Biography of Norman Foster, High-Tech Architect

Modern Architecture in Britain

white-haired white man in black shirt leaning over a rail overlooking many desks in an open workspace
Architect Norman Foster in 2005 at the Headquarters of Foster + Partners in Battersea, London. Martin Godwin/Getty Images (cropped)

Pritzker Prize-winning architect Norman Foster (born June 1, 1935 in Manchester, England) is famous for futuristic designs — like Apple Headquarters in Cupertino, California — that explore technological shapes and social ideas. His "big tent" civic center constructed with the modern plastic ETFE even made the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world's tallest tensile structure, yet it was built for the comfort and enjoyment of the Kazakhstan public. In addition to winning the most prestigious award for architecture, the Pritzker Prize, Foster has been knighted and granted the rank of baron by Queen Elizabeth II. For all of his celebrity, however, Foster came from humble beginnings.

Born in a working class family, Norman Foster did not seem likely to become a famous architect. Although he was a good student in high school and showed an early interest in architecture, he did not enroll in college until he was 21 years old.  By the time he had decided to become an architect, Foster had been a radar technician in the Royal Air Forces and worked in the treasury department of Manchester Town Hall. In college he studied bookkeeping and commercial law, so he was prepared to handle the business aspects of an architectural firm when the time came.

Foster won numerous scholarships during his years at Manchester University, including one to attend Yale University in the United States. He graduated from Manchester University School of Architecture in 1961 and went on to earn a Master's Degree at Yale on a Henry Fellowship.

Returning to his native United Kingdom, Foster co-founded the successful "Team 4" architectural firm in 1963. His partners were his wife, Wendy Foster, and the husband and wife team of Richard Rogers and Sue Rogers. His own firm, Foster Associates (Foster + Partners), was founded in London in 1967.

Foster Associates became known for "high tech" design that explored technological shapes and ideas. In his work, Foster often uses off-site manufactured parts and the repetition of modular elements. The firm frequently designs special components for other high-tech modernist buildings. He is a designer of parts that he elegantly assembles.

Selected Early Projects

After establishing his own architectural firm in 1967, the affable architect did not take long to be noticed with a portfolio of well-received projects. One of his first successes was the Willis Faber and Dumas Building built between 1971 and 1975 in Ipswich, England. No ordinary office building, the Willis Building is an asymmetrical, three-story blob of a structure, with a roof of grass to be enjoyed as a park space by the office workers. In 1975 Foster's design was a very early example of architecture that could be both energy efficient and socially responsible, to be used as a template for what is possible in an urban environment. The office building was quickly followed by the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, a gallery and educational facility built between 1974 and 1978 at the University of East Anglia, Norwich. In this building we begin to see the Foster enthusiasm for observable metal triangles and walls of glass.

Internationally, attention was paid to Foster's high-tech skyscraper for the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) in Hong Kong, built between 1979 and 1986, and then the Century Tower built between 1987 and 1991 in Bunkyo-ku, Tokyo, Japan. Asian successes were followed by the 53-story tallest building in Europe, the ecology-minded Commerzbank Tower, built from 1991 to 1997 in Frankfurt, Germany. The high profile Bilbao Metro in 1995 was part of the urban revitalization that swept the city of Bilbao, Spain.

Back in the United Kingdom, Foster and Partners completed the Cranfield University Library in Bedfordshire (1992), the Faculty of Law at the University of Cambridge (1995), the American Air Museum at Duxford airfield in Cambridge (1997), and the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) in Glasgow (1997).

In 1999 Norman Foster received architecture's most prestigious award, the Pritzker Architecture Prize, and also was honored by Queen Elizabeth II naming him Lord Foster of Thames Bank.The Pritzker jury cited his "steadfast devotion to the principles of architecture as an art form, for his contributions in defining an architecture with high technological standards, and for his appreciation of the human values involved in producing consistently well-designed projects" as their reasons for his becoming a Pritzker Laureate.

Post-Pritzker Work

Norman Foster never rested upon his laurels after winning the Pritzker Prize. He finished the Reichstag Dome for the new German Parliament in 1999, which remains one of Berlin's most popular tourist attractions. The 2004 Millau Viaduct, a cable-stayed bridge in Southern France, is one of the bridges you'll want to cross at least once in your life. With this structure, the architects of the firm claim to be "expressing a fascination with the relationship between function, technology and aesthetics in a graceful structural form."

Throughout the years, Foster and Partners has continued to create office towers that explore the "environmentally sensitive, uplifting workplace" begun by Commerzbank in Germany and the Willis Building in Britain. Additional office towers include the Torre Bankia (Torres Repsol), Cuatro Torres Business Area in Madrid, Spain (2009), the Hearst Tower in New York City (2006),  the Swiss Re in London (2004), and The Bow in Calgary, Canada (2013).

Other interests of the Foster group have been the transportation sector — including the 2008 Terminal T3 in Beijing, China and Spaceport America in New Mexico, the U.S. in 2014 — and building with Ethylene Tetrafluoroethylene, creating plastic buildings like the 2010 Khan Shatyr Entertainment Center in Astana, Kazakhstan and the 2013 SSE Hydro in Glasgow, Scotland.

Lord Norman Foster in London

One need only visit London to receive a lesson in Norman Foster architecture. The most recognizable Foster design is the 2004 office tower for Swiss Re at 30 St Mary Axe in London. Locally called "The Gherkin," the missile-shaped building is a case study for computer-aided design and energy and environmental design.

Within site of "the gherkin" is the most-used Foster tourist attraction, the Millennium Bridge over the Thames River. Built in 2000, the pedestrian bridge also has a nickname —  it became known as "the Wobbly Bridge" when 100,000 people rhythmically crossed during the opening week, which created an unnerving sway. The Foster firm has called it "greater than expected lateral movement" created by "synchronised pedestrian footfall." Engineers installed dampers under the deck, and the bridge has been good-to-go ever since.

Also in 2000, Foster and Partners put a cover over the Great Court at the British Museum, which has become another tourist destination.

Throughout his career, Norman Foster has chosen projects to be used by different population groups — the residential housing project Albion Riverside in 2003; the futuristic modified sphere of London City Hall, a public building in 2002; and the 2015 rail station enclosure called Crossrail Place Roof Garden at Canary Wharf, which incorporates a rooftop park beneath ETFE plastic cushions. Whatever project completed for whatever user community, the designs of Norman Foster will always be first class.

In Foster's Own Words

" I think one of the many themes in my work is the benefits of triangulation that can make structures rigid with less material." — 2008
" Buckminster Fuller was the kind of green guru...He was a design scientist, if you like, a poet, but he foresaw all the things that are happening now....You can go back to his writings: it's quite extraordinary. It was at that time, with an awareness fired by Bucky's prophecies, his concerns as a citizen, as a kind of citizen of the planet, that influenced my thinking and what we were doing at that time." — 2006

SUMMARY: Triangulation in Norman Foster Buildings

  • The Bow, 2013, Calgary, Canada
    • George Rose/Getty Images
    • The people of Calgary call this building not only the most beautiful in Calgary and the best skyscraper in Canada, but it is also the tallest building outside of Toronto, "at least for now." The crescent-shaped design of The Bow makes this Alberta skyscraper 30 percent lighter than most modern buildings its size. Named after the River Bow, Norman Foster's building was built between 2005 and 2013 as a mixed-use structure anchored by the headquarters of Cenovus Energy, Inc. Its curved design faces south — gathering valuable heat and natural daylight — with a convex facade toward the prevailing wind. Designed as a diagrid, six stories for each triangulated section, most offices of the 58 story skyscraper (775 feet; 239 meters) have a window view because of the curved design. Constructed of trussed-tubes, steel-framed with a glass curtain wall, The Bow has three interior sky gardens — on levels 24, 42 and 54.
  • 30 St Mary Axe, 2004, London, England
    • David Crespo/Getty Images
    • The visual geometry of what locals call The Gherkin changes as point of view changes — seen from above, the patterns create a kaleidoscope.
  • Hearst Tower, 2006, New York City
    • hAndrew C Mace/Getty Images
    • The modern 42-story tower completed in 2006 on top of the 1928 Hearst building is both award-winning and controversial. Norman Foster built the high-tech tower atop the six-story Hearst International Magazine Building designed by Joseph Urban and George P. Post. Foster claims that his design "preserved the façade of the existing structure and establishes a creative dialogue between the old and new." Some have said, "A dialog? Oh, really?" To the unsuspecting, the Hearst Corporation global headquarters is a shocking site as one crosses 57th Street at 8th Avenue in New York City. Like The Bow, the Hearst Tower is a diagrid, using 20% less steel than similar structures. True to Foster architecture, the Tower is constructed of 85% recycled steel and  high performance low emission glass with integrated roller blinds. Harvested roof water is recycled throughout the building, including to the Atrium's three-story waterfall wall called Icefall. The building received a LEED Platinum; certification.

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