The Inner Life of Systems | The Plan
  1. Home
  2. Magazine 2024
  3. The Plan 153
  4. The Inner Life of Systems

The Inner Life of Systems

Philip Jodidio: a conversation with Lord Norman Foster

Norman Foster

The Inner Life of Systems
By Philip Jodidio -

At the age of 88, Norman Foster, Baron Foster of Thames Bank, is still the Executive Chairman of the London practice that bears his name. Foster + Partners, with its 1,800 employees is surely one of the largest and most successful creative architectural practices in the world. Winner of the RIBA Gold Medal (1983); AIA Gold Medal (1994); Carlsberg Architectural Prize (1998); Pritzker Architecture Prize (1999); and the Praemium Imperiale (2002), he has in many ways changed the face of architecture. In this conversation with Philip Jodidio, he sketches the links between his own past, his intuitive curiosity, his ability to listen, and his success as an architect, in a uniquely personal way. 

La dinamica interna ai sistemi Masdar Institute, Foster + Partners, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 2015 © Nigel Young

Philip Jodidio (PJ): Did your father’s course in life influence your interest in architecture or engineering?Norman Foster (NF): I do not think so. When I was very young, my father was a pawn shop manager, and then through the circumstances of illness, he eventually became a manual worker. But there is no engineering tradition as such in the family. My father was, however, artistic by nature. I mean that in his later retirement he would paint with oil paints. Although I never heard him play the violin, I was aware that he had played it in the past, which must have been, essentially, self-taught. There is no university background in my family. I was the first to go to university. At home, there were no books lying around. There was the evening newspaper, the Manchester Evening News.

PJ: How did you come to your early interest in understanding how things work? 
NF:
Maybe as a precocious single child, an only child…

La dinamica interna ai sistemi Masdar Institute, Foster + Partners, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, 2015 © Nigel Young

PJ: Daydreaming?
NF:
Perhaps. Art was one of my O Level subjects. And art did extend to the history of architecture. I remember I had a book until recently, somehow it disappeared, sadly. But it was from the school library, and it was on the history of architecture with an emphasis on explaining modern architecture by Frederick Gibberd (The Architecture of England from Norman Times to the Present Day, 1938). He was a noted architect of the 1950s and 1960s. 

PJ: You seem to draw constantly. You do it on a big scale, you do it on a small scale, you do it for tiny details and for big buildings. Your interest in drawing is something that comes from your early education, is it not? Today, most architects do not draw like you do. Where does that come from? Why do you want a sketch?
NF:
I do not precisely know. Art was certainly one of my better subjects at school, but there was not an over emphasis. I never attended life drawing classes, much as I think I would have benefited from them if I had, it is just that they did not exist, they were not there. So, I never went through any discipline of drawing, and I must guess it is one of those things that is innate. I remember that during the two years that I spent from 16 to 18 employed in Manchester Town Hall, I found the work there intensely boring.
I was in the cashier’s department, and I became completely obsessed with drawing something. I cannot remember what it was, but it certainly covered whole sheets of paper.

PJ: You drew to pass the time?
NF:
And well, I suddenly realized that the head of the department was standing, looking over my shoulder. At that time, it was probably closer to doodling. There was not anything resembling a young architect’s portfolio. Probably at the age of 21, I rediscovered drawing. When I do look back and see the first drawings I did in the architecture course in the first year at Manchester University with pencil and watercolor, I think that I fairly rapidly started to teach myself about the effects of different mediums. Sometimes successfully, sometimes disastrously. I think it is perhaps that one has a natural affinity for it. And when that is fueled by a passion for design or architecture… it quickens the pulse in some way. I remember that somebody who was quite influential was Hugh Casson (1910-99). I had always admired his renderings and sketches, and that led me to work one summer vacation in his office in London. And he described, I think, sketching as like humming, and I thought that was a good analogy. I came out of a Manchester background, which was essentially low-rise buildings with an emphasis on traditional building technology. And I was quite well versed in that, unusually, because Manchester University was more technically orientated. It was a cross between traditional construction and the Beaux-Arts tradition of dropped watercolor washes and measured drawings, unlike more progressive schools like the Regent Street Polytechnic and the Architectural Association in London, which were much more theoretically design-based, but not linked into construction.

La dinamica interna ai sistemi Manchester town hall, Alfred Waterhouse, UK, 1877, contemporary interior photo © Aaron Hargreaves

PJ: Quite early in your life and in your drawings, you had an interest in rural architecture.
NF:
I have always had an interest in the so-called vernacular, what Bernard Rudofsky, the author of Architecture without Architects (1964) would later discover. And I think that that interest has persisted. If you look environmentally at the Masdar Institute (Abu Dhabi, UAE, 2007-10), the big lessons really came from traditional Arab desert dwellings in terms of the orientation, the thermal mass, the layering, the use of landscape shade. So, the interest in vernacular architecture is not just stylistic or cosmetic. And again, at the risk of some personalization, my early measured drawings use three-dimensional cutaways to show in a barn how the structure works or the inner workings of a windmill, which go beyond what was asked by the school. In other words, the school wanted measured drawings, and in a way, it was almost a heresy to measure something that was not Georgian. But if you measured Georgian architecture, it was strictly elevations, sections, and plans. And no worse for that, I mean a fantastic discipline, it is just that I did not choose Georgian architecture.

La dinamica interna ai sistemi Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters, Foster + Partners, Hong Kong, 1986 © Ian Lambot

PJ: Were you more interested in how a building worked or in how buildings looked?
NF:
Well, both really, in other words, as concerned in parallel, by both. And in a way, knowing how it works informs you about how it looks. And so, it is penetrating the façades. I think there are fairly consistent themes that weave their way over time. Yes. In that idea of how it works, there is a structural approach as opposed to, as you say, a cosmetic one, which I think often has been the case in modern architecture where the cosmetics of the surface take priority. The post-modern period is the most flagrant example perhaps, but in that case, the cosmetics of the exterior have little to do with the inner workings. And from the outset, you were interested in how things work, how they are made, and in what they are made of.

PJ: How did you come to feel that architecture should be developed as a whole, working with engineers and cost analysts from the very beginning of a project?
NF:
I think it came in part from the Yale School of Architecture. We were given a tall office building as a design assignment. And I think that everybody in the class proposed what you could get from any textbook, which was a typical tall building with a central core, active circulation services, and a perimeter. And so, I approached my professor, who was the architect Paul Rudolph (1918-97) and said, “I would like to work with an engineer. I would like an engineer who has worked on towers so I can understand the forces behind a tall building”. This was counter to Rudolph’s own philosophy in terms of the role of the architect, which was very much that you designed a building, and the engineer was somebody down the line. You gave the drawings to the engineer, and essentially, he made it stand up. You might say that he was in a servant capacity. My idea of consulting an engineer was anathema to Rudolph. But nonetheless, to his credit as an educator, he accepted. One of his strengths as an educator was in fact that he would bring in as external critics, architects who were not necessarily sympathetic to his own architecture. And I think that was a measure of his self-confidence, although he was innately and extremely shy as a person. Anyway, he found an engineer, and I worked with him literally alongside at the drawing board. And the outcome of that was a building, which as we know from Rob Stern (former Dean of the Yale School of Architecture), it eliminated the central core and was in many ways the genesis of the later Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation Headquarters, Hong Kong, 1981-86). 

PJ: What influence did your experience at Yale have on your approach when you began your work in London in 1963?
NF:
The Yale experience probably explains why the first partner at Foster Associates in 1967 after my late wife, Wendy, and myself, was Loren Butt, who was a building services engineer. Another structural engineer, Tony Hunt, was put into a position of advancing ideas, part of a brainstorming process. And this had never happened to Tony, probably never happened to any engineer. They were an essential part of the design team. The misunderstanding is that this was design by committee, it was not. Surprisingly, the architect makes the final decisions, but they are based on a wider palette and an understanding of the interaction between the different elements.

La dinamica interna ai sistemi Hongkong and Shanghai Bank headquarters, Foster + Partners, Hong Kong, 1986 © Ian Lambot

PJ: Is your architecture not characterized by what might be called a systems (or systemic) approach?
NF:
This I think is where Frédéric Migayrou, head of the Architecture Department at the Centre Pompidou who curated my recent exhibition there, was quite perceptive when he said of my approach in 2023: “This is in a way a manifestation of trans-disciplinary systems theory. It is the architectural manifestation of thinking during that period in the 1950s and 1960s”. There may well be a degree of post-rationalization in this analysis, but of course, yes, I was influenced by those ideas. The idea is that a building is formed from an interaction of individual systems, and that in integrating those systems if you changed one of them, if you changed the nature of the cladding or the shape of the building, it would have a knock-on effect on the others. Perhaps this later discovery is like the Gaia Hypothesis of James Lovelock (1972) in terms of the ecology of the planet, which is an interaction between different systems. If you change one, it will impact and have a knock-on effect on the others.

PJ: Were you influenced by systems theory in a direct way?
NF:
I think it was a natural approach. If it is true that I was touched by some of the writings, it would be total fiction to say that while I was reading, I thought, “Aha, that would be an interesting approach to architecture”. The turning point was Reliance Controls (Swindon, UK, 1965-66) and, in a way, the graphic device that I created for that in the form of the perspective cross-section, which is anatomical in the sense that it peels away the layers and shows the inner workings of now what is buried in the concrete, the heating pipes, the reinforcing bars, showing how the corrugations of a structural ceiling can work optically if you inset fluorescent light tubes.

PJ: Does this schematic portrayal of a system have a relation to the way you organized your offices, incorporating engineering and other expertise from the outset? 
NF:
So, as you bounce one idea around, you create a feedback loop. Of course, this is very much about what systems thinking is, when applied to other fields and not rooted in architecture. If you Google “systems thinking”, it is about the feedback loop. And what I have been describing to you as a design strategy is very much the simultaneous process of diving deep into the way in which a building is made, the way in which it will perform and work.

La dinamica interna ai sistemi Reliance Controls factory, Team 4 (composed of Su Brumwell, Wendy Cheesman, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers), Swindon, UK, 1966 © Norman Foster

PJ: You have found that the web of influences derived from the feedback loop also informs other studies such as your interest in urbanism.
NF:
So really, I cannot identify any influences for what I think is a different approach to how you design. Curiously, my recent work on the city has led me to Kent Larson, from the MIT Media Lab. He has written about the so-called “radar plot” where you have values in terms of mobility, walkability, and as you adjust one, it has a knock-on effect on the other. In other words, if you provide housing in a neighborhood so people can walk, you reduce the carbon footprint from the commuting by car, the space occupied by the car. If you think of the city as an integration of systems, systems of mobility, pedestrian circulation, heat emissions, waste, then you alter one, it has a knock-on effect on the other, which leads you to towards the idea of the circular economy converting waste to energy. The roots of systems thinking were certainly not architecture, but you can see the immediacy, the relevance, the importance of that thinking, whether it is for a building within a city or whether it is the city itself.

PJ: When you bring engineers, architects, and others around a table, you say that the architect ultimately decides. You say clearly that a Foster building is not a design by committee. But for this concept to work, the point is that the architect must listen, is it not?
NF:
Well, you listen, you decide. But that quality of being able to listen, it is something that I do not think is that common amongst architects, especially well-known ones. Once they have done something, they may repeat it without listening to what people are telling them. 

PJ: Where did you learn to listen?
NF:
Mike Bloomberg said to me, “I work with many architects, but you are the only architect that really listens”. In the more distant past, I had done this little building in the docks for Fred. Olsen (Fred. Olsen Operations Centre, London, UK, 1968-70). The people from Willis, Faber & Dumas (for whom I would later design the offices in Ipswich, UK, 1973-75) came to visit that project and Olsen told them: “The thing about Norman is he will ask you the right questions”, which is, I think, another way of listening. The architect must listen but also lead. And it is interesting that when that process really works, not always, but sometimes you unpick the evolution of the design. And the design might have a total single-minded quality, but it is very difficult to identify laterally, exactly who provoked what. I am also very wary of the term consensus. I think it is misleading because consensus often means the lowest common denominator.

PJ: Is it because you started out having to work so hard to become an architect that you developed this ability to listen and to learn?
NF:
I remember saying, “I am so in love with architecture, I will pay to do it”. And of course, that is exactly what I was doing in the formative years, notwithstanding the fact that obviously I could not have done it without incredibly supportive parents. At the 2017 launch of the Norman Foster Foundation in Madrid at the Royal Opera House, a student in the audience asked, “Mr. Foster, what advice would you give to a young graduate?” And I said, “Stay a student”. And in a way, I think quite aside from the whole architectural thing, just socially, the idea that somebody is entitled is one of the most irritating things in the world.

PJ: But that does happen a lot in architecture.
NF:
It does. And I think that it is very much the image of the architect. And in so many cases it is also the reality of the architect. There is a certain aloofness, an image of knowing better. We have also come across it with architects with whom we have collaborated. 

PJ: Can you give an example of how your ability to listen has changed a project?
NF:
The idea that you could show more than one design to a client as an answer to a project is outrageous to many architects. I mean, there is only one answer. And even when that is subjected to criticism, the response is usually not to adapt or to rethink. I remember with the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank project, there was an early design that was very much about chevrons, and it was also colored bright red. The Chairman, Mike Sandberg convened a board meeting where he invited new Chinese directors. And I remember presenting this chevron design. The Chairman and his board were absolutely delighted. But the new Chinese directors were in the corner, and they seemed less enthusiastic. After the meeting, Sandberg said that they were not happy with the design, and it had something to do with the points and with feng shui, but he said not to worry and simply to re-present the scheme. I used this as an opportunity to completely rethink the design. And we came back a month later with a new design with a different geometry and no points. Sandberg told me afterwards, “Well, Norman, I do not know much about architecture, but whatever you did was good news because I have got a unified board and it is the first meeting with the new directors and we are all excited”. And so, in a way, it was taking stock, in other words, without overly exaggerating. If I would have really felt there was a misunderstanding, then obviously representing the scheme would have been the right thing to do. But it was obvious that there had to be something there, even if you could not logically explain their negativity. And it was an opportunity to have another bite, to have another go, a fresh approach. I am not saying this approach is unique, but it is not mainstream architectural thinking, it is not the way most architects are brought up to think. They tend to be inflexible.

La dinamica interna ai sistemi Crossrail Place at Canary Wharf, mixed-use building with roof garden, Foster + Partners, London, UK, 2015  © Nigel Young

PJ: You say that you had an interest in art at the end of your secondary education. That interest has persisted and grown, has it not? Is art not often an important part of your projects?
NF:
Yes. I think that whether it is in my home, any home, the merging of the spaces with painting, sculpture, works of art creates for me, a more satisfying environment, more enjoyable, more human, warm, whatever the adjectives are. So, I think whether you end up with that or whether you start with it, it must tighten the bonds between the creation of those spaces and the work of an artist who has another perspective. The round table multidisciplinary idea is really about the sharing of values. Because unless the chemistry of that group is aligned to the extent, without stretching the idea of intimate relationships too far, the fact that they share the sense of values enables that group to work rather in the way a chamber orchestra would work. In other words, they share the same intrinsic values. Thus, if you are aligned with an artist or artists who share the same visual values, then it follows that working together is going to produce a better end result than if there was not that relationship at the beginning. And I think that explains why there seems to be an inevitability in so many of these interiors or exteriors where it is a sculpture in the landscape, or it is the color of a wall, or it is the imprint of mud in a work by Richard Long, or that the sum of those two parts is greater spiritually, visually, emotionally.

PJ: When you referred to your experience working in the cashier’s office of Manchester City Hall, I do not imagine that that had much to do with what can be described as business acumen in your career. You have gone forward and created larger and larger practices. These businesses have held up and prospered. There are other examples, who shall remain nameless, who just cannot make a business that works – architects who regularly go bankrupt. Is business acumen something also that came naturally to you?
NF:
I do not think that came easily or intuitively. What happened is that probably up to a certain size, my financial relationship to the practice was not one of... How can I say? Immersion. I would largely delegate that to other individuals who I later realized were not as able as I had assumed. I chaired one of our regular Tuesday meetings, and the person who was looking after that aspect of the office was Graham Phillips. He retired about 20 years ago. At this meeting, Graham said, “We have got a problem with the bank, they are querying our overdraft”. And so, I said something like, “Well, go to the bank and shake them up and say that we should extend it”. The following week, Graham was even more worried and said, “The bank is not happy”. That was a turning point. At that instant, I really sat up and it was the start of a parallel interest, perhaps born out of necessity rather than, how can I say, an intuitive interest. In other words, I have an intuitive interest in sketching but not in banking or finance. But the issues with the bank really got me engaged. And as a result of that, I said, “I really thought this out. The only reason we need an overdraft is because we are funding most of our clients”. “What do you mean?”, the group responded. And I replied, “Well, we get a project, but by then we have already invested a huge amount of time and energy. We get the project, we sign up, and then likely as not, we start working. We are engaging time and money, and we still have not been paid. And way down the line, perhaps three or six months into that process, we do get paid. That is why we need an overdraft. So, I have an idea, we get fees up front”. “What do you mean?” “Well, when we get a commission, obviously if we have been working with clients and they come back to us, then that is an existing relationship, we cannot change that. If it is a cultural institute, then maybe it is not applicable but if it is a developer for example, then why do we not make it a condition that when we get a project and we have invested time and money to get it, at that point, part of the deal of commissioning is that we will get whatever you call it, a startup fee, fees in advance”. So, everybody reacted with alarm and said, “You are mad. It will be a gift to the competition. No, we cannot do it”. And in effect, I more or less said, “This is what we are going to do. And if anybody does not like it, then well tough luck, but that is what we are doing”. Simply put, we went from overdraft to liquidity and a very healthy business, liquid money in the bank.

La dinamica interna ai sistemi Crossrail Place at Canary Wharf, mixed-use building with roof garden, Foster + Partners, London, UK, 2015  © Nigel Young

PJ: This awareness of issues related to business also led you to reorganize your practice Foster + Partners, did it not?
NF:
At that time, I spent days doing everything that I could on design. And then, I was up very late, redesigning the organization. And that redesign led to a degree of fallout, but there was an absolute conscious piece of designing the structure of an organization. So, it would structure an engineering group, an environmental group, and other disciplines around the idea of separate studios so that you could get the degree of personal service that you associate with a smaller unit. But that smaller unit would have the benefit of research-based add-ons, which would service all the studios. And that, of course, is really a more thought-through and structured version of that early around the table multidisciplinary team. It means that you have extraordinary skills in-house from visualization to engineering, to workplace, to film, but you also still have the ability to go outside and engage, so you do not ossify. I think, and I am not suggesting it is perfect, that that has gone a long way to enable the practice to grow, while somehow retaining the personal, the individualistic approach, and the ethos. You are not stuck in a groove, and you do continually rethink.

La dinamica interna ai sistemi JPMorgan Chase global headquarters at 270 Park Avenue, ongoing, New York City, USA The lobby

PJ: Dealing with certain clients has also formed your vision of the practice.
NF:
Yes. There is an awareness from the past that in the early days of the practice, the prime patrons – those people that you end up working for who are not just clients, but patrons in the sense that they see a bigger, more ambitious picture – were essential. And one is fortunate as an architect to engage with them because there is then a grander, shared vision. It does not mean largesse in terms of budgets, often quite the reverse, because people like the Olsen’s, the Sainsburys, Mike Bloomberg, or Steve Jobs, may end up financing ambitious projects, but at heart they tend to scrutinize everything, including people and funding, because they are business minded.

PJ: These clients, but also the very nature of your projects has led to a clear internationalization of the practice.
NF:
Long ago, for Fred. Olsen, we established a presence in Oslo, a small studio. We then did the same for the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank. But quite consciously, we came and went. And it was at one particular point in time we had what was called a Black Friday, where a major future project fell through on Canary Wharf in London. For the practice, the lifeline then was a competition for a project in Riyadh, which we won. There was a realization that if you are doing projects outside your home territory, you are as a consequence, sharper. International architects are sometimes criticized for taking shortcuts – they have a formula and they hand it over to a collaborator. The reality is that some of our best works are outside the UK. The Hongkong Bank, the airports, a relatively small project like Nîmes... I think that the idea of diversifying, and again, the idea of the six groups has proven its value. The typical business mentality would be to say you have got six groups, so you have one specializing in tall buildings, one specializing in stadia. Logically, you would structure the groups by building types or by geography. Quite honestly, it has always been quite a struggle to get people outside of architecture to understand why you would consciously structure so that any of those groups could be doing any kind of buildings anywhere in the world. You might have two studios with projects in New York and organically, if one studio has airport skills and the other wants to do a competition for an airport, the two can collaborate as one studio. For me, this is obvious. 

PJ: Do you feel that the organization you conceived somehow takes in fundamentals of the profession?
NF:
Architects are driven by passion, by emotion, by the challenge of design. If I am motivated by a design challenge and I just love the idea of doing something over there, this is an opportunity. So really this as a model is saying that it is about how as architects, we respond to challenges and therefore it is almost by definition counterintuitive. Again, that model continues to stand the test of time, in other words, the collective experience now over decades is you would never ever create a group to do stadiums, or create a group to do work in New York.

PJ: Some large firms still do precisely that.
NF:
Oh, I know they do. And that is what I am saying, that is the intuitive standard. So this is counterintuitive. It is about motivation; it is about challenge.

La dinamica interna ai sistemi JPMorgan Chase global headquarters at 270 Park Avenue, ongoing, New York City, USA © dbox

PJ: The way you describe the structure of Foster + Partners, it sounds a bit like a building. It feels like a grid. And the way you describe it is a bit like you put a building together, is it not?
NF:
Yes. All the systems that have to go into the building and to participate in making it whole. It is an application of the same thinking.

PJ: There is the question of scale. Did you really want your firm to be so big? But also as it grows, you say the architect decides, but then the architect still has to listen. How do you instill that idea of listening and of collaborating truly in an increasingly large group? 
NF:
Yes. I think the big picture is that there is a passing on of attitude and philosophy…

PJ: From you?
NF:
Yes. Through younger generations, that has proved successful. And there is no question but that we have attracted younger architects – some of the most brilliant graduates, literally in the world. It is mind boggling how many people apply and the percentage that we actually take, which is tiny because we get literally thousands of applications every year. I would say that student intake is essential, notwithstanding the fact that inevitably like a nation, the age goes up as some of us continue. But the average age in the practice is still in the early 30s.

Digital

Digital

5.49 €
Printed

Printed

15.00 €
Subscription

Subscription

From 42.00 €
Choose subscription
Keep up with the latest trends in the architecture and design world

© Maggioli SpA • THE PLAN • Via del Pratello 8 • 40122 Bologna, Italy • T +39 051 227634 • P. IVA 02066400405 • ISSN 2499-6602 • E-ISSN 2385-2054
ITC Avant Garde Gothic® is a trademark of Monotype ITC Inc. registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and which may be registered in certain other jurisdictions.