Norman Foster Speaks at Boston Book Festival

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Last Saturday I took a trip to the Boston Book Festival, where I was able to hear famed architect Norman Foster speak as he gave the festival’s Art, Architecture, and Design keynote. The main focus of his presentation was how design is influenced by the culture and technology of the times, especially in the last two centuries. He gave examples of industrialization in the 19th century leading to cheaper, more utilitarian furniture, fixtures, etc., and how a boom in new research and technology after the second world war led to a sleek, futuristic design philosophy. Of course, Foster was building up to discussing the style he is most familiar with: his own.

 

Flight, he explained, especially modern jet and supersonic flight, was the “technology” that influenced so many of his designs. Of course, it helps that some of Foster’s most famous designs are airports, including the world’s largest, Beijing, and Stansted London, in which he redefined the nature of an airport. His airports have simple, bright palettes and clear lines of sight (like in an airplane). The essence of flight can be seen in his other designs too, many of which have “soaring” roofs and forms and materials that convey an aerodynamic sleekness. While Foster advocates incorporating references to modern technology in his designs (his design for the world’s first commercial spaceport is in construction, and on his website one can find a concept for lunar housing), in his keynote he also described how he looks back at the work of other architects, particularly Buckminster Fuller’s geometrically stunning structures and some of Le Corbusier’s more expressive projects (like Notre Dame du Haut).

 

After the keynote, Foster gave a live interview to the curator of New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Paola Antonelli. In my opinion, this was more interesting than the keynote; Foster opened up more about the processes involved in his architecture. He made it clear that a great deal of work and effort was put into a project before a design was finalized, particularly in creating an articulate, constant design philosophy in the concept. He gave the example of the Millau Viaduct, his 2004 project that holds the record of the tallest bridge in the world. Foster detailed the many complexities of the design, including finding the balance between the project being anonymous or too imposing upon the villages below. Also, his team had to make the decision whether the bridge, which was built across a wide depression and narrow river, should be “over the river or across the valley”. They opted for the latter, designing the bridge with several equal spans across the valley and giving it a greater sense of size. In the interview, Foster also illustrated some of the research his team does. Once, in preparation for a major urban planning project, they analyzed a Mumbai slum to see how spontaneous semi-urban communities developed, as well as their benefits and shortcomings.

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An (unfortunately blurry) image of Foster and Antonelli

However, the part of the keynote and interview that grabbed my attention most was when Foster described his relationship with structural engineers. Traditionally, architects create designs independently, and it’s the engineer’s job to make sure those designs are structurally sound. This sometimes leads to issues, especially when the architects’ designs are unusual or counterintuitive (for instance, many of Frank Gehry’s convulsed structures have had structural problems). However, before even setting pen to paper (or plastic to baseboard- Foster’s team works extensively with physical models) Foster will consult a team of structural engineers to discuss what designs are possible within such constraints as the site, the budget, and general structural common sense. Foster said he takes great interest in the field of structural engineering, and believes the best buildings are syntheses of the contributions of architects, engineers, and patrons.

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The Millau Viaduct

Throughout the presentation, Foster was remarkably eloquent and his language was easily understandable- not in any way esoteric. The talk was enhanced by the fact that it took place in the Trinity Church, one of Boston’s most beautiful buildings and the masterpiece of Henry Hobson Richardson, America’s first great architect.

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