Deyan Sudjic currently director of the Design Museum in London, was peddling his book ‘Norman Foster, a Life in architecture’ – an authorised biography – at the Oxford Literary Festival. Last time I met Sudjic was in 1999, when he was heading up Glasgow’s year as City of Architecture. He is one of the few people architects seem to listen to when it comes to the importance of the verbal and not just visual communication. A former architecture critic, he said one of his first lessons was “never use the word fenestration when window will do.”
“Architects tend to speak just to each other,” he explained. But buildings belong to more than the people who designed them. Sudjic got involved in the business of reaching out to the wider world because “architecture is too important to be left to architects.”
But this was not what the crowd of – I suspect – mostly retired Oxford architects had come to hear. They wanted to hear how Norman Foster, a child of a modest home in Levenshulme, Manchester, grew his practise into an architectural mega-firm. Or perhaps they came to hear Sudjic wax lyrical about some of his buildings.
The earliest were so good, we were told, because Foster was never satisfied. The Reichstag, originally a much grander project before reunification costs forced a scaling down, would have been one of the world’s greatest buildings if it had been built to the original spec…. although the scaled down version is still magical. Duds include the National Sea Life Centre in Birmingham which shows the pitfalls of slackening off on the checks and balances when running a massive architectural firm….
Other interesting snippets:
Before he built the Hongkong and Shanghai bank headquarters, Foster has never built anything anything above four storeys.
Foster’s first practise – with Richard Rogers – was called Team 4 because apparently both men were against the cult of personality. How things change…..