The Buildings of Norman Foster

Saving the Environment by Design

interior circular walkway around dome windows with a mirrored cyclone in the center of the dome
Inside the Glass Dome of the Reichstag Building, Berlin, Germany. Paul Seheult /Eye Ubiquitous

The architecture of the British Norman Foster (born 1935) is known not only for its "high-tech" modernism, but also for being some of the first large-scale energy-sensitive designs in the world. Norman Foster buildings establish an exciting presence wherever they are built — in Bilbao, Spain the welcoming canopies of the metro stations built in 1995 are known as "Fosteritos," which means "Little Fosters" in Spanish; the inside of the 1999 Reichstag dome has attracted long lines of tourists who come to see 360-degree views of Berlin, Germany.  As you view the photos in this gallery, you'll notice a use of factory-made modular elements assembled into space-age-like structures combined with environmental sensitivies and green architecture sensibilities.This is the aesthetic of Foster + Partners


1975: Willis Faber and Dumas Building

aerial view of asymmetric low-rise building with massive green roof
Willis Faber and Dumas, 1975, Ipswich, United Kingdom. Mato zilincik via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Not long after founding Foster Associates in 1967, Norman Foster and his partner wife Wendy Cheesman began to design a "garden in the sky" for the ordinary office worker of Ipswich, England. The global insurance firm Willis Faber & Dumas, Ltd. commissioned the young firm to create what Foster describes as a "low-rise, with a free-form plan." The dark glass siding "curves in response to the irregular medieval street pattern, flowing to the edges of its site like a pancake in a pan." Completed in 1975, the innovative building now known simply as the Willis Building in Ipswich — in 2008, Foster built a much different Willis Building in London — was ahead of its time with a park-like green roof for the enjoyment of the office worker occupants.

" And here, the first thing you can see is that this building, the roof is a very warm kind of overcoat blanket, a kind of insulating garden, which is also about the celebration of public space. In other words, for this community, they have this garden in the sky. So the humanistic ideal is very, very strong in all this work....And nature is part of the generator, the driver for this building. And symbolically, the colors of the interior are green and yellow. It has facilities like swimming pools, it has flextime, it has a social heart, a space, you have contact with nature. Now this was 1973." — Norman Foster, 2006 TED

2017: Apple Headquarters

aerial view of circular building under construction
Apple Headquarters, 2017, Cupertino, California. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Whether called Apple Park or Spaceship Campus, the 2017 Apple Headquarters in Cupertino, California is a huge investment for the high-tech company. At more than a mile around, the main building is what you would expect from a Foster design — solar panels, recycled water, natural light, highly landscaped, including orchards and ponds amongst fitness pathways and meditation alcoves.

The Steve Jobs Theater is a vital part of the Foster-designed campus but not inside the main office spaceship area. Shareholders and the press will be entertained at a distance while mere mortals can only take part in the Apple Park Visitors' Center even further away. As for getting a look inside the inner tube of invention? You'll need an employee badge for that privilege.

2004: 30 St Mary Axe

aerial view looking down at traditional rectangular low-rise buildings surrounding a modern missile-looking skyscraper
30 St Mary Axe, 2004, London, England. Jason Hawkes/Getty Images (cropped)

Known worldwide simply as "the gherkin," London's missile-like tower built for Swiss Re has become Norman Foster's most recognizable work at 30 St Mary Axe.

When Norman Foster won the Pritzker Prize in 1999, the curvacious headquarters for the Swiss Reinsurance Company Ltd was in the planning stage. Between 1997 and its completion in 2004, a 590 foot skyscraper like nothing ever seen in London was realized, designed and built with the help of new computer programs. The London skyline has never been the same.

The real estate database Emporis contends that the only piece of curved glass in the curtain wall is at the very top, an 8-foot "lens" weighing 550 pounds. All other glass panels are flat triangular patterns. Foster claims that it is "London’s first ecological tall building," developing ideas explored in the 1997 Commerzbank in Germany.

1986: HSBC

night view of skyscraper lit with blue and green lights and HSBC in lights on the facade in the middle and on top
HSBC Hong Kong Headquarters. Tsuji/Getty Images (cropped) 

Norman Foster's architecture is as much known for its high-tech lighting as it is for its sustainability and use of light within open spaces. The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters, at 587 feet (179 meters), was Foster's first project in Hong Kong, China — and perhaps his introduction to a "feng shui geomancer." Completed in 1986, the building's construction was accomplished by using prefabricated parts and an open floor plan that over the years has proven to be flexible enough to accommodate changing work practices. Unlike many modern office buildings whose services (e.g., elevators) are in the center of the building, Foster designed the center of HSBC to be a 10-story atrium filled with natural light, ventilation, and open work areas.

1997: Commerzbank Headquarters

top of modern skyscraper, asymmetric, overlooking a river in Germany
Commerzbank and River Main, Frankfurt, Germany. Rainer Martini/LOOK-foto/'Getty Images 

At 850 feet (259 meters), the 56-story Commerzbank was once the tallest building in Europe. The 1997 skyscraper overlooking the Main River in Frankfort, Germany has always been ahead of its time. Often considered " the world's first ecological office tower," Commerzbank is triangular in shape with a center glass atrium allowing natural light to surround every floor — an idea firmly established a decade earlier with HSBC in Hong Kong, China. In Germany Foster's architecture is so popular that reservations for Commerzbank tower tours are taken months in advance.

1999: The Reichstag Dome

modern metal and glass dome above a traditional stone pediment
Reichstag Dome Berlin, Parlament Building, Germany. José Miguel Hernández Hernández/Getty Images (cropped) 

In 1999 British architect Norman Foster transformed the 19th century Reichstag building in Berlin, Germany with a high-tech glass dome.

The Reichstag, the seat of the German Parliament in Berlin, is a neo-renaissance building constructed between 1884 and 1894. Fire destroyed most of the building in 1933, and there was more destruction at the end of World War II.

Reconstruction during the mid-20th century left the Reichstag without a dome. In 1995, architect Norman Foster proposed an enormous canopy over the entire building — a too-controversial idea that was taken back to the drawing board for a more modest glass dome.

Norman Foster's Reichstag dome floods the main hall of the parliament with natural light. A high-tech shield monitors the path of the sun and electronically controls the light emitted through the dome.

2000: Great Court at the British Museum

large interior space with light-filled triangular glass roof
The Great Court of the British Museum in London, UK. Chris Hepburn/Getty Images

Norman Foster's interiors are often spacious, curvy, and filled with natural light. The 18th century British Museum in London was originally designed with an open garden area within its walls. In the 19th century a circular reading room was built at its center. Foster + Partners completed an enclosure of the interior courtyard in 2000. The design is reminiscent of the Reichstag Dome in Germany — circular, light-filled glass.

2002: London City Hall

Elevated view of slanted Slinky-like building near a river
London City Hall, 2002. Allan Baxter/Getty Images (cropped)

Foster designed London's City Hall along the idea lines he established in the public spaces at Reichstag and the British Museum — "expressing the transparency and accessibility of the democratic process and demonstrating the potential for a sustainable, virtually non-polluting public building." Like other Foster projects of the 21st century, London's City Hall was designed using BIM computer modeling software, which makes it cost- and time-possible to create a glass-clad fanned sphere with no front or back.

1997: Clyde Auditorium; 2013: SSE Hydro

two modern buildings near a river
Clyde Auditorium, Left, 1997 and SSE Hydro, Right, 2013. Frans Sellies/Getty Images

In 1997 Norman Foster brought his own brand of iconic architecture to the Clyde River in Glasgow, Scotland. Known as Clyde Auditorium, the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC, seen here on the left) takes its design from the traditions of the local shipbuilders — Foster envisioned "a series of framed hulls," but he wrapped them in aluminum to be "reflective by day and floodlit at night." Locals think it looks more like an armadillo. In 2011 Zaha Hadid built the Riverside Museum in the same area.

In 2013 Foster's firm completed the SSE Hydro (seen here on the right) for use as a smaller performance venue. The interior has fixed and retractable elements that can be arranged to accommodate a variety of events, including rock concerts and sports events. Like the SECC next door, the exterior is highly reflective, but not by using alumininum: The SSE Hydro is clad in translucent ETFE panels, a 21st century plastic product used by many forward-thinking architects. Before the Glasgow project, Foster had completed the Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center, a large tent-like structure that would have been impossible to build without ETFE.

1978: Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

box-shaped building withglass facade and glass side panels and triangular metal scaffolding-like molding surrounding the facade
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia in Norwich, Norfolk, UK. acmanley/Getty Images (cropped) 

The first public building designed by Foster opened in 1978 — the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, England. It integrated an art gallery, study, and social areas under one roof.

The box-like design is described as "a prefabricated modular structure formed around a steel framework, with individual aluminium or glass panels assembled on site." When expanding the lightweight metal and glass building, Foster designed an underground concrete and plaster addition in 1991 instead of changing the above-ground space. This approach was not taken in 2006 when a modern tower by Foster was built on top of the 1920s-era Art Deco Hearst Headquarters in New York City.

2006: Palace of Peace and Reconciliation

one face of a postmodernist pyramid building
Palace of Peace and Reconciliation Pyramid, 2006, Astana, Kazakhstan. Jane Sweeney/Getty Images

Built for the Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions, this stone clad structure in Astana, Kazakhstan is a 62-meter (203 feet) symmetrical pyramid. Colored glass filters light into a central atrium. Prefabricated elements built off-site allowed construction to be completed between 2004 and 2006.

Other Foster Designs

Luxury motorboat
Ocean Pearl Designed by Foster + Partners. spooh/Getty Images

Norman Foster has been prolific in his long career. In addition to all of the built projects — including a long list of airports, rail stations, bridges, and even a 2014 Spaceport in New Mexico — Foster also has an enormous list of unbuilt architecture, most notably a habitat on Mars and the original design for Two World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan.

Like most other architects, Norman Foster also has a healthy list of products in the "industrial design" category — yachts and motor boats, chairs and wind turbines, skylights and business jets, tables and power pylons. For British architect Norman Foster, design is everywhere.


  • My green agenda for architecture, December 2006, TED Talk at the 2007 DLD (Digital-Life-Design)Conference, Munich, Germany [accessed May 28, 2015]
  • Project Description, Foster + Partners, [accessed July 23, 2013]
  • 'Complete guide to Apple Park' by Amy Moore, Macworld, February 20, 2018, [accessed June 3, 2018]
  • Photo Credit: Steve Jobs Theater, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • My green agenda for architecture, December 2006, TED Talk by Norman Foster  at the 2007 DLD (Digital-Life-Design) Conference, Munich, Germany
  • Project Description, Foster + Partners, [accessed March 28, 2015]
  • 30 St Mary Axe, EMPORIS, [accessed March 28, 2015]
  • Project Description, Hongkong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters, Foster + Partners, [accessed March 28, 2015]
  • Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, EMPORIS, [accessed March 28, 2015]
  • Project Description, Foster + Partners, [accessed March 28, 2015]
  • Project Description, Great Court at the British Museum, Foster + Partners, [accessed March 28, 2015]
  • Project Description, City Hall, More London, Foster + Partners,, [accessed June 4, 2018]
  • SEC Armadillo Project Description and SSE Hydro Project Description, Foster + Partners, and [accessed June 4, 2018]
  • Project Description, Sainsbury Centre, Foster + Partners, [accessed March 28, 2015]
  • The Building, Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, [accessed June 2, 2018]
  • Project Description, Palace of Peace and Reconciliation, Foster + Partners, [accessed Jun 3, 2018]
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Craven, Jackie. "The Buildings of Norman Foster." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Craven, Jackie. (2020, August 27). The Buildings of Norman Foster. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "The Buildings of Norman Foster." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).