Norman Foster Interview: Striving for Simplicity

Norman Foster Interview: Striving for Simplicity

I've been tremendously fortunate in all kinds of ways architectural II my family but I'm always really looking forward so I find it difficult to kind of stop pause and take stock other than to realize that I've been given many opportunities you I think as a child I'd always been interested in buildings I had always been interested in things locomotives I would stand for hours waiting for a locomotive to pass and there were special locomotives with name plates and they were just goods trains and you waited patiently for the really special ones and cars who always had a an attraction and and artist when I was a child in Manchester I was aware of of Lowrey for example so whether its weekly magazines like eagle with cutaway drawings which reveal the inner workings of the all all the things that move and and have a dynamic so perhaps all the things that excited the Italian futurists at the beginning of the of the century and which in many ways have also inspired other architects the Corbusier for example had a romance with with flying machines and devoted a book to it and it was one of his books that I discovered in my local lending library that towards a new architecture but it was the juxtaposition of classical architecture with fast hydroplanes and so so as a child I was I mean I remember sketching and I remember being enthused and excited by these machines and and speed we had an early love for books I read as well what did you find in books which you did not find around the books were really of another more glamorous world I mentioned towards a new architecture but it could be in the nature of materials Henry Russell Hitchcock or later it could be 1950s copies of the architectural review showing the landscapes of Birla Marx in South America Niemeyer and and works in Scandinavia at the time so so running through this even though my workplace was far removed from the world of architecture in Manchester Town Hall because I left school at 16 and then I did national service for two years so really running as a thread through all of these different things was my own private world of sketching dreaming enthusing being excited by all the things outside my workplace so if you can imagine that discovering the possibility of being an architect studying to be an architect discovering a school of architecture an architect studio that was no longer work work was something that you went to to earn money to pay into the family so so in that sense to be able to discover that the things that excited me the one could do those I mean I would pay to do it and I did literally pay to do it last question on childhood because in some biographies we all I played a lot of football did a lot of sports in my with you I don't know but I got the feel that you always kind of were searching looking into different worlds already was it because those worlds were so interesting or were you escaping the actual world around and I never thought of it at the time of escaping the world around me I mean the world around me was a kind of industrial suburb of Manchester and and so if I would go off on my bicycle into the countryside to discover the countryside and and traditional buildings interestingly although I probably wouldn't have been articulate on that at the time so there's a degree of perhaps post rationalization there but I was in all kinds of ways an outsider I mean I never got into team sports and and so the whole sports thing which fascinates me I mean I love cross-country skiing for the last I don't know 20 odd years I've been doing annually a cross-country ski marathon with 11 or 12,000 other people and I do a kind of marathon bike ride with a group of friends and that's incredibly social but apart from that most of my cycling is a kind of solitary thing and I find that also quite therapeutic I mean it's a zen-like thing the relationship between myself the Machine whether it's the skis whether it's a cycle and I also use that time to be to be thinking to be cross-examining so in one sense it's a release in another sense it's a change of place but it's also a kind of inner discovery when I really find time because a lot of my time is with teens with groups going to building sites and engaging with really interesting people who who have the need of a building and I find that that dialogue absolutely central to to the design process you I started flying with sailplanes high-performance sailplanes which is solar flight I mean you fly vast distances at high speeds with no with no engine I mean pure solar driven by nature and and I've gone on to pilot many different kinds of craft flying machines helicopters micro lights fast yet and about 75 different types for me there are very I wouldn't say it's seamless but there are very very close links between our painting sculpture architecture design aircraft automobiles locomotives it's that's a seamless world perhaps over time I've become much more I've realized the important links between individual buildings and infrastructure the infrastructure of public spaces of connections of Transportation bridges terminals the the kind of all the sort of urban glue that binds together the individual buildings that's not to say I'm still not passionate about architecture obviously I'm totally driven by it but the bigger picture is arguably even more more important the master plan the concept I mean your journey here from Denmark will be your memory will be the route the journeys the path that you took from your home the way back the street the connections the terminal the airport that will be and and that determines the quality of life in the same way that the individual building determines that oh it's a huge influence in there I get your point but in this let's say complexity of infrastructure of traveling still meeting your building's you meet a kind of simplicity and I mean that in the positive sense of the world yeah and simplicity strikes me when we're flying for example this kind of weightlessness yeah it's very complicated flying but at the same time it's very simple yes it's it it is that essence of light lightness and that I think in spirit touches a lot of the buildings I think probably the best buildings that we've done are those which have those qualities but when I was talking about infrastructure I suppose I was saying that that as a designer I feel that that we've gone beyond architecture and the interest in infrastructure has influenced the architecture of the individual buildings so if I took you around each of these models I talked about the public space on top of the Reichstag they never asked for public space it was never part of the concept there their brief there was a model of the viaduct where you've seen to fly through the sky you're literally in the clouds and if we look at the individual towers here you'll find that the public domain the public space penetrates those buildings there's an interaction so that interest in the city and infrastructure manifests itself in designs which go beyond the architecture and which influence when it is pure architecture influences the architecture you it probably has a dominant theme it probably has a dominant story but the building will embody several different stories there'll be the story perhaps of how it's made there'll be the story of how it might reinterpret a how can I say if you if if you think about a tower or you think about a conventional airport it may reexamine that building type and come up with something which is different but different not just for the sake of being different but different for a good reason so if you take a tower conventionally has a central core when we question that on the building immediately behind me the Hong Kong bank there were very good reasons for rejecting that model even though if you analyze pretty well every tower on the planet it would have a central core so we broke with that tradition we reinvented the tower by fragmenting the core putting it on the end again you can see it so you have free space so you can see from one side to the other it's not blocked and it's flexible so you could put even a dealer's room which would be unthinkable in a tower and that's exactly what they did many years later or you could consider an airport like Stansted which again questioned the conventional idea of a terminal which was that it was a sandwich of space and the roof had a lot of ducks with their handling plant on the top which cooled the air lots of electric lighting then because you've got no natural light so you've got the heat load of the light very energy consuming and not very nice I mean claustrophobic which is why airports had such a bad name when we reconsidered that and put all the air handling at the bottom underneath so that you could open the top to natural light and sun bite so for most of the time you didn't need electric light you suddenly had something that was joyful that would uplift the spirits and suddenly becomes popular with the most important people who were the paying customers it's also energy efficient now I can if I describe that I'm describing several different stories and telling you one about energy consumption I'm telling you one about joy I'm telling you one about how you build a building and I'm telling you another about how you question and challenge looking at your buildings you find some elements that come again in a game like you have talked about light already a certain lightness as well transparents sometimes that's almost spiritual I mean I think that the task of the Reichstag was in a way lifting the burden of history and and Christo and Jean Claude's wrapping was symbolically very important in that process so it was philosophically confronting history keeping the graffiti the civic vandalism the marks of the Mason these attacks by bullets and shells but somehow transforming that lightning it and involving the public and the politicians are answerable to the public so in a way creating the public space at the top and the ability to have a coffee terrorist meal but at the time I mean that now is hugely popular I mean the queue is just go on forever everybody wants to go there but at the time it was very contentious mean politicians were saying as a group why would anybody want to go onto the roof and if they got there why would they want to stay and have a coffee and then of course it's not big enough because so many people want to go there so that turns into another question why didn't you make it bigger you you am I wrong thinking that with every project that you do despite of the complexity of it you want to end up with a simplicity that contains the complexity I think it's a search for it it's a search for legibility it's a search for a simple analog experience in a digital world so a building type like an airport is unbelievably complex in terms of what happens behind the scenes there are so many different interests the movement of baggage security all the things that you don't see so how do you somehow through a complex process distill it down it's a bit like somebody saying I can write you an essay I can write you a long letter but to write a poem that's that's a tough one so how do you distill all that complexity down so that for the people who really matter you make it as great an experience as you can and in some ways these buildings at an epic scale Beijing the largest in the world at the moment how do you it's actually a compact building when you think about it and if you take the Apple headquarters which is a very large circular building with a great green heart set in a huge park everybody's reaction quite reasonably is I mean it's a huge building but what you're not seeing is what would normally happen for a campus a campus would be could be up to 30 buildings and then all the movement between that the like Beijing Airport Beijing Airport in other cities where the airports have grown up over time on a whole series of separate buildings and then the movement between there is buildings and the baggage between those buildings it's not much fun so if you if it's Apple what do you prefer to walk between on asphalt through cars from one building on one side of the site to the other or to be able to jog cycle walk in a great park and have proximity to your colleagues because you're trying to create a family entity albeit a very very large building for a very large family would you rather move under one roof like an artificial sky or would you rather go from one terminal through a maze of roads jungle of cars lorries trucks I mean it's a so and obviously it's human nature we're all interested in the tallest the longest the biggest but for every one of those I mean next week for example we're doing the groundbreaking for a small building in Manchester and that's a Maggie's Cancer Centre and its really a big house and and they're learning a lot from my time long past but which I continue to revisit learning a lot from Scandinavia in terms of something which is of this time modern but warmth and domestic and at one with the landscaping I mean a great tradition and I remember as a student seeing work of architects who were not named architects outside of Denmark like Kai fisca and and I think if you see that building you'll understand what saying it's translated in a way which is different yes I mean people have said well it looks like an aircraft wing the timber structure or it looks as if you're influenced by proven well of course I am but it is an essay in homeliness because if you've been diagnosed with cancer you want a reassuring environment if somebody is going to be counseling you and and flowers are are important if you go to a hospital always find fresh flowers you bring flowers to a patient so that's an integral part of the building the greenhouse so the flowers are produced within the same structure same structure grows through but there's more glass around a part of it so it it creates a little hothouse for but that's another story you see you once said that architecture is about values as well what does this I think that architecture is about integrity is about human values is about respect for those and maybe difficult to articulate but when when a building resonates in a certain way it may have an integrity of structure it may have an integrity of form I think the hospital is a very good example I mean again it is like an airport hugely complex and that can produce a very complex building so it then is taken for granted that the hospital experience is a complex and perhaps inevitably frightening experience in the way that the airport used to be a fright experience but it doesn't need to be that I'm absolutely sure of and I say that as a past patient having spent time in hospitals and very grateful that I've emerged to continue life beyond that experience I think really in every aspect of life in every walk of life you need the balance between a certain degree of respect and humility and to do what you do for me to do what I do as an architect a degree of of self-confidence because you are leading a team you're expected to UM and that's why I said earlier that I think one aspect of the architects task is to be a good listener and-and-and to hear the many voices that the needs that that building will will answer and and also to respect the process of making the nobility of making that's not fashionable but and and in that sense quality is an attitude of mind it's not how much money you spend on a building you've got you've got really three resources you've got money you've got time and you've got creative energy and it's the creative energy it's the attitude of how you use those resources as wisely as possible and some of the great buildings in the world have been achieved when in the face of economic hardship some of the best buildings in the world a kind of overnight miracles they've been created very quickly some of the worst buildings in the world have had money thrown at them and they're awful you you're turning 80 in some weeks and you're very lively you have been through a period where you've been sick but we all know that there will probably not be 80 years left so what remains mr. foster I I continue to do what I do I'm fired I'm passionate about designing I know that for the privilege of designing you also pay the price for having to do quite a lot of other things which don't necessarily come so naturally and don't give you the same degree of pleasure but they kind of come with the with the task I suppose that if if there was the opportunity to I think that buckminster fuller's analogy of the trim tab the little tab on the big control surface which equalizes the forces and enables the bigger elements to move because of the small kind of catalyst effect then it would be great if if we could address some of those bigger issues design as a tool to address shelter in the big picture I mentioned the the project for der RV and there the proposition was that you might be able to recycle to add the basic services which don't exist like sanitation power water but you could respect the urban structure which had grown up no settlements because they're quite of course they have their darker side but you have to remember that people have come they've congregated in these areas because they offer greater hope greater prosperity from the challenge of how you transform settlements like that which relate to a huge percentage of the world's population and I believe that there are alternatives more human alternatives more subtle alternatives to getting the big bulldozers you know raising it to the ground and then transporting those communities into into other modern buildings so I think that the answer to your short question which was rather long answer would be that we've built airports we're still excited by those challenges we built towers were excited by that we're doing a lot of small community buildings excited by that but the bigger issues are not really addressed by by architects and that's we're talking about billions of people and those are the people who need power they need clean water and how do you achieve that so those to be able in some small way to make a contribution in that direction that I think would be very satisfied and their density is quite an important factor isn't it well the city is about density so it's and it's about concentration and and there are certain lessons again from history George in London with row houses walk-up for five storeys maximum around gardens which were semi public so public spaces like parks dense communities high-rise as appropriate but not lost in a sea of neglected space but part of a weapon in a wider armory if you like but that's coming back to the bigger picture and that's where our conversation really started which was the importance of infrastructure do you think technology in the end is an ally or a threat to our society technology can never be a threat I mean technology as a means so the history of architecture the history of humanity coming out of the cave into a dwelling is a story of technology of innovation the high tech buildings of the past the cathedrals the amiracle 's of technology well of course any technology you can turn from violent aggressive you can turn into something which is violent and aggressive but that's probably true of anything you can use medicine to cure you can use medicine to poison you can as Bucky put it you can convert the killing machine into the living machine and and that was some of the endeavors after after the war to harness but that's also true of all of space travel and space exploration so so it's really it's how you use the technology but you come you can't move forward you can't answer the needs we can't be protected in here when it's raining or snowing or cool in here when we open the windows and it's baking hot out that's a technological response and the technology is changing all the time so the challenge is to turn it to our advantage looking out of the window I see sculptures I see art it's an integral part of our lives as a family as individuals it's completely woven in in the same way that those inspirations influences subconscious perhaps subliminal but they're there we're all a victim of of influences or victim is the wrong word we're we're all products if you like of influences and what could can you / belies what art does to you and your practices archetype in your life why is it important I think it's an other way of looking at forms of life I think that it opens you to see new possibilities to make connections it makes you it heightens your sense of of awareness it's another dimension and again there are certain artifacts there are certain cars you can see the curve of the back and there's a sort of sensuous quality to that that for me is is art I was looking at an exhibition of locomotives each one must have been lovingly created and everything works it's miniaturized series I mean just I mean labors of love and for me those are pure the sailplane is as beautiful as the Brancusi the Brancusi and the bocce oni the figure flowing in space those are inseparable from the best cars of the period the Chrysler airflow is inseparable from the Chrysler Building of Van Alen the streamlined forms of the Burlington Zephyr and the 10,000 in the 30s which heralded a new high performance again lighter form of locomotion those are inseparable from the these incredible works by artists around 1913 so the kind of magic years but there's all of these things they're timeless they go beyond the style of a certain time they're their classics last question my son is 70 years old and he's quite interested in architecture and books and I imagine him a little bit like you as a young boy he kind of looks at books and he's totally away so if he decided to study architecture and he in his study would fall about a book you as an architect Alan Foster what would you like a boy like him to remember you as an architect in 20 30 40 years time I'd like to feel the from conversations like this or perhaps film books buildings that that he becomes aware that by questioning and by challenging and by having a degree of determination and conviction and enthusiasm and passion that you really can make a difference to the world and the everyday world that we all live in and that that can make a difference and that he could in turn along with his colleagues make a difference in the future but if he would be looking at a book by you like you looked at the books oblique Oh what do you think will fascinate him about you and your architecture I think it it might be the way that we have rethought redesigned reinvented the otherwise conventional what was considered to be a traditional way of doing something and that we done that by going back to roots going back to basics and questioning from first principles so what would be fantastic for your son is that if he was able to do that and be able to tear up what we've done and do something which we discovered another better way of doing it you you you

49 thoughts on “Norman Foster Interview: Striving for Simplicity

  1. He was a boy in Manchester during World War 2? DIdnt Manchester get bombed? What would be the impact or effect would that have? Kind of ignoring the elephant in the room. That would be interesting to hear.

  2. What a brilliant and emancipating mind of our time. Such a lateral and dynamic thinker and gentleman to boot. Thank you for the beauty and the space in it that you create!💞

  3. you just got to look closer at the partheron shown on pbs throws all this into the mix of the creation of shapes

  4. A pretentious architect who was lucky enough to get the right opportunities. There are numerous talents far greater and broader than his. He has zero philosophy – the simplicity of the machine – my ass! He should try a cave or a treehouse and stop talking garbage.

  5. I love this! thank you for this video! I am just starting my own series called "what architecture school does not teach you'. Its a collection of lessons, insights and stories from my own (architecture) life! Feel free to check it out, subscribe, like or comment! 🙂

  6. This is most intriguing. That man was awesome. Rest in Peace Norman Foster. May you influence many people and encourage even more.

  7. I realised today that a lot of building that I could see myself living in it were thought, and designed by this man…

  8. Finest Mind Sir. Norman Foster, can only strive to raise the Bar its an Honor Sir, brilliant brilliant mind in architecture

  9. Hello, this is a new site for architecture enthusiasts. We will be uploading pictures of buildings and their information.

  10. boring interviewer…the architecture Foster is passionate about his work and there needed to be follow up questions that were NOT on the questioners script…oh well…

  11. El aeropuerto de Mexico me parece una obra de arte . Me parece que han respetado la manera de construirlo con una sensibilidad y respeto digna de Foster y su equipo . Gracias señor foster , Me llega a lo mas profundo de mi sensibilidad .

  12. And that music! Just two note pairs… it kept coming back in my mind days later and had no idea where I heard it until I watched this again

  13. He's 82! He's so alert and healthy for such an old age. May you keep healthy, and well Norman! I love your design for Two World Trade Center!

  14. Mies van der Rohe strived for simplicity …. Foster strives for fame. Striving for simplicity has proven to be … boring. Striving for fame has proven to be … egotistical. (see Donnie Trump). Find a better goal. How about striving to give happiness or striving to give safety, etc. Find something IMPORTANT to others.

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