Sir Norman Foster

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 01 February, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 01 February, 2004, 12:00am

Should I have heard of him? If you don't know his name you'll know his buildings. He's the award-winning architect behind Chek Lap Kok airport and the HSBC headquarters in Central. Most recently, Foster has been working with the Hong Kong Government to develop a master plan for a world-class arts, cultural and entertainment district on the reclaimed West Kowloon waterfront, but in the light of the recent court ruling this project might be shelved.

What did this grand plan entail? The district was designed to include a performance venue, theatres and concert halls, a modern-art museum, cinemas, leisure facilities, shops, restaurants and parkland. According to Foster, the facilities would have been 'sheltered and unified under a sinuous flowing canopy [to] create a benign microclimate. The form of the canopy is inspired by the landscape and traditional Chinese art forms and calligraphy.' You've totally lost me It is bewildering, but typical of Foster's approach to design. He prefers to describe architecture as 'public art', and believes the quality of our surroundings directly influences the quality of our lives - at work, at home or in public spaces. He maintains architecture is generated by the needs of people, and these needs are spiritual as well as material.

So how does the HSBC building meet our spiritual and material needs? To design nothing less than the 'best bank building in the world', which was the brief, the architects set out to address the nature of banking in Hong Kong and how it should be expressed in building form. Designing an innovative suspension structure, paying careful attention to use of space, light and shade, and using the services of a feng shui geomancer, they created a beautiful, flexible and functional building that almost reinvented the office tower. Foster's passionate and fresh approach has rewritten many of the accepted rules of architecture. Any other examples? He is credited with setting the design standard for modern, spacious, airy airports. When designing Chek Lap Kok - the largest construction project in the world - Foster did away with the traditional exposed ducts and pipes, which he felt were not only aesthetically displeasing but also represented a waste of energy. Some of Foster's greatest achievements lie in his pioneering solutions, using renewable energy to reduce pollution. A good example is his renovation of Berlin's Reichstag, where he designed a method of powering the building with vegetable oils, reducing carbon-dioxide emissions by 94 per cent. He was one of many architects to propose a replacement for the World Trade Centre's twin towers in New York. I'm convinced. He's obviously talented. He is. Foster grew up in a working-class area of Manchester, left school early and worked in the treasury department at the city council before landing a job in the contracts department of a Manchester architectural firm. From there, he went on to study architecture at Manchester University, working part-time as an ice-cream salesman and nightclub bouncer to pay his tuition fees. He won a fellowship to Yale University, where he gained a master's degree in architecture, and established Foster Associates - later to become Foster & Partners - in 1967.

Surely all that hard work has paid off? Among Foster's numerous awards are the prestigious international Pritzker Architecture Prize, awarded in 1999, and a life peerage bestowed in June the same year. He is famous for his multi-million pound projects, including London's Stansted airport, the Metro Bilbao underground system in Spain, the Carre d'Art Museum of Contemporary Art in Nimes, France, the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, Britain, and the research centre at Stanford University, California.