As the AR turns 120, Norman Foster looks back on how architecture has shaped - and been shaped by - the vagaries of technological development
Architecture has always been inseparable from the technology of the day. Throughout history, progressive structures have sought the most up-to-date use of materials and assembly in the pursuit of artistic expression. The relationship between the two has been a dialectical one – new formal directions have demanded new technologies for their realisation and these new technologies have, in turn, suggested radical new forms. Buckminster Fuller, who was a colleague and a mentor, had an absolute belief that the mastery of technology would provide a blueprint for the survival of the human race. His many technologically inspired innovations – from the Dymaxion House to the geodesic dome – still surprise with the audacity of their thinking. At the root of each of these, however, was a basic concern for the betterment of society and the planet. For me, technology has never been an end in itself; the ends are always social – generated by people and their needs which, in turn, are translated into the hardware of buildings.
In 1967, at the birth of Foster Associates, projects were hard to come by, and we were close to leaving Britain in search of better opportunities abroad. We eventually survived by appealing to a sector in which architects had traditionally not been involved – designing for industry, competing with contractors outside the traditional field of architecture. We started with the humble needs of a shower block for the Fred Olsen Shipping Line in East London’s Docklands. What differentiated our approach was that I began by asking questions to understand the way in which the company and its site and activities worked. I talked to the dock workers, administration and management, and the result was a masterplan with a radical proposal to dissolve the barriers between white- and blue-collar workers with a combined operations and amenity centre that offered the same high standards for everyone.
‘When I was asked by the AR in 1969 to edit a special issue of Manplan 3, I wanted to focus on how technology could help create a better lifestyle’
With the growing influence of digital technologies in the 1970s, I subsequently realised the nature of the workplace itself was rapidly changing. When we were invited to build an ‘instant’ temporary office for IBM at Cosham, the initial brief was to organise the best available prefabricated site huts. We argued that a new building of a particular kind could be as fast and inexpensive, and could also embrace the highest architectural and environmental standards. What we eventually built was a custom-designed, deep-plan building that allowed full environmental control, containing a multitude of different functions – offices, space for computers, and a communications centre – all under one roof. This was the first time IBM had incorporated the computer into an office complex. In this way the activities could flux and change over a long period of time, with a building that was adaptable. The design was so well suited to the organisation that the building has become permanent. Both Olsen and IBM, each in a different way, raised the quality of life in the workplace by harnessing the building technology of the time.
When I was asked by the AR to edit a special issue of Manplan 3 (November 1969), I wanted to focus on how technology could help create a better lifestyle. I proposed a concept that not only housed industry with areas for production, offices and storage, but also a supermarket, spaces for teaching and leisure – all under one roof. The idea was to illustrate how a single, flexible envelope can support diverse functions, very much like a city quarter within a single building.
This preoccupation has continued, albeit on a larger scale, with infrastructure I liken to the urban glue that binds together the individual buildings. It is the design of public spaces (the streets, piazzas and bridges) and services (the tracks and pipelines) that defines our civic experience. But increasingly, the digital sphere is exerting a greater influence on our lives and changing the very fabric of our cities. The nature of transport is set to undergo a revolution with autonomous cars operating on clean energy becoming a commercial reality. This will make our streets safer for everyone, while shrinking the road space required, creating increased possibilities for a vibrant urban realm. We have also been investigating how the role of a new-generation car can expand beyond just transport to become a net contributor to the energy grid. Similarly, we have been looking to capitalise on drone technology – something usually associated with war and violence – to help the less-developed parts of the world gain access to vital resources. Architecturally too, 3D-printing technologies are opening up novel approaches to construction, allowing unlimited customisation within the framework of mass production.
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As this technology evolves, it may hold the key to extra-terrestrial building as our project for habitats on the Moon and Mars has shown. While technical challenges and contexts may differ and the technology has moved on over time, the fundamental aim of any building remains very simple –to make any encounter joyful and uplifting to the spirits.
I commissioned John Batchelor, noted for his illustrations of aircraft, to create an image of our Renault Centre, which was published at the time by the AR (July 1983). It has often been called our most playful building, and, while its form and structure emerged from the technical demands of the brief and site, its success lies in its intangible ability to lift the spirits – a tradition our work has followed up until today and beyond. To suggest the fusion of architecture and technology is locked into one specific period is to deny an enduring relationship, one that is as old as architecture and civilisation itself.
Domes and blobs
Artist and future studies specialist John McHale’s extensive look at Buckminster Fuller’s concept of ‘Total Design’ sought to explore the man behind the dome. But for all his theorising beyond the superficial, Fuller’s domes became important precedents for the short-lived bucking of trend known as ‘Blobitecture’, a somewhat unfortunate moniker that attached itself to the work of Future Systems and Peter Cook, among others.
When it comes to the origins of this pejorative-turned-style, the AR’s hands are not entirely clean: ‘Outrage: blue blob in Birmingham’ wrote incensed editor Peter Davey of Future Systems’ Selfridges building in 2003.
And one that got built the 1999 stirling prize winning media centre at lords
With characteristic fervour – having just been appointed assistant executive editor at the AR – Reyner Banham set about reassessing the state of architecture. From January to June 1960, a series of essays printed on bright yellow paper – contrasting with the AR’s traditional brown (history) and blue (criticism) outlined the conditions and criteria for Banham’s next machine age.
The series began with the ‘great divide’ between tradition and technology, both terms that, it was decided, needed a complete re-definition. The split between ‘science’ and ‘history’ (depicted as two columns – ‘tradition’ and ‘technology’ – running side by side) was one between established professional knowledge and the potential of the recently, or as yet to be, discovered.
Six months after President Ronald Reagan committed the US to constructing a permanently manned space station, Jan Kaplicky and David Nixon of Future Systems speculated on the entirely new type of architecture that needed to be built. These were arguably largely concerns for engineers (technology has a tendency to pigeon-hole the profession as Banham has proven) but the language of these lightweight steel struts and living pods suddenly made the dreams of the ’60s seem less outlandish, and such technologically centred fetishism had already birthed the High-Tech style.
As a moon colony becomes a fast-approaching reality, architects are again speculating spacewards. This is quite a leap from the thinking of three decades earlier – ‘though common sense suggests that personal space travel will probably be done in minute pressurised spheres in which man can barely crouch, space-suit inventors insist that even in outer space men will look like men’. While meteorites and cosmic rays were considered hazards to overcome through design, so were boredom and fatigue.
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The realities of construction were explored in the AR as rigorously as the vagaries of technological fashion. From the incredibly didactic to a clear enamourment with new forms of construction, from the ‘tensile and pneumatic inventiveness’ of Frei Otto to the early deconstructivism of Gehry.
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In the 1970s with the end of the Modernist agenda and Postmodernism on the rise, the AR favoured other styles thought perhaps less ‘populist’, in particular High-Tech – the fetishistic tendencies of which shared much with its Arts and Crafts roots. As well as polemics on the style itself, which Peter Buchanan termed in 1983 ‘another British thoroughbred’, the AR gave numerous lavish, colourful features to projects such as the Renault Centre and, of course, the Pompidou Centre.
Ever on trend, Reyner Banham saw the Pompidou as the culmination of the ‘unwritten programme of the Modern Movement’, which is perhaps why the style slipped so easily into the AR’s canon.