Norman Foster The appeal of London is the fact that it manages this balancing act between being a staging post for an international clientele, and being a creative breeding ground. It’s chock full of talent. The talent might be home grown or it might be attracted from other places, and in a way that’s one of the fantastic qualities of a company like ours. I suspect we attract people because we are doing what we are doing, but we are also in London, so that is a magnet as well.
London has its own unique DNA, it’s a very special place. It has, if you like, a kind of supra-identity, but then there are many identities under that overall umbrella – there are cities within the city. The boroughs are quite individualistic, and there are different attitudes from one part of London to another. So it’s a rich mix.
icon When did you first come to London?
nf I used to make regular trips here when I was a student at Manchester, so that’s a sort of starting point. I moved here directly from Yale in, I think, ’64. I taught at the Regent Street Polytechnic [now Westminster University] and the Architectural Association more or less immediately on returning from Yale in the early days of the practice. Our office was small, and the way of working was all there but the scale was smaller. We’re now in 22 countries with a base in London.
icon What was the atmosphere like then?
nf I suppose it was the same as now, but in microcosm. All the main ingredients were there,
it was just more of a sleepy hollow than it is now. But it was all latent here in the Sixties.
Now it’s just much more cosmopolitan, more international.
icon Who were your local heroes?
nf They were earlier generation mentors, like James Stirling, Leslie Martin and that generation that was behind the Festival of Britain . Much of that heritage has proved very enduring.
icon Were you galvanised by anything specific in London? The engineering heritage, perhaps?
nf No. I know that’s a very tempting shorthand. You can get wonderfully carried away with images of locomotives, the industrial revolution, the London bus, the anonymous black cab. You can weave that, and you can make a very romantic thing about the very Britishness of it. I love those stories, so in a way it’s fun to challenge it, question it, and for my own part reject it.
There are unbelievable engineers, and I’ve paid tribute to that in the past. I’d happily remind you of all the incredible individuals, but I have to say I’d go on and start to celebrate engineers from other places, from Germany, Austria. I think the idea of engineering as being that very British thing is a myth, notwithstanding the fact that there is enormous talent, like Mike Crook, Tony Hunt, Tony Fitzpatrick.
icon Is there a particular challenge to building in London? What about the medieval street pattern?
nf The medieval street pattern is not a problem – quite the reverse. The more difficult the constraints become physically, the more interesting they become as challenges: the most impossible circumstances tend to sharpen the creativity. There is this question of background buildings and foreground buildings, and I think that for a lot of challenges perhaps a sort of honourable infill is the appropriate solution. London is at its worst when project managers are substituted for clients and bureaucracy masquerades as democracy.
icon Where do you live?
nf On top of the office [in Battersea]. On the roof. It’s fantastic urban living. We have incredible views across London, eight floors up.
icon What’s your favourite part of the view?
nf I just like the quilt of London. I like looking across and seeing the way in which it reveals its DNA, the way in which it’s interspersed by greenery. You can see the Wembley arch in one direction and Centrepoint in another.
Over a period of 15 years, we’ve done something that seemed unthinkable in terms of opening up the river, redecorating it, bringing in a new kind of life there. It’s difficult to imagine that 15 years ago it was a dangerous old decaying industrial site.
icon How do you get about the city?
nf I suppose the enjoyable thing about London is its accessibility. We all grumble about congestion and so on but it’s not that difficult to traverse London. I do a lot of walking. I used to cycle quite a lot in London; I’m less inclined to now. I don’t think it’s an easy city at the moment to cycle in, although there’s been a sort of explosion in the number of people who use bikes.
If I’m going to a meeting I tend to move in and out as quickly as I can, but we like to encourage people to come to the office and be part of our working environment.