La Croix: The walls of the first room of your retrospective are entirely covered with project drawings. Is architecture first and foremost a graphic art?
Norman Foster : Architecture is of course three-dimensional and affects almost all the senses. It’s a visual, tactile, acoustic and even olfactory experience, like with the chapel I made for the Vatican at the Venice Biennale in 2018: jasmine wraps around the beams of the structure.
But a drawing is worth a thousand words and a model is worth a thousand drawings. I am of course very aware of the role of computers in the design of a building and in the modeling of the behaviors of its structure. But it is interesting to note that, in the very heart of the digital revolution, at Apple, its headquarters project was developed from large models, some of which were life-size! For a hospital in Philadelphia, we did the same by bringing in caregivers. Their comments made it possible to develop the building before its construction. The model is very important, even today.
It’s paradoxical, because your name is often synonymous with sophisticated, high-tech architecture. Are you wary of technology?
N. F. : No. In the history of human society and technology, the future has always been better than the past, no matter what the headlines say. People are living longer, living standards and education are better, although the poverty rate is still too high.
Societies in countries where energy consumption is greater are less violent, less warlike than in the past. Freedom is directly related to our energy consumption. We also have a carbon-free and safe energy: nuclear power. I posted the statistics of the number of deaths caused by this energy source: it is very low.
What about nuclear waste?
N. F. : They are controllable and do not cause deaths, while 10 million people die each year from carbon pollution. We must go from hysteria to facts!
The number of projects exhibited (130) is impressive. How do you handle all of this?
N. F. : For each project, it is necessary to define its priorities: it is better to do little good than all evil. It comes down to this somewhat clichéd expression that can be summed up in four letters: “KISS”, for “Keep it simple stupid!” (“Keep it simple, silly!”).
We perceive a lot of organic shapes (spheres, bubbles and even a pickle!) in your creations. Do you have an ideal form of architecture?
N. F. : I don’t believe there is an ideal form of architecture, other than the constant quest for a harmonious relationship with nature.
Architecture is the air that circulates between the walls?
N. F. : It is exactly that. And the sky is the ceiling.
The interior courtyard of the British Museum, bathed in light, is extraordinary. How do you feel so good in a place?
N. F. : There is something almost primitive about the connection with the sun and the light. I think it is also related to the history of the building. The first architect had laid out an inner courtyard which was then ruined. I highlighted the existing heritage, as I proposed to do for the Prado extension. Cities are renewing themselves and the hope is to see their noble parts reused.
How do we adapt to what already exists?
N. F. : This can only be done by learning from the past. In the Masdar project in Abu Dhabi, an experimental desert community powered entirely by solar energy, we were inspired by vernacular practices that create coolness: shade, water, evaporative cooling, colonnades…
Glass towers are highly criticized because they consume a lot of energy. And yours ?
N. F. : The tower we’re currently building in Manhattan uses low-carbon energy and draws in a lot of air from outside (70% of the time it’s warm outside, so there’s no need to refrigerate the air). It’s far more durable than the gas mileage of commuters driving around.
Do you think you have a political responsibility?
N. F. : In a way, yes. We worked on a plan to rebuild Kharkiv, a devastated city in Ukraine, in collaboration with several teams. We work in Odisha in India, to try to develop slums, rather than razing them without any alternative housing. Architecture can bring peace through gathering places in the city. The dome which we surmounted the Reichstag symbolically puts the people above the politicians who owe them accounts.
You have made few religious buildings. For what ?
N. F. : As an architect, we are open to invitations. You can’t say, “Hey, this morning, I’d love to do a cathedral!” But of course, I would like to build one.
You were ennobled in 1999. However, the new King Charles III has very definite ideas about modern architecture which he hardly appreciates.
N. F. : Yes, and by the way, I was able to respectfully say that I disagree with him and would be happy to discuss it.
Do you enjoy meeting the people who live in your buildings?
N. F. : During the opening of the exhibition, a person came to tell me: “I’m from Nîmes, and during the realization of your project, I hated it. I was wrong, it’s the best thing that’s happened to the city. Change that seems threatening at one time becomes positive over time. But there are undoubtedly exceptions…
June 1, 1935. Birth of Norman Foster in Manchester.
1963. After leaving school at 16 and studying architecture at Manchester and Yale, he founded the firm Team 4 with Richard Rogers, future architect of the Center Pompidou with Renzo Piano.
1964. The Cockpit, first architectural project.
1967. Founds his own agency after the dissolution of Team 4.
1991. London Stansted Airport.
1993. Nîmes Art Square.
1999. Renovation of the Reichstag, Berlin. Pritzker laureate, “Nobel Prize” for architecture.
2000. Courtyard of the British Museum, London.
2003. Redevelopment of Trafalgar Square.
2004. The Millau viaduct and the ‘Gherkin’ (giant pickle) tower in London.
2013. Redevelopment of the Old Port of Marseille.
2017. Ring-shaped Apple headquarters in California.
An exhibition that makes you dizzy
A whirlwind of magnificent drawings, a string of superb models, a glider and two cars, one of which is very curvaceous: there is enough to be dizzy in this abundant retrospective! Dense yet elegant, the scenography weaves parallels between sculptures by Brancusi, the towers by Foster and the bay windows of the Center Pompidou, another beacon of “high-tech” architecture. Never jargon, the cartels would however have gained from being more critical of the unbridled positivism of the British architect. Despite this, we come out of there saying to ourselves: “God Save Foster! »