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Letter from Madrid

 The Norman Foster Foundation inaugural forum explored how technological, social and financial issues affect the world of architecture

3076421 guillermorodriguez.cortesianormanfosterfoundation4 light

3076421 guillermorodriguez.cortesianormanfosterfoundation4 light

Norman Foster didn’t need to create his new foundation to ensure a place in the history of contemporary architecture. But, as he explained at its inaugural forum, The Future is Now (1 June), a foundation is free to focus on issues that would be impossible in the world of practice. In other words the foundation’s purpose is to strengthen and deepen his contribution to the discipline, and shape it in ways that not even a string of fine buildings could do. 

If this first event, held at Madrid’s Teatro Real, is anything to go by, it will reach far beyond usual architectural tics. Rather than obsessing over detail or grumbling about powerlessness in the face of political and economic forces, speakers explained fundamental technologies that are opening new opportunities in architecture, and exploring where the discipline fits into society. ‘We have the power of advocacy,’ Foster pointed out, in the presence of the Spanish education minister, New York’s Michael Bloomberg and Madrid’s mayor Manuela Carmena. Of course someone with Foster’s address book can assemble all manner of star names, but the trick with this sort of event is to pick the right ones and brief them well. Apple’s Jony Ive rubbed shoulders with Olafur Eliasson, Maya Lin with Matthias Kohler from ETH. Each has something serious to say about where architecture fits into the contemporary world.

Interior view, norman foster foundation, madrid © norman foster foundation

Interior view, norman foster foundation, madrid © norman foster foundation

The forum opened with a session on urbanism. Carmena sees cities as a framework for generating equality, ‘potentially’. Foster added some detail of the challenges and opportunities: cities account for 70 per cent of carbon emissions, and will grow by 2.4bn people globally by 2050, when 75 per cent of the population will be urban-dwellers. China needs to add one Madrid-sized city to its urban capacity every two months, or 60 in five years. New York City has a GDP of four times hardly impoverished Switzerland. All this makes the challenge of retrofitting and designing new cities ‘too important for one profession’: architects can effect small but powerful changes and help to make expenditure effective, but none of this would work without strong civic leadership.

Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg added a dimension to the balance between civic authority and the private sector. ‘Business,’ he said ‘is a dog-eat-dog world, and government the reverse’, but added that the private sector can take risks and government can provide incentives, for instance encouraging buildings to convert to cleaner energy sources. He sees his own Foster-designed London HQ, soon to open, less in terms of ‘pounds, dollars or euros’ than a place where people ‘want to work’.

As keynote speaker in a session on technology, Kohler argued that a ‘digital building culture’ is imminent. Machines and machine-made products have been around for more than a century, but only now, with digital technology enabling machines to perform tasks of far greater variety and sophistication, can this culture infuse all building design and construction, rather than discrete elements within it. Robotic arms can already make items that can be assembled into a complex, optimised form, but Kohler has experimented with drones to deliver them in the right order, at the right time, to the right place. Site operatives are reduced to mere machine-watchers. 

So far these structures are limited to 3m-high towers of foam blocks. But the fast-developing synthesis between computation, materials technology and fabrication will, he suggested, result in a ‘digital materiality’ and potential for urban high-rises, conceived and created entirely through digital technology.

© guillermo rodríguez. cortesía norman foster foundation 13

© guillermo rodríguez. cortesía norman foster foundation 13

A lurking Faustian presence in Kohler’s talk became manifest in a confrontation between MIT Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte and historian Niall Ferguson, in a panel discussion on technology. Negroponte envisaged a world where digital-, bio-, chemical- and neuro-sciences interact seamlessly and beneficially. Computers can design tools to do what nature does, but better. In 30 years, he claimed, we will ‘learn French by taking a pill’, to alter our minds to embed this ability. Self-driving cars? A boon to Negroponte, who sees a huge decrease in accidents and more efficient road use. But what would happen if they were hacked? He overlooked that some people like driving, and the challenge of learning French from studying, say, de Gaulle speeches and singing Piaf songs.

All this illustrated what Ferguson characterised as the tech community’s propensity to make the ‘historically ignorant’ assumption that ‘everything is awesome and resistance is futile’. Drones could also deliver bombs, and pills dementia or unsavoury ideologies. All technological advances have unforeseen and often negative consequences, he asserted, and most are ‘propelled by conflict’. Negroponte was unconvincingly dismissive – the atomic bomb was a one-off instance of technology going wrong – while his co-worker Neri Oxman, responsible for some of the most fascinating work at Media Lab, was even less prepared to engage in debate. Asked by chair Gillian Tett if she had qualms about the implications of her work, her reply was ‘no’.

Jony Ive and Foster showed a way beyond the impasse. Having designed some of the world’s most popular gadgets, Ive stood up for humanity. He finds people rather than technology exciting and would enjoy the challenge of designing a really good soap dispenser as much as a more technological item. His work at Apple shows how design can mediate between people and technology, while Foster added a historical perspective to technology’s problem-solving potential. 

© guillermo rodríguez. cortesía norman foster foundation 12

© guillermo rodríguez. cortesía norman foster foundation 12

The stand-out contribution in the final session, on infrastructure, came from Henk Ovink, the Netherlands’ special envoy for water affairs. Long before his country formally existed, he explained, the region’s hydrological challenges forced people to collaborate from which they gradually evolved more formal systems of governance. His role, in essence, is to develop and export that sort of thinking across the world in more complex political and economic conditions, just as water – how we use, clean, recycle and mitigate its destructive power –  has become one of the greatest challenges of our time.

Infrastructure needs public investment, as economist Mariana Mazzucato pointed out; private-sector investment tends to skew power relations and, in a challenge to Ive’s Apple, she questioned Tim Cook’s ‘financialisation’ of Apple since he succeeded Steve Jobs. On the other hand, the US invested massively in infrastructure postwar with top income-tax rates at 90 per cent under Republican President Eisenhower. And infrastructure, as Foster explained, can provide delight as well as solve problems: London’s 19th-century Embankment is part sewer and Underground, part road and flood defence, and part urban park; BIG’s waste to energy plant in Copenhagen is also a ski slope and garden.