SIR NORMAN FOSTER The designer of 'that bank' in Central, Norman Foster, is on a roll. Commissioned to design Europe's tallest building on a site in London one week, and a giant bridge striding across a 11/2-kilometre gorge to link France with Spain the next, he has had a remarkable month. The huge new commissions, and the kind of raffish personal publicity that Frank Lloyd Wright used to attract, have confirmed his unique position. Mr Foster is best known in Hong Kong as the designer of the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation's unique headquarters at No 1 Queen's Rd, Central. The British architect conceived the project in 1979, a steel frame structure built with aeronautics technology, that would make the ponderous concrete tower blocks so prevalent at the time look like a 'set of child's wooden blocks compared with a Meccano kit', as one commentator wrote. When it opened in 1986, Hong Kong's new landmark received conflicting reviews. An admirer described it as a 'steel cathedral for the high priests of banking'. Detractors called it 'the oil rig'. For better or worse, most agreed that it had changed the face of Hong Kong architecture for ever, helping to banish the 'faceless anonymous blobs' Mr Foster so despised in the territory. 'It had a knock-on effect on all the other architectural practices,' said one commentator at the time. Among the many projects Mr Foster is currently working on is the main airport terminal for Chek Lap Kok. The 1.4 km-long building, designed by Mr Foster and his 60-strong team, is intended to resemble a dragon, or a ray fish, flapping its long tail above the water, when viewed from the air. The building's commissioners are hoping its beauty will make Hong Kongers forget about the enormous cost of the project. The structure is so large that Mr Foster compares the roof to an artificial sky. There are more big commissions in Japan and Korea, and possibilities in China. Mr Foster's six worldwide offices are, in fact, working on a range of projects that none of his British peers can match, from door handles to entire cities. He is building the Reichstag for the reunified Germany, a new 80,000-seat stadium in London, and three skyscrapers in Seoul, Riyadh and Frankfurt, and is remodelling the British Museum. Talking about these projects, he has the decency to keep any trace of world-weariness out of his voice. 'At any point in your career, you are stretched by the challenge of moving on to the next stage. Designing a family house for the first time was the same challenge as doing the new airport in Hong Kong.' It has not always been easy. Mr Foster was born in an ordinary house in Manchester, northern England, to a family that did not expect its members to go to university. It was only after conscription and a spell in the town-hall accounts department that Mr Foster discovered architecture. Even when he had begun to design buildings that attracted attention throughout the world his career was far from secure. London's building boom of the 1980s passed him by, while the recession that followed forced him to make drastic layoffs to stay afloat. Now his British practice has cruised past its rivals as if they were standing still. Walk into his London studio, with its granite stairways, its 12 metre-high window wall overlooking the Thames, and its intense young assistants, and you forget the ramshackle, everyday world outside. When Mr Foster set up in practice on his own in 1967, he presented himself as a problem-solver more than a form-giver, just as likely to ask a potential client 'Is your new building really necessary?' as to offer them seductive soft-pencil sketches. This was a time when architects were divided between the large commercial firms that got most of the work and the charmed circle of small practices that built the art galleries and the universities. The latter accounted for a tiny fraction of Britain's buildings, but for almost all of what was conventionally understood as its contemporary architecture. Mr Foster hardly fitted the image of either camp. The big firms offered nothing but businesslike pragmatism; the small ones carried on as if they were either country solicitors or prima donnas. Mr Foster's greatest achievement was to bridge this gap, to construct an organisation that reliably delivers architecture that satisfies large corporate clients with an effortless elegance and restraint; and, even more, to apply these qualities to the avalanche of building now transforming Asia. The price he has paid is to take on a volume of work that makes it impossible to recapture the excitement of the early days. Now Mr Foster has started to expand rapidly in Britain, too. It is, he says, the 'ultimate luxury' to be able to work at home. The architect has made the jump to the world scale; it remains to be seen whether he can recapture the originality that marked his earlier successes.