West Kowloon Cultural District

Man of Steel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 October, 2011, 12:00am

Sitting on a corner sofa in the Mandarin Oriental's Clipper Lounge, Lord Foster of Thames Bank tells two stories about instinct. The first concerns an old friend and mentor, the German graphic designer Otl Aicher, who was, among many things, chief designer for the 1972 Munich Olympics, creating its look and the first Olympic mascot, as well as the stick figures that we take for granted on public signs.

One morning, in the summer of 1991, Foster felt he hadn't seen Aicher for a while and needed to do so. Immediately. He rang him and suggested they have lunch that day. Aicher, surprised but pleased, said he had a friend staying but that they'd be delighted to see him.

Foster was in London. Aicher was in Germany.

'So I jump in the car,' Foster says. 'I drive to the airport, I take the Citation.' (For a second, the listener imagines some academic document clutched in his hand but, in this case, the Citation is one of Foster's private jets.) He flew to Leutkirch, in the Black Forest. 'We have a fantastic time. I stay the night, go for a cycle to a village with Otl and the other guy. Otl says to me, 'What do you notice about that church spire, Norman?' And I say, 'It's leaning.' And he says, 'Only you notice this, Norman - no one else sees it!''

One week later, 69-year-old Aicher was killed in a traffic accident. At the funeral, Foster saw the other man, who told him that, after he'd flown back to London, Aicher and his friend had sat wondering what the urgency had been about.

The other story involves his parents. Foster, an only child, was born in the English city of Manchester in 1935. His father was a pawnbroker, his mother a waitress. Many decades later, as is the way with age, he wanted to learn more about his deceased parents - particularly his mother, whom he thought may have been adopted. He arranged lunch with his cousin, Lionel, whose father (his mother's brother) was the only member of her generation still alive; he'd moved to Australia and was in a nursing home. Lionel planned to visit his father the following spring and suggested he and Foster go together.

'But I felt I had to go now. People said, 'Wait'. I said, 'I can't'. I couldn't even wait for the direct flight to Melbourne.'

He took a commercial flight to Sydney, stayed the night with an architect friend, then flew on to Melbourne and rang the nursing home. They told him his uncle wasn't quite himself but Foster visited anyway and sat with him for a while.

'He wasn't communicative, we didn't have a conversation.' He'd be better tomorrow, Foster was told. But in the morning, as Foster was having breakfast, the phone rang. His uncle had died.

'They said he was very happy,' Foster says, suddenly bright-eyed. 'But I remember being completely thrown. Completely. I thought, 'What am I doing here?''

When Foster has an instinct about something, no matter how bizarre, he goes to considerable lengths to act upon it.

He gives the impression of being rigorously disciplined; of having the kind of self-control that carries a glint of steel. In the dark polo necks he often wears, he can resemble British actor Steven Berkoff, who has made a career out of high-class villainy; it's not difficult to believe the architect once had a part-time job as a bouncer in a cinema.

The best of his architecture, however, suggests a quality of light. It soars in, literally, unearthly ways; you feel a sense of the hidden yearning that motivates it.

That being the case, Foster could be forgiven for again asking himself, from his corner of the Mandarin Oriental, 'What am I doing here?' Because, if ever there were a spectacle of stalled take-off, it's surely the West Kowloon Cultural District, with which his firm, Foster + Partners, has found itself associated - on and off - for the past decade.

In March 2002, I interviewed him, also in the Clipper Lounge, for the South China Morning Post. He'd just won a competition to design what was then referred to as the West Kowloon waterfront development. Its central feature would be a massive canopy.

I still have my notes from that meeting. Scribbled on the first page is an image of the canopy: in cross-section it looks like a Boeing 747, or a whale. Foster quoted other analogies: 'People say it reminds them of a dolphin or a dragon or a fish,' he said. 'It's very much a response to the forces of nature. There's tremendous flexibility within the concept.'

The canopy, however, would be fixed; everything else would fit in underneath and around it. At 25 hectares, it would be the biggest roof in the world. (During the interview, Foster used the roof of Chek Lap Kok airport, which, of course, he'd also designed, as a scale comparison: it measures 18 hectares.) There were already murmurings about cost and maintenance and the wear and tear in a subtropical climate, and, at one point, he responded, jovially, to a weather question: 'A typhoon is like us on this project - it's impatient, it wants to go on its own way.'

That spring day, he was clearly delighted to be back in harness in Hong Kong, the city in which he'd made his name with another triumph. In 1979, after he'd been awarded the design for the headquarters of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, his career entered superlative-land. He went on to create certainly the world's most expensive, and probably most distinctive, building, and all the characteristics of his earlier projects - the incorporation of light and air, the seamless opening out of an interior, the notion of flexible space - became globally recognised as Foster's trademarks.

In the 1990s, he designed for Hong Kong the most expensive airport in the world. Mountains were moved to make Chek Lap Kok; at one stage, 70 per cent of the world's dredgers were involved in what was the largest public project on the globe. Hong Kong was a small colony that thought big and Foster (whose vision of architecture's generous possibilities was ignited in America, where he studied at Yale University) often remarked, publicly, that he could embrace in Asia the opportunities that were lacking in Britain.

'It's an incredible luxury to return for a project like this,' he said, contentedly, in 2002. 'After the airport, we kept the company active here, still filed taxes, did all those things. I never thought I'd be saying goodbye to Hong Kong, but, on the other hand, I'd never presumed I'd come back.'

'In 2008,' I wrote in the subsequent story, 'the HK$24 billion West Kowloon waterfront will be ready for use ...'

TEN DAYS AGO, as further delays were announced, another public engagement exercise involving West Kowloon began. Officially, it's only the third but to trawl through the hundreds of news stories written about this project over the years is to realise that it's turned out to have been one ongoing public exercise. And the public didn't like two aspects: it didn't like the canopy and it didn't like the fact that only one developer would be granted access to the project (and its property profits) over a period of 30 years.

The government initially refused to budge on either component. To be fair, you could see why it found this sudden interest in architecture baffling: West Kowloon public consultations had been carried out in 2002 and hardly anyone had shown up at the sessions. Sars, HarbourFest and Article 23, however, put lead in the public's pencil, and people wanted their say in the design (or to believe they had had one). Foster produced a model for a developers' consortium, one of three shortlisted. But, in 2006, the government backtracked, the canopy and developers were dropped and the entire process halted.

In 2009, after the project had been revamped, Foster + Partners was one of three finalists, along with Rem Koolhaas and Rocco Yim, shortlisted by the government from a list of 40 architects. (In the intervening years, Terminal Three of Beijing Capital International Airport, designed by Foster, had been opened.) This was Foster's third design. A public consultation took place that winter.

'He came in very, very, very confident,' says Allan Zeman, who is on the board of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority and was present when Foster made his presentation in July last year. 'Very different, very creative, that's what the man's about. Most people do it with slides, he came in with Russian dolls. [Foster had had these specifically sourced in St Petersburg. Each doll represented a compo- nent of the Cultural District, and after he'd discussed it, was placed inside another until there was one giant doll - the completed project.] You felt safe. I guess it like's being on a plane in turbulence and you know you're safe with the pilot.'

On being told that Foster is, in fact, a pilot, Zeman says, 'He is? Well, we're very fortunate - having a pilot like that should be very comforting to Hong Kong people.'

There was another three-month public consultation; 1,800 people went on the first day. On March 4, Foster + Partners was chosen, yet again, to design West Kowloon; and, yet again, Norman Foster is sitting in the Clipper Lounge of the Mandarin Oriental, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, to discuss the project.

He's in Hong Kong for the opening ceremony of the third public engagement exercise. It's due to take place at the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre in Kowloon Park, followed by a media visit to the West Kowloon Waterfront Promenade. Typhoon Nesat is roaring in across the South China Sea and when I mention (because who could resist such a metaphor?) the possible storm-clouds, he gives a hearty, knowing laugh. That's as close as he'll get to indicating that the preceding years have been tempestuous.

Has it been the lengthiest preamble to any project he's ever done?

'By a long way,' he says. 'This has to be the ultimate marathon. But I have to tell you, I'm more enthusiastic about it now than I've ever been. You can say, 'He would say that, wouldn't he?' But it's true.'

Watching him, you can believe it. For a man of 76, he looks remarkably fit. A 2010 film about his life and work titled How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? was shown at the Arts Centre in Wan Chai recently. It begins with an image of Foster cross-country skiing in Switzerland, where he lives: a dark dot of persistence in a white wilderness. He once wore the wrong gloves during a marathon and suffered frostbite from which it took him six months to recover; the following year he competed again.

Yet he has known serious illness. In (he thinks) 1999, he was diagnosed with cancer of the bowel. After chemotherapy, he was told it had spread to the liver and was given three months to live. It was a misdiagnosis but for about 10 days, that was his reality.

He's already described his method of dealing, professionally, with the jettisoned West Kowloon canopy and he employs the same term to explain how he coped during that difficult time. 'Selective amnesia,' he says, with a smile. Whatever he chooses to forget, didn't happen. (A particularly striking example of this concerns the second of his three wives, Sabiha Rumani Malik, whom he married in 1991 but isn't mentioned in his Who's Who entry.)

Yet, the man who emerged after those 10 days must have differed from the one before.

'Some things are curiously unchanged,' he says. 'I haven't done what was suggested, I haven't slowed down.'

Characteristically, during his recovery, he read Lance Armstrong's autobiography, It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life, bought a racing bike and now both cycles and skis compulsively. About three years later (one of the side effects of his selective amnesia is he's vague on dates) he had a heart attack, which means he can no longer fly solo.

It also means the heart attack must have happened around the time of the initial West Kowloon competition. Nothing was said publicly about either illness; for many, Deyan Sudjic's authorised biography last year and the film (which was produced by Foster's third wife, Elena Ochoa) offered the first, brief suggestions that he'd been unwell.

Despite the faint- and inevitable - air of hagiography, the film is worth seeing, especially by anyone living in this city, which is, and will now continue to be, part-shaped by him. He says he got a shock when he saw it for himself.

'Obviously, I knew I was being filmed but I couldn't believe it,' he says. 'There I was with Eduardo! [now 10, and the youngest of his six children] I thought, how did they get that?'

You have to wonder if intimations of mortality led to his consent. Certainly the beauty, and the loneliness, of Foster's unswerving passion is movingly conveyed. There are wonderfully moody shots of, among many others, the Swiss Re building (aka 'the Gherkin') in London, France's Millau Viaduct and Masdar City, in the desert of Abu Dhabi. But he also returns to the room in his working-class childhood home where he used to draw and make models of planes.

'I had this fantasy I was sitting there in control of this great craft,' he says; and he was always determined to soar beyond his confines. (When asked, again, how the cancer changed him, he says, more slowly, 'It made me appreciative of things I took for granted, like my parents. I think it made me understand the debt I owed them.')

All he's ever wanted to do is design and when Paul Rudolph, dean of Yale's School of Architecture, told him, 'You don't care enough', he cried. It's said Foster's handwriting is almost identical to Rudolph's. As with Aicher, he's often had an instinctive connection with his mentors.

There's one line in the film- 'I'd love to have a second bite of every project, you can always go one step further'- that could make him wince now. But he laughs when it's quoted back.

'There may be a degree of post-rationalisation... but it does sharpen you. You can damn well prove you're going to do it.'

He cites the glass-domed Reichstag, in Berlin, as an example of a building that had to be rethought. It, too, was once destined to be a canopy.

'We 'won' the competition, which means we got the maximum vote, but the chairman wanted a unanimous jury, so it moved to the second stage. We were one of three. Over that period, the whole political thing changed in Germany - the cost of unification was greater, the economy was weaker - and we were the only one of the three who started all over again. People said, 'How can you forget the canopy?' But you cannot afford the indulgence of looking back.'

So he looks - as he does when he flies, skis, cycles - ahead. This time round, he's had a fung shui master check the West Kowloon design (as he did all those years ago when he was designing the HSBC building). He's going to need help with some of the more optimistic claims. The 'zero-carbon' tag, for instance, isn't going to fly.

'Everything we're doing is a move towards low carbon,' he explains. 'It depends on the surrounding infrastructure. We showed a blueprint for a project to go to zero-carbon, but some of these steps will require initiatives by government. How far we can go is still to be determined.' He pauses. 'It's an ideal but it's overly ambitious. You can see I'm hedging my bets. But you have to take into account, this is a long- term project.'

The following day, Henry Tang Ying-yen, chief secretary and chairman of the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority, unhelpfully announces his resignation. And, by Thursday morning, Nesat has shut down Hong Kong. There isn't going to be a site visit to West Kowloon; and Foster + Partners' model, with its careful layout of the facilities - the theatres, the museums, the arena and the vast peninsular park - is locked inside the Hong Kong Heritage Discovery Centre.

In the end, a last-minute, early-evening press conference is held in the offices of the authority in Tsim Sha Tsui; the television cameras are still wrapped in plastic from the storm outside. Michael Lynch, chief executive of the authority, Stephen Cheung Yan-leung, chairman of the consultation panel, and Ronald Arculli, chairman of the development committee, have made it in but, as Lynch acknowledges, it's Foster who's the star.

Without models or sketches, he has to be unusually reliant on words. He's good at that but he's clearly hampered by the situation, and he begins by quoting a line about himself: 'If you ask Norman a question, he'll do you a drawing.' But it doesn't matter.

Given that it's now clear the government budget of HK$21.6 million isn't going to be enough, there's really only one question anyone's asking as this strange reality show plays on: 'How Much Do Your Buildings Cost, Mr Foster?'