Saturday 23 March 2024


Foster - Norman Robert Foster, Baron Foster of Thames Bank, OM, RA, HonFREng, Architect* - has promoted the idea of the sustainable city; a dense city where services are nearby, accessible by walking, not just reachable with the use of a motor car, be it powered by petrol, diesel, hydrogen, or batteries.# While he has made his name designing large, high-tech,^ stand alone, iconic structures in cities, and slick airports on their outskirts, he now tells us that his real interest is not his collection of cars or his eye-catching buildings, but the spaces between. He tells us he is interested in places that enrich lives. His words repeat most of the cliches used for civic places discussed as being ‘meaningful’ for people, or how they might become this. He argues that his ambitions now are not just environmental, a strategy we have seen promoted in some of the recent work, but that the ‘place’ issue, whatever this means, is important too. One wonders why it took him so long to realise this; it was raised as an issue in the 1960’s: see Aldo van Eyck in Alison Smithson’s Team 10 Primer, Studio Vista, 1968 – ‘place not space.’+

So what might Foster’s city be like? It is high-rise; but one does not know if this is the 1970’s height that research defined as being the maximum for feeling contact with the ground - 7 stories - or more, perhaps suggesting something like an array of the new Manhattan residential sticks and spikes: who knows?

Foster has set up his own institute in Madrid to foster (sorry) the development of his ideas and ideals, noting that it will take more than architects to achieve these preferred outcomes, whatever they might be. He speaks of engaging mayors, environmentalists, and others, even planners. It seems to me that it has been the planners who have made the biggest mess of our cities with their unfettered power and sly methodologies using private negotiations to get what they might perceive to be the best outcome in the particular set of circumstances at the time, a strategy involving politics and perceptions to justify any outcome, whatever might be agreed, with clever, distorting spin, irrespective of what the formal plan might define. Sometimes, when decisions are enforced, courts turn matters around in response to cunning arguments.

It is interesting that Foster praises Abercrombie’s plan for London, noting how it has successfully managed matters; but Foster fails to mention how his gherkin was one of the first buildings to raise the city’s height to challenge St. Paul’s, apparently ignoring this plan; or that he very much wanted another tall structure adjacent to this cone. It was a project rejected by the city as it seemed to be just too greedy for floor area and height on such a small parcel of land. In spite of the effort and enthusiasm for his ideas, we have no idea of what a Foster vision for a city might be as form and space. Does one envisage a Corbusian set of highrise structures only less formally arranged; perhaps more scrambled into an organic mass - or is it ‘mess’ that might be the better word to use?

Is Foster keen on the Neom model of the city – the ‘placemakers’ in the desert designing a city 170 kilometres long between two parallel walls of mirrored glass?+ Who knows? It seems that everything is much safer and more flexibly viable when left as words that allow everyone to make the best interpretation they might be happy with. Whatever form it might take - what does Foster teach, preach on this? - the city for people must be compact, not only for convenience in dwelling, but also for convenience in and for the viability of public transport. The role of the automobile needs to be defined and controlled too. Can we really just do away with cars?

One knows today that the continued manufacturing of millions of cars every year is simply stupid and irresponsible, even if all of these are EVs. Our streets and highways are already chocked with single-person vehicles, machines that have become essential because, with the sprawling development of cities, public transport is only available for a few on foot, and for others in vehicles who drive and park - no great number that would easily solve our congestion problems - offering just sufficient inconvenience to ensure that vehicle sales will increase exponentially. One has to ask: what is the real environmental impact of EVs that are supposed to save our world? Having this enormous clutter of vehicles to try to accommodate within a city, leaves cities being developed as places for vehicular movement and their storage instead of being places for people. This approach to cities has to continue as long as we keep putting more and more cars onto the roads; it is the rational and necessary outcome whatever the grand ideas might be. Currently there is no intention to limit the manufacture of vehicles; indeed, there are more and more being manufactured under the ironic guise that this strategy will save our world.

The words that outline hopes for different cities might be easy to recite as pieces of poetry - as ‘poetic,’ design thought - but real, hard decisions are essential if our places are going to be enriched and enlivened: there is no compromise with vehicles and their requirements. New and redeveloped cities have to make decisions about their topology and services - how these change - as well as being prepared to be tough with innovations like drones and flying cars that individuals and companies are presently working on, as though our future depended on them: when it doesn’t. Walking is the core matter of any and all engagements with place.

Foster has been criticised for holding his views while the company is happily designing large airports across the word, perpetuating this form of transport that also relies on the road vehicle for access. He rationalises this conflict by arguing that quick transport is critical for the economy. So should his new city become towers with roof-top landing platforms instead of gardens? Will Foster forget his love for helicopters?#

Still, with all of this, we know nothing of a ‘Foster city’ other than that it will be better than what we have . . . hopefully; maybe. One could argue that this places the ambition very low given the mess that our cities are currently in: it would not take much to improve them just a little, such is their poor state.

Whatever form our new cities might take, they will require planning for the management of action. So it is that the art of framing words as ideas that can define and control outcomes is critical; and that the proper and precise enforcement of the plan is essential. This means that planners, those who plan, are the core of this situation. One has to ask: can we rely on them? Given the past, one has to wonder about this, and consider the possibility that Foster might be wrong: that we must rely on architects to achieve the vision . . . whatever it might be; to be the driving force for change. The sooner we can see the model, the sooner we can offer true critiques based on something more substantial than words. Frank Lloyd wright had his clear vision for Broadacre City and modelled it for all to see. It would be good for Baron Foster to do likewise instead of exercising his promotional skills.


A walkable city or suburb needs more than an ambition for proximity. There is much talk about a 'five-or-ten-minute' city, as if time was the critical issue. Much more is involved; things subtle and experiential. One might only be a few minutes away from some shop, but the decision to walk to and from this destination and not to drive, will depend of the circumstances - the weather - a hot, cold, or wet day, e.g.; the urgency - caught short while cooking or just as the guests arrive, e.g.; and the terrain - hills; and the tasks involved: might it be a big shop with multiple heavy bags?; then there is one’s well-being and general health, as well as a variety of other complex matters that will determine the use of the vehicle rather than walking, irrespective of distance or an urban planner’s intentions. Of course, as well as all of these matters, the experience of the walk itself is critical: is it safe? is it beautiful? Does it entail a walk through a concrete tunnel under a freeway or railway; or is it a stroll along a canal or lake?

Just talking about a walking city is meaningless, because there are so many subtle matters that arise to thwart the intentions. How can planners accommodate all of these? We really have no idea because the form of the ‘ideal’ city, its spaces and places, and details, are all unknown. It is this lack of any suggested outcome that is a serious problem.

“The ideal city we would advocate is dense, compact, walkable, and user-friendly."
Baron Norman Foster

What are the forms and details of a city that is truly ‘five-or-ten-minutes’ accessible? How is public transport fitted into this pattern so as to make it the preferred form of travel? We all know the problem of public transport in the sprawling city, where private vehicles are needed to access this convenience that usually terminates in the least convenient part of the city.

A new sustainable city needs to be shaped and detailed so it can be tested. It has to be something other than more of the same covered in green fuzz to make it ‘environmental.’ Words need to give way to prototypes and models that can highlight the ‘engineering of place’ - present it with the clarity of an engineering drawing, or one prepared for a copyright application. Clever AI images are not enough. We have seen how drawings can cajole and cheat ambitions in the work of Archigram. True rigour is needed.

Foster is a tech freak who is enthused by much more than cars. A colleague tells of being surprised years ago when Foster’s helicopter landed at his Sainsbury Centre being visited. Foster was delighted to be able to show this young architect around. Might this soon be a flying car? A robot? Are we to see fully-automated, robot cities? Maybe walking is just too old fashioned? Could Baron Foster really resist such nerdish delights? He didn’t resist the peerage.

Dare one suggest that the world needs saving from Foster? All illustrations here are 'Foster' towers - (with airports below) - tackling the challenge to be the tallest of the tall. What is happening with the spaces between? Foster shows no desire to disrupt the pseudo-Victorian  flourishes of heraldry; rather it is vice versa - but it is disruption that is needed for the city to thrive, with a commitment that is prepared to challenge orthodoxy: there is no soft option here that allows the tower competition to continue along with more and more airports that cater for the ever-growing sameness of our world: aeroplanes, cars, and towers. Scientists keep emphasising how important diversity is; we need to listen and to act rather than pontificate.

Tradition is embraced by embodying the new Millennium Bridge as bits and pieces - 'deconstructed' for the right image.
It is interesting to note that sculptor Anthony Caro was involved in the design of the supports for the Millennium Bridge.





Norman Foster Launches a New Master’s Program in Madrid

By Andrew Ayers

January 30, 2024

“Cities really are our future,” declared British architect Norman Foster last week during the kick-off event for his new educational institute in Madrid. “By 2050, 90 percent of the global population will be living in cities, which generate 90 percent of the world’s wealth but also 70 percent of its emissions,” he continued. “To put things into perspective, this will require the creation of something like 17 Madrids every year.” In response to the challenge, the newly created Norman Foster Institute on Sustainable Cities, in partnership with one of Spain’s most prestigious public universities, the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM), has launched a master’s program that aims to train future decision-makers in how sustainable urban development might be achieved. Selected from 1,400 applicants, the 30 students in the program’s inaugural cycle are mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, hail from 23 countries across five continents, and come from a variety of professional backgrounds—60 percent from the world of architecture, the remainder from disciplines such as engineering, economics, psychology, politics, and design.

Based in the Spanish capital, the students will use both UAM premises and a new “laboratory” space specially acquired and fitted out by the Norman Foster Foundation (which was established in 2017 in Madrid, where Foster’s wife, Elena Ochoa, was a professor for many years). The master’s program, Foster told RECORD, “is a logical development that has grown out of the workshops, public debates, forums, thinktanks, and summits organized by the foundation, which engages with something like 140 institutions around the world.” Through those connections, the foundation has put together an international faculty that includes Pritzker Prize–winning architects Alejandro Aravena, Shigeru Ban, Francis Kéré, and Anne Lacaton, along with academics like Beatriz Colomina (Princeton), Kent Larson and Dava Newman (both of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Edgar Pieterse (University of Cape Town, South Africa). Also on-board are figures like Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, the mayor of Freetown in Sierra Leone, Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias, and former Spanish justice minister José María Michavila.

Though Foster admitted in his opening remarks that the urbanization rollercoaster will happen elsewhere than in Europe, the three pilot cities for the program’s initial run are Athens, Bilbao, and San Marino. If the latter seems a surprising choice, it no doubt offers lessons with respect to governance—the tiny hillside town of 35,000 is one of the world’s oldest continually functioning republics and few surviving city-states—and mass tourism, since it receives 2 million visitors every year. Selection of the initial trio of cities, representatives of the institute told RECORD, was based on existing relationships and on geographical practicalities for a program that is starting modestly with the ambition to grow in the future. “The methods we will be adopting are applicable to cities globally, whether they’re Asian, Middle Eastern, or Latin American,” said Foster. “The philosophy, be it formal or informal, is in that sense universal.” From what journalists were shown, those methods will rely heavily on digital interfaces developed by the foundation: based on open-source data sets, they are designed to allow cities to be compared in terms of criteria such as walkability, provision of green open space, social vibrancy, compactness, and so on.

Speaking at the opening event, faculty members gave a taste of what students might expect. For Foster, who warned against too top-down an approach, “the ideal city we would advocate is dense, compact, walkable, and user-friendly. The opposite of the sprawling car-borne city, it’s likely to have neighborhoods that are mixed in use and permit the spontaneity and unpredictability of city life.”

After Larson wowed event attendees with some of the perhaps surprising conclusions drawn from research carried out at MIT—the greatest reduction in emissions would come from the elimination of commuting, while a meatless diet would have more impact than electric cars—Newman, a former deputy administrator at NASA, dreamed of putting data farms in space and declared that “Mars is not option B. Sorry Elon!” Pieterse highlighted the “cascading governance failures linked to the colonial legacy” in an African continent whose current urban population—600 million—is set to triple, while Aravena pointed out how the failure to address poverty in South America had created the conditions for the emergence of a “parallel state run by narcos.” The joker in the speaker pack—at least that’s how it seemed to many present—was controversial New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, listed as a faculty member, who bookended a talk about the crises facing informed journalism with a cringe-making explanation of why, in his opinion, Foster’s Hearst Tower is better than Renzo Piano’s New York Times Building (one supposedly allows you to see the city, the other apparently does not).

After the event, in an interview with RECORD, Foster explained how the institute had already been approached by “a government entity” to explore the possibility of providing shorter courses about issues of urban sustainability to those in its employ. Asked about the architecture profession’s current lack of lobbying power, he replied that “all human environments are designed. Somebody has to design them—they can do it well, mediocrely, or badly. I think there are things that the architectural profession can do [with respect to steering responses to environmental challenges], but for whatever reason is not doing. Some of that is being addressed by the foundation, and to that extent I think it fills an important gap.”

The Norman Foster Foundation in Madrid Is an Architecture Lover’s Dream

The starchitect’s HQ is a tour de force of forward-thinking design—and AD is on hand to witness its impressive impact

By Joseph Giovannini

June 14, 2017

It’s been well over 50 years since Norman Foster hopped into a VW with two fellow Yale architecture students and drove cross-country to Los Angeles to see Case Study Houses that were assembled from off-the-shelf steel parts by L.A.’s avant-garde, including Charles and Ray Eames. That simple idea about architectural componentry and systems design would become the basis for Foster + Partners, perhaps the first and foremost of the world’s global high-tech practices. The drawings and models of airports, museums, skyscrapers, and even parliaments that Lord Foster designed are archived and exhibited in a newly restored 1912 mansion in the diplomatic quarter of Madrid. The Norman Foster Foundation opened to the public this month.

Norman Foster is now 82, and he’s done something about it. With the precision of a field marshal operating on several fronts, the London-based architect opened his foundation in an hôtel particulier in Madrid and officiated over a fast-paced, thought- provoking symposium, “Future is Now.” He closed the two-day event with an elaborate banquet for 200 international guests in a wing of the Prado, complete with harlequined jugglers, flame-swallowers, and singers and dancers performing traditional Spanish songs and dances. The Mayor of Madrid, Manuela Carmena, greeted the symposium’s 1,800 attendees, welcoming Foster as an honorary madrileño.

After the fabled Baron Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of old and modern masters, Foster’s foundation marks the second time in recent history that a foreigner has brought a ranking cultural institution to the Spanish capital. At the banquet, the architect said that without his Spanish wife, Elena, the foundation would not exist.

The day-long Friday symposium in the Royal Theater, across a plaza from the Royal Palace, took architecture as the point of departure into the impending global future of massive urban population influx, which is already leading to pressing questions about the environment, infrastructure, public health, and the stewardship of the earth. Instead of creating a vanity project, Foster has dedicated his foundation as a working center for research and discussion to help provide answers through interdisciplinary collaboration between architects, planners, environmentalists, and artists, who all spoke at the symposium. Speakers included New York’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg, Apple’s Jonathan Ive, digital guru Nicholas Negroponte, and artists Maya Lin and Olafur Eliasson. Christiane Amanpour moderated one of the three discussions.

Besides being a research and education center, the foundation serves as a museum exhibiting models and drawings from all phases of Foster’s prolific career. The extensive archives and model collection, displayed in galleries on three floors of the ornate turn-of-the-last-century stone structure, includes even juvenilia. His personal sketchbooks start when he was 13, when he voraciously drew, as he says, “anything that moves”: locomotives, cars, airplanes. The Pavilion, a futuristic structure adjoining the Foundation enclosed with massive planes of glass, holds the many talismanic objects that have inspired him, displayed on open glass shelves—models of cars, furniture, and buildings by other architects. The one full-size object is the 1925 Avions Voisin two-door car that once belonged to Le Corbusier, who preached that architecture was a machine for living in. Foster bought, restored, and now drives the car, whose engine was fabricated by a company that made airplane motors. Foster himself is also an accomplished pilot who owns and flies his own jet. He expresses his aeronautical sensibility in his buildings with designs that are “yar,” like spirited, tautly equipped yachts.


Norman Robert Foster, Baron Foster of Thames Bank,OM, RA, HonFREng (born 1 June 1935) is an English architect and designer. Closely associated with the development of high-tech architecture, Foster is recognised as a key figure in British modernist architecture. His architectural practice Foster+Partners, first founded in 1967 as Foster Associates, is the largest in the United Kingdom, and maintains offices internationally. He is the president of the Norman Foster Foundation, created to 'promote interdisciplinary thinking and research to help new generations of architects, designers and urbanists to anticipate the future'. The foundation, which opened in June 2017, is based in Madrid and operates globally. Foster was awarded the Pritzker Prize in 1999.,_Baron_Foster_of_Thames_Bank


The term ‘placemaking’ has become something of a cliché that has come to be questioned. While there is some sense that can be gleaned from Aldo van Eyck’s statement, ‘place not space,’ the idea of ‘placemaking’ carries less of a vague certainty. One has to understand that modernism grasped the idea that architectural experience and meaning were rooted, not in style or form, but in the space, in the voids that forms created. Siegfried Gidieon promoted this idea and tried to make it scientific by relating it to the space/time interests of the physicists of the time – Sigfried Giedion Space, Time and Architecture, Harvard University Press, 1941. Bruno Zevi touched on the idea more directly by defining architecture as space – Bruno Zevi, Architecture As Space, Horizon Press, 1957, (first published in Italian in 1948). Aldo van Eyck was pointing out that there was more intimacy and personal involvement in the experience that was not an intellectual understanding of an abstraction that was named and located in ‘space.’ It is the understanding of this ‘more’ that remains vague because of its subtle references that involve the body and mind interacting with space and form. Perception, memory, symbolism, and numerous other matters are included in this ‘more’ that challenges the rational idea of ‘placemaking’ that has become a common statement of ambitions today; a phrase that echos with an attractive, hollow certainty that relies on the idea of the experience of ‘place’ that is closer to a community understanding. Place can be and is sensed everyday, both as an enriching experience, and as a challenge to sensibilities. The use of the term ‘placemakers’ today can be seen everywhere, used willy-nilly as a ‘meaningful’ term that seeks to grasp the positive notions involved: e.g. in - ‘THE LINE Meet the Placemakers.’

for walkable, user-friendly cities?


What role do flying cars and drones have in Foster's city vision? Already we have the ‘sci-fi’ images defining expectations for futures that are difficult to change: consider the ‘Dick Tracy’ watch/phone and all the other comic strip gadgets like flying cars that the world seeks to make real in the everyday, as if this might be 'progress.' Can Norman Foster, who has expressed such enthusiasm for tech gadgets, really dismiss this trend in his ‘walking, people-friendly’ city? Might the 'spaces between' gain a new use?

Foster's towers and airports seem to fit in well with these 'fictional' visions of the future, which Foster says is 'now.' What hope is there? Are we likely to continue to have 'barren' cities shaped by Baron Foster of Thames Bank OM, RA, HonFREng, Architect no matter what he says his ambitions are?

The only constant might be change, (except, ironically, for heraldry itself); but it is the quality of the outcomes and the commitment to the intentions and their integrity that remain critical if we are to achieve “the ideal city . . . dense, compact, walkable, and user-friendly. The opposite of the sprawling car-borne city, . . . [with] neighborhoods that are mixed in use and permit the spontaneity and unpredictability of city life.”

It might sound grand, but what does this city look like?