Norman Foster: ‘the scrapping of HS2 shows a total lack of foresight’

Norman Foster
Norman Foster - JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

Norman Foster is sitting in the Madrid offices of his foundation, discussing the UK government’s scrapping of the planned high-speed rail service between Birmingham and Manchester, his home town. He is exasperated by the decision. The subject even brings out his Mancunian accent.

Ditching this phase amounted to “the cancellation of what would have been the greatest equaliser for levelling up,” says Britain’s most eminent architect. “A total lack of foresight. This is the quality of the decision-making.”

Didn’t critics argue the project would save very little travel time?

HS2 was not about moving an elite about the country and saving a few minutes,” he says. “It was about taking stress off the existing networks so they could better serve regionally in terms of shorter commutes. It was short-termism in favour of building more roads and consuming more countryside and more potential for urban sprawl.”

Lord Foster – Baron Foster of Thames Bank – is 88. He is lean, spry, eager to debate and deeply concerned with cities: how to improve them and the lives of the people who live in them. He is talking at the launch of the Norman Foster Institute for Sustainable Cities, an offshoot of the Madrid-based foundation he set up in 2017. He shows no sign of flagging, despite having just hosted a symposium and an event for more than 100 until late into the previous evening.

Future past: Foster’s late-1960s amenities centre in Millwall Docks
Future past: Foster’s late-1960s amenities centre in Millwall Docks - RIBA Collections

Foster has retreated to an annex – minimalist and pristine – of the former ducal palace that houses his foundation, behind a gate on a hushed side street. His Madrid connections run deep – he has a home here and his wife, Elena, a publisher and now Vice President of the foundation, is Spanish.

Foresight is his preoccupation. “Sustainable” may be a vogueish term, but Foster’s use of it is more than greenwash. The institute will be a technical master’s course to train future civic leaders to make evidence-based decisions. Scholars from all over the world – architects, computer scientists, engineers, data analysts – will develop “a new model for cities” by working on problems common to many such as transport, climate change, energy supplies, governance and economic innovation. “The environment is too important to be left to architects.”

Foster’s focus is the global future. Foster describes cities as “our greatest invention”, responsible, he says, for 90 per cent of global wealth creation. But they are also under pressure from forces such as urban migration, population growth, housing shortages and climate change.

“In the next 26 years, we have to create the equivalent of 17 new Madrids every year,” he says (or, as his foundation calculates, more than 111 million new homes a year). “How enlightened or otherwise do we want [civic leaders] to be?”

Foster with his wife Elena Ochoa
Foster with his wife Elena Ochoa - RAFA RIVAS / AFP) (Photo by RAFA RIVAS/AFP via Getty Images

It is a characteristically audacious project for an architect whose practice is responsible for some of the world’s most prestigious buildings: Apple’s HQ in San Francisco, The Gherkin, Beijing international airport, the Reichstag in Berlin. All are different but share a Foster-ish aesthetic, an air of optimism and exhilaration with an emphasis on space and light. Despite the fame and wealth these constructions have brought him, it is “what happens in between buildings” that he finds the most interesting – perhaps a legacy of his modest early life.

Foster was born in 1935 in Reddish, Stockport. His father was a machine painter; his mother worked in a bakery. He came to architecture circuitously; like many from working-class families who made it to grammar school in that era, he left at 16. He took a clerical job in Manchester Town Hall, where he describes feeling awed by Alfred Waterhouse’s Victorian neo-gothic extravaganza.

After National Service with the RAF he joined an architectural office as an assistant and set his sights on professional training. He applied successfully to Manchester University’s school of architecture, but he was offered a lesser qualification because he lacked A-levels. “Then I went to [the city council’s] education department but they said we can’t give you a grant because you’re not doing a degree. So I was in a catch-22.”

The Norman Foster Institute on Sustainable Cities
The Norman Foster Institute on Sustainable Cities

He funded the degree himself with part-time jobs – at a garage, a bakery – while fellow students focused on studies. “I had very supportive parents, I lived at home and I worked.” He believes today’s flexible admissions systems would have served him better; such social mobility “would be much easier now”.

An outstanding student, Foster moved to Yale in the early 1960s, where he met the late Richard Rogers with whom he set up Team 4 with Su Brumwell and Wendy Cheesman, a short-lived but innovative UK practice, before founding Foster + Partners in 1967.

At university, he found architecture to be about “designing a high rise then giving it to an engineer to make it work”. He was more interested in “the essence of a city… the way in which buildings create public spaces”. He drew inspiration from university quadrangles, from the Campo in Siena, the Royal Crescent at Bath. “I’m a passionate traditionalist for the street, the square, the preservation of the countryside, from learning from tradition and history.”

'London is likely to become repetitive unless decision-making improves.'
'London is likely to become repetitive unless decision-making improves.'

What does he make of the view that much modern urban development is sterile – what the authors of Living with Beauty, the UK government’s 2020 regeneration report, called “bland, clumsy and placeless” buildings? Blandness, he says, is a planning failure. “If you plan well and involve the community, which we can now do very effectively, then you can create the most desirable environments.” He fears London is likely to become “repetitive” unless decision-making improves.

“London is, in many ways, coasting on the heritage of an extraordinary background of good planning,” he says. “The Abercrombie plan at the height of World War II, with its promotion of neighbourhoods and its reinforcement of the green belt, has served extraordinarily well.”

For all his talk of sustainability, some critics see contradictions in Foster’s environmentalism and his fondness for large-scale development, especially airports. But he sees no paradox. “The movement of goods, people and information is inter-connected in terms of air, land and sea,” he counters.

High-grade infrastructure can be an environmental win
High-grade infrastructure can be an environmental win

“It is impossible to single out one strand and suggest that its ground-based infrastructure should be denied the skills that will ensure a higher level of sustainability and energy savings.”

Aviation, he predicts, will change. “The technology of converting seawater to jet fuel is already proven… the aviation fleet could go green overnight.” (Stansted and Heathrow’s Terminal 5 are among his work and Foster + Partners will design Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport).

High-grade infrastructure can be an environmental win, he adds, pointing to his 2.5km long Millau Viaduct in France, built in 2004, the tallest in the world, which he says shrank “five-hour [traffic] delays” down to “a few minutes” and therefore reduced pollution.

Clusters of tall buildings, he argues, are less carbon-heavy than low-rise sprawl because they “enable proximity of shopping, leisure and schools which makes the best use of public transport, walking and cycling.” Ever the evidence-based optimist, he later emails me a heat-map of Manhattan to prove his point.

‘In the next 26 years, we have to create the equivalent of 17 new Madrids every year’
‘In the next 26 years, we have to create the equivalent of 17 new Madrids every year’

I wonder, after a six-decade career, which projects he remembers most fondly. He mentions Stansted Airport and the Sainsbury Centre in Norwich, a modest-sized gallery opened in 1978, designed to encourage greater participation among visitors with art. He offers special mention to the Reichstag.

But he chooses a mostly forgotten project: an amenity centre he designed in the late 1960s for shipping company Fred Olsen & Co at Millwall Docks in London, “a tiny thing, long gone, swept away by Canary Wharf”.

In surviving photographs it looks something like a space port, a retro-futuristic structure elevated on stilts above the industrial gloom. “The dockers were the worst served workers probably in London,” says Foster. “They were arguably the most militant but for good reasons, their working conditions were appalling. It created a luxurious working lifestyle which was transformative.”

Architecture to make a city function, an attempt at improving lives, with its sights set firmly on the future.

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