Lifting the Spirit

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ROBERT HUGHESThe annual Pritzker Prize--$100,000 plus a gold medal--is by far the most prestigious award in architecture today. It is like the Nobels for literature or for the promotion of peace, though not as hotly debated, there being no architectural equivalent to Dario Fo--still less to Rigoberta Menchu. It is given not for promise but to uphold the ideal of excellence. Twenty men (but no women) have received it since Philip Johnson got the first one in 1979; they range from Mexico's Luis Barragán to Italy's Renzo Piano, from Britain's James Stirling to America's Frank Gehry. This year's laureate, announced this week, is another Brit: England's Sir Norman Foster, 63. Every award is special, says Foster, but there's only one Pritzker. It's a recognition of the importance of architecture itself.

Foster, like his former partner Richard Rogers (who has a peerage, but no Pritzker as yet), is a pivotal figure in British architecture. But his buildings have risen all over the world, from Germany to China, and at present his practice employs some 500 people. His influence on the profession is enormous. His 1985 tower for the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank headquarters in Hong Kong, for instance, reversed the general dogma that a high-rise office block had to have a solid central core: it is not a block but a frame, a vertical web whose generous, open ground level has become a Sunday gathering spot for Hong Kong's Filipina maids. It has probably done more to change the way people think about what Foster calls the culture of office buildings and the relation of the corporate to the public domain in a city's matrix than any other 20th century structure.

Sire, do not talk to me of small projects, said the Great Cham of baroque architecture, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to Louis XIV after the Sun King lured him to Paris. Foster is too much of a democrat to echo that sentiment, but it's a fact that his imagination runs naturally on the epic scale and that, more surprisingly, large size doesn't diminish the humanistic and spiritual qualities of his buildings.

The most heartening and invigorating thing about Foster's design sense is its clarity, the insistence that the poetics of a building must grow out of its legible and fully expressed structure. Foster has never been even faintly tempted by the clutter of secondhand allusion and quotation that infested so much Post-Modernist building in America and elsewhere--the kind of stuck-on, boutique historicism represented by Philip Johnson's 1984 Chippendale-top skyscraper for AT&T in New York City or Robert Stern's recyclings of the Shingle Style. It may be that PoMo quotation, of which a gutful has been served up over the past 25 years, served a useful purpose in reminding architecture's public that, yes, there was indeed a vast repertory of form and ornament on which early, messianic Modernism had turned its back. But it was mostly skin deep, and it kept turning into a kind of false nostalgia--a parallel to the rash of heritage fetishism in the 1980s.

An accumulation of signs can carry architecture only so far, because architecture in its root and essence is very much more than sign language. Yesterday's ironies wrap today's garbage. Architecture has to go deeper, find real human needs and deal with those. Foster likes to list them in simple terms: the structure that holds a building up; the services that let it work; the ecology of the building--whether it is naturally ventilated, whether you can open the windows, the quality of light; the mass or lightness of its materials; its relationship to the site, the street and the landscape view; the symbolism of the form. All these, he argues, must be accounted for whether you are creating a landmark or deferring to a historic setting.

Foster can handle both with equal aplomb. In 1993 he completed a cultural center for the French city of Nîmes, in Provence. It is right next to the city's most famous Roman monument, the so-called Maison Carree--a Corinthian temple dedicated to Augustus' sons in the year A.D. 4. It was Thomas Jefferson's favorite classical building--in fact, Jefferson based his whole conception of Neo-Classical architecture on it--and one obviously had to approach such a historical object with caution. Would the solution be a pastiche historical arts center? Foster was sure not. I went there incognito before the commission was announced, he recalls. I walked the site for hours. The challenge was to do a contemporary building that could face the Roman temple directly but not be intimidated by it. The result, a crystalline rectangular structure with sun screens, does exactly that. Its transparent grid defers to the pillar-and-architrave opacity of the ancient stone building without mimicking it.

The same kind of thinking occurs in Foster's unfinished project for the British Museum. When its library moved to massive new premises 1.5 km away, it left behind one of the great English spaces: the 1857 Round Reading Room designed by Sydney Smirke, with its shallow dome, surrounded by an 8,100 sq m internal court. To demolish this masterpiece would have been unthinkable. It had to be preserved, and Foster's scheme for so doing entailed sweeping away the clutter of now obsolete bookstack buildings from around it and covering the court with a light glass-and-steel roof, creating Europe's largest enclosed space, which will function as the access core of the museum.

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Foster's genius--the word is hardly too strong--is most apparent in his structural thought. He has often been called a high-tech architect, but actually, despite the complexity of some of his designs, the buildings don't brandish their technological language as gee-whiz metaphor; they use it as an essential tool of spatial effects and structural needs, always seeking the most elegant and succinct solution. The idea of high-tech is a bit misleading, Foster says. Since Stonehenge, architects have always been at the cutting edge of technology. And you can't separate technology from the humanistic and spiritual content of a building.

Ever since his student years at Manchester University in the 1950s (a working-class boy, he paid his way through school with a variety of jobs, including a stint as a nightclub bouncer), Foster loved utilitarian buildings: barns, factories, windmills. He did measured drawings of them when other students were drawing buildings they had never seen: Greek temples, Palladian villas. Foster would learn from those too, but his immersion in common language and use translates into a feeling of rightness, which works as completely in small structures as in large. A fine example of the former is the entrances to the subway system he designed for Bilbao in northern Spain: hoods of glass, like segments of a nautilus shell ribbed with stainless steel that curve downward and carry the eye to the spaces underneath--by far the most elegant subway entrances since Hector Guimard's Art Nouveau designs for the Paris Metro a century ago.

He learned from other structures too. As a kid he built model aircraft, and as an adult he flies real ones, both fixed-wing and helicopters. He did his national service in the Royal Air Force and regards the time he spent working in a hangar as a big influence on his later designs. Way back in the genetic code of his buildings is a feeling for hangar-like lightness, strength and frugality of consumption that came out brilliantly in such projects as his 1981 design for the airport at Stansted in England. Earlier airports had massive concentrations of ductwork above their ceilings for air conditioning, lighting and electrical services; Foster rethought this completely and realized huge savings in structural mass and energy consumption could be made by shifting the utilities underground, leaving a floating roof and walls that could open to natural daylight. This changed architects' thinking about airport design worldwide, and every major airport built since--Hamburg, Stuttgart, Kuala Lumpur--has followed Foster's design insight.

He would reapply the lesson himself 11 years later in his $20 billion design for the world's largest airport, at Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong--the last megastructure spawned by the floundering tiger economies of Asia. Foster envisaged it as a horizontal cathedral, with its airy, Y-shaped passenger terminal under the great wing of its roof. It had teething troubles at first--there were cargo and passenger delays when it opened last July--but now, according to Wan Wai Lun, corporate affairs officer of the Hong Kong Airport Authority, it's incredibly efficient and caters to the passengers' needs.

The ideal of humane efficiency, understood as social responsibility, undergirds all of Foster's work. No living architect has thought more closely about the ecological effects of his buildings. In his brilliant 1991 design for Frankfurt's Commerzbank, the tallest office building in Europe, he brought off the seemingly impossible feat of building a supertower that could use natural ventilation (as against fuel-gobbling air conditioning) during 60% of the year. Anything that reduces energy consumption and cuts down on greenhouse gases is good news, he says. In his redesign of the Reichstag, the seat of German government in Berlin, Foster has carried this out to an extraordinary degree. He noted that the old Reichstag, heated and cooled by fossil fuels, produced 6,400 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year. Foster came up with a system of driving the building with renewable vegetable oils, such as rapeseed, for fuel. Its CO2 emissions have dropped 94%, to 400 metric tons a year. The waste heat is converted into cooling capacity, and the small heat surplus is dumped into aquifers 300 m below ground level, where it is stored and recovered in winter.

You can, of course, do a building that's eco-responsible but aesthetically worthless. The crux of Foster's achievement is to have designed megastructures that are at the forefront of eco-design as well as beautiful in their own right. He is a fine detailer--everything from the junctures of a beam to the cladding to the door handles comes out of the same relentless aesthetic concentration. But on the wider scale, Foster is also one of the great living manipulators of light and transparency. No other government building in the world, for instance, can boast anything as outright exhilarating as the great inverted cone sheathed in 360 mirrors that floods the Reichstag with daylight.

Light is part of the very subject matter of Foster's buildings, along with steel, glass and stone. When Foster speaks of the spiritual dimension of architecture, and its power to lift the spirit, he's talking about the action of light in space. Anyone who supposes that technology, or the exacting use of modern materials, implies a break with the past should look at Foster's work--and learn.

With reporting by Maria Cheng/Hong Kong

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