is for Foster

Designboom called him 'one of the most innovative architects of our time.' His practice, Foster + Partners, is behind skyline defining buildings from the HSBC building in Hong Kong to London’s ‘Gherkin’ and has won over 190 awards including the Stirling Prize - twice. He has personally been awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal and Trustees Medal, a Knighthood, a Life Peerage and the Pritzker Architecture Prize (the Nobel Prize of the architecture world).

So in the A-Z of Design, F is most definitely for Norman Foster.

Born to working class parents in Reddish, Stockport and raised in Manchester, Foster was intrigued by design from an early age with a fascination for the trains which passed his childhood home, aircraft and local architecture. He went to grammar school and served his National Service in the Royal Air Force.

He worked as an intern at a local architecture firm, before studying at the University of Manchester’s Architecture School, funding his studies by working as an ice-cream salesman, a nightclub bouncer and in a bakery. Inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, he was encouraged go to America and completed his masters at the Yale School of Architecture where he met Richard Rogers.

They travelled in the States for a year and then returned to the UK in 1963 to set up Team 4 with Georgie and Wendy Cheesman (the former being the only one of the four who had passed the RIBA exams required for them to start their own practice). They quickly earned a reputation for high quality industrial design.

Foster and Wendy Cheesman then founded Foster Associates (now Foster + Partners), which became known for its innovative workspaces. Their 1969 administrative and leisure centre for Fred Olsen Lines sat workers alongside the management. Their 1974 Willis Faber and Dumas HQ (recently featured on Tom Dyckhoff’s TV series the Secret Life of Buildings) pioneered open plan seating and provided community spaces for the workforce like a restaurant, roof gardens, a gym and even a swimming pool. As a result, quality of life and productivity increased.

(Pic Credit: Ian Lambot)

The HSBC Building in Hong Kong followed in the 1980s, a building characterised by light, in which all 3,500 workers have a view.

The ‘Gherkin’ or Swiss Re HQ, 30 St Mary’s Axe, changed London’s skyline forever in 1999.

Other projects include Canary Wharf underground station, Bilbao Metro, BBC Radio HQ, Beijing Airport and City Hall on London’s Southbank.

Foster now sits on the Board of Trustees of the architectural charity Article 25 and is an advocate for promoting young talent - the average age of a Foster + Partners employee is 32 just like it was in 1967. And he’s still passionate about aircraft – it’s just that now he gets to fly his own jet and helicopter between his London office and his homes in America and Switzerland.

Picture Credits: Foster + Partners.


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Katie Treggiden, Guest Editor

View all posts by Katie Treggiden, Guest Editor