Never has an architect been so associated with flight as Norman Foster. Here he talks about how he wants to return glamour to air travel, how the Boeing 747 is his favourite work of architecture and how he hopes to be one of Virgin Galactic's first tourists in space
Norman Foster has long been a flight enthusiast. As a boy he consumed the Eagle, a comic featuring Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. The Eagle's cutaway drawings of aircraft and spaceships – he says – inspired him to become an architect. If he hadn't, he would have been a commercial pilot. He served in the RAF and is qualified to fly his own private helicopter and jet. He has designed four international airports (Stansted, Chek Lap Kok in Hong Kong, Queen Alia in Jordan and Beijing), an air museum, plane interiors and a spaceport for Virgin Galactic that is nearing completion in the New Mexico desert.
Icon Your first serious design (aged seven) was for an aeroplane and as a boy you were obsessed with building model planes. Is it true you still have a large collection of these, and more?
NF I've always been interested in aircraft – for as long as I can remember. I used to draw them and I'd build models from balsa wood. I started out by powering these models with rubber bands and later experimented with miniature CO2 motors and then diesel engines.
I still enjoy making models, though I do it very rarely these days. Recently I realised that I'd flown 75 different kinds of aircraft, helicopters and sailplanes, and I decided to have models made of each one of them as a 75th birthday present to myself.
Icon You once said that you would have become a commercial pilot if you hadn't become an architect – why?
NF Flight for me is a developing passion – just like architecture. My log books detail more than 4,500 hours in the air. Every flight is an adventure in one sense, and the same is true of designing a building – there are many parallels. I am very lucky to have been able to enjoy doing both.
Icon You have cited the Boeing 747 jumbo jet as your favourite work of architecture.
NF Well, with about 3,000sq ft of floor space, which could be described as an airborne hotel, restaurants and cinemas, with 15 lavatories, three kitchens and a capacity for something like 360 guests, it has many analogies with buildings, even as it traverses the globe. There is much one can learn from it. In one sense you could say it is the ultimate technological building site. Today if you're building something you make pieces in a factory, bring them to the site and put them together which is exactly how this aircraft is made, a series of sub-assemblies that come together to make the total aircraft.
It is also inherently flexible. While the airframe has a design life of something like 30 years, the engines and avionics will be changed or upgraded many times during that period. The 747 first flew in 1969. We think of buildings as enduring, yet a lot of buildings from the 1960s are already coming down. The reason they're being demolished is that they cannot respond to change. This aircraft is very different. The engines can be unbolted easily and new ones fitted; there is a raised floor for access to cabling – the inspiration, incidentally, for the raised floor in the Hongkong Bank (1979-86). It has responded to change, even if a new generation of big jets are overtaking it.
Icon How did you hope to change the experience of flying with your Zen-like interiors for private jet provider NetJets?
NF After studying and working in the United States [as a graduate student at Yale] I flew in a Comet 4B from Los Angeles to Mexico City – a great experience. In the 1960s, with the Comet, flying was still something to be celebrated. It was such a beautiful aircraft to look at – even inside the cabin it transformed the whole experience of flying. There was space; it was comfortable; meals would be served with proper china and cutlery.
That was really the challenge of the NetJets commission – to make the experience special. I tried to create a cabin that would be comfortable, but also adaptable enough to allow the luxury of choice. My definition of comfort is to be quiet and undisturbed, but able to get whatever I need discreetly and without fuss. I think it's about catering for the extremes of community and privacy. Throughout the aircraft there's a lot of attention to detail. I had many conversations with crew and flight attendants and also those who maintain and look after the aircraft. We tried to ensure that it would work well for everyone.
Icon Your airports also try to return a lost glamour and grandeur to flying – what's wrong with most airports, and how did you hope to transform people's experience of flying with these buildings?
NF Most airports are depressingly more and more divorced from the experience of flying. One barely sees the aircraft and when eventually you are on board, it's time to be anaesthetised with drinks, food and movies – almost anything to pretend that you are doing something other than flying. Somewhere there is a missed opportunity. An airport should be a celebratory structure. It should combine a strong visual identity with a humanistic sense of clarity so that the experience of air travel is uplifting, secure, welcoming and efficient.
With Stansted Airport we tried to recapture the clarity of the very first airfields – when you would see your plane standing on the grass or the tarmac and would walk directly towards it – you were never in any doubt about where to go. I also wanted the experience of Stansted to be uplifting. I drew inspiration from the early airport buildings – such as Tempelhof – which celebrated the act of flying, just as the great railway stations of the 19th century celebrated the act of embarking on a train journey. In all these buildings there was a sense of generosity, of light and space. Stansted became an instant model for airport designers and planners worldwide.
Icon Can you talk about this in reference to Beijing airport?
NF Like the great railway stations, airports are also the contemporary equivalents of gateways – very often they represent your first experience of a city or country. In that sense, they have the potential to excite and inspire. That was very much our starting point with Beijing Airport. The building aims to communicate a unique sense of place. Its form, which has been likened by the critics to a dragon, also evokes traditional Chinese colours – imperial reds through to golden yellows.
Beijing builds on the model we established with Stansted and developed in Hong Kong at Chek Lap Kok. It is the largest and most advanced airport building in the world not only technologically, but also in terms of passenger experience, operational efficiency and sustainability. You can see the aircraft, you can orient yourself easily, and there is a celebration of space and light. It also works very efficiently. Public transport connections are fully integrated; walking distances for passengers are short, with few level changes; transfer times between flights are minimised; and it has the most advanced baggage-handling system in the world.
Icon Le Corbusier always included aircraft in his designs and famously said that "the airplane indicts the city ... The airplane instils, above all, a new conscience, the modern conscience. Cities, with their misery, must be torn down ... and fresh cities rebuilt." What was the influence of Le Corbusier's futurist vision on you?
NF I would draw a distinction between Le Corbusier the anti-city visionary, with the Plan Voisin for Paris, and Le Corbusier the philosopher/poet whom I find endlessly engaging. He really encouraged architects to look at problems in new ways and I think that's tremendously valuable. You have to remember that his generation, after those who ascended the Eiffel Tower, was really the first to be able to see the world from the air with the dynamic of motion. This heralded the futurists as well as the hugely influential streamline age.
Icon Do you consider what your buildings look like from above – what Alexander Rodchenko called the "top elevation" or "fifth facade"?
NF Absolutely. If you look at an early building such as Willis Faber, you see that the roof is literally a garden. In fact, you can trace that idea back even further to the house we did in Cornwall at Creek Vean. Our project for the BBC Radio Centre had a roofscape of garden terraces – an idea we realised in our office building at Spitalfields. The idea in this instance is to realise the amenity value of the roof. In other instances, where a garden is not possible, we have tried to free the roof of clutter – to design it as a true fifth elevation.
Icon Buckminster Fuller worked with the Beech Aircraft Company to create the Wichita House, he hoped his towers might be delivered by Zeppelin, and his Dymaxion car was influenced by flying machines, and he hoped it one day might fly – what was the influence of his aero-aesthetic on your work?
NF Bucky and I share a passion for aircraft and streamline design. Bucky was also a pilot, so he had a highly developed understanding of aerodynamics – whether that is making an aircraft or a car move more efficiently through the medium of air, or encouraging the natural flow of air through a building – as with the rooftop ventilator on the Wichita House. I am fascinated by the same things.
Icon Why did you want to rebuild Fuller's Dymaxion car?
NF First, it is really by way of homage to Bucky and an expression of my gratitude for his wisdom and many valued insights that have helped to shape my own career. Another reason was the siren-like appeal of the object, abstracted from its purpose. This car is so visually seductive that you want to own it, to be able to touch as well as contemplate the reality for its delight and beauty. The age of the Dymaxion Car and the related Dymaxion House project was also the Streamline Age, with which I also have a personal love affair. The Dymaxion was significantly faster than the typical Ford of the time, consumed half the fuel in terms of miles per gallon and was three times the volume so it could accommodate between two and three times the number of people. It was potentially a people carrier ahead of its time. Aside from that, its manoeuvrability was astounding – since driving it I can also vouch for that.
Icon Having been flown there by you in your Jet Ranger helicopter, Fuller famously asked you how much your Sainsbury Centre building weighed (it looks very light on the ground). Fuller fantasised about floating, airborne structures that defied gravity – do you think these Cloud Structures might one day be realised?
NF Bucky was much more than a fantasist – I think that definition does not do him justice. He was far ahead of his time in many ways – and often ahead of the technology of the day – but almost all his ideas were rooted in a profound understanding of logic, mathematics and physics – he was very much aware of the force of gravity. Of course, as a visionary he did from time to time make leaps of faith. But in retrospect his predictions have been vindicated by the passage of time. I predict that those cloud structures will eventually inhabit space beyond our own thin layer of atmosphere.
Icon In 1990 you visited Russia and went to the Star City cosmonaut training centre – what lessons did you learn from this for the Virgin Galactic space terminal and hangar?
NF Star City was a moving experience and a powerful introduction to the world of space travel. Likewise, my early travels to the NASA sites in America. Those created a lasting impression, which inevitably influences one's work as a designer.
Until recently, the Russian Space Agency was the only organisation to offer tourist flights into space; and only a handful of very carefully selected people were able to do it at huge expense. Virgin Galactic will transform that. It will bring space travel to a much wider market.
The Virgin spacecraft will seat six passengers and two pilots – like an executive jet. The planned flight trajectory will overlap the Earth's atmosphere at 70,000 feet, which means it will be a sub-orbital journey with a short period of weightlessness. The total flight time from liftoff of the booster aircraft that carries the spacecraft until touchdown will be approximately three-and-a-half hours. The sub-orbital flight itself will only be a small fraction of that time and you will experience weightlessness for something like six minutes.
Like our airport buildings, Spaceport has been designed to celebrate and enhance the experience of space travel for space tourists and their families. It has also been designed to be as discreet in its desert setting as possible. The low-lying form is dug into the earth to buffer the building from the extremes of the New Mexico climate and catch the westerly winds to drive a system of natural ventilation. It generates a highly efficient plan related to the dimensions of the spacecraft. As a visitor or space tourist you enter via a deep channel cut into the landscape. The retaining walls form an exhibition space that documents a history of space exploration alongside the story of the region and its settlers. The linear axis of the channel continues to the super hangar – which houses the spacecraft and the simulation room – through to the terminal building. Facing the runway there is a glazed facade so that you can watch the spacecraft arriving and departing.
Icon Will you be one of the first of Virgin's space tourists?
NF I very much hope so.
Nigel Young, Foster + Partners