Tag: High tech architecture

The future according to Norman Foster, a retrospective at Centre Pompidou

Exhibition open until 7th of August –

Marianna Wahlsten – 

While planning the exhibition, chief curator Frédéric Migayrou worked very closely with Norman Foster, who was ultimately in charge of the over-arching concept. His meticulous attention to detail shows throughout. It’s the first ever show on the top floor galleries of the Pompidou Centre dedicated to architecture, which brings a special kind of aura to the contents on display. Exploring the most important projects and sources of inspiration, it’s a showcase for key ideas behind the Pritzker-prize-winning architect’s creative process.

Although Foster does not entirely approve of the concept ‘High Tech’ architecture in relation to his own approach, he is recognised as the leading architect of that movement. In the press conference I asked what is it that he disliked about the High Tech definition, and he explained that he mainly objects the stylistic association with glass and steel, and clearly wants to bring attention beyond that to other aspects in his large and hugely influential body of work. However, the formal language behind the buildings designed by Foster + Partners is a culmination of ideas and approaches that have been enabled by technological innovation, and the fascination towards the technological reality of objects. In Foster’s designs key principles of Modernism have been appropriated and translated in response to contemporary scientific developments and material innovations.

Chief curator Frédéric Migayrou and Norman Foster at press conference at Centre Pompidou, where the 88 years old architect was questioned about the ecological impact of his urban strategy. ©Marianna Walsten

If architecture exhibitions can sometimes seem dry and boring (as Jacques Herzog has famously commented), in this one the abundance of material and different juxtapositions of objects is enlightening.  Entering the first gallery we are immediately confronted with what lies at the heart of Foster’s creative method: drawing and sketching. The walls are covered by material retrieved from his enormous archive, showing a development in Foster’s research process spanning six decades. In the middle there is a long vitrine, containing over 200 spreads from his A-4 sketchbooks. Starting from 1975, observations and thoughts are recorded in these books, of which there are over 2000, according to Migayrou. The continuity of this material is impressive.

In the next gallery projects are represented through framed drawings and renderings, videos and architecture models, as well carefully constructed 3-D dioramas, which are rarely seen in architecture exhibitions. They certainly clarify meanings, adding a level of information to explain some of the formal connections for the general public. Some of the architecture models have been created especially for this exhibition. Through their scale and detailing, the development of Foster’s formal language can be observed and studied. 


A project from the 1970s of machine-like pavilions, designed to be set in a forest without disturbing the landscape, as explained through the diorama and sketches

Objects by artists and architects, who have inspired Foster over the years are scattered in the middle of the gallery amongs his own architectural works. Some of them are from Foster’s private collection, like the restored vintage automobile owned by Le Corbusier. Richard Buckmister Fuller’s Dymaxion car, and a stripped metal body of a Mercedez-Benz 300 SL model, are reminders of Foster’s obsession with dynamic technical systems and structures. Artworks by Umberto Boccioni, Constantin Brancusi and Ai Weiwei illustrate formal inspirations.


From Foster’s private collection, the vintage automobile, that once belonged to Le Corbusier, carefully restored, next to the Dymaxion car by Buckminster Fuller

There are seven main themes in the exhibition. The overarching idea is Foster’s belief that the climate crisis can be resolved through technological research. ‘Vertical Cities’ is one of the themes and a guiding idea of Foster’s urban strategy, where the high-rise building is seen as ‘one the best inventions of the modern era’. It’s an idea in line with Modernist principles, and which Foster believes is also the most ecological solution in dense urban environments. He believes that each crisis will generate new urban forms and thus make the city more resilient. “I’m not complacent. I share the concern about rising sea levels and global warming. We are pursuing strategies for renewable energy, and huge strides have been made”, Foster argues.

Foster’s ideological models are founded on, and still underpinned, by 1960’s optimism, the ‘big acceleration’ of technological revolution. As a young architect in the United States Foster worked on experimental projetcs at Buckminster Fuller’s office, which shaped the recent graduate’s thinking, as well as the Californian Case Study houses program, designed out of simple, inexpensive elements. Other influential figures in Foster’s early years were Louis Kahn, Christopher Alexander, and his teachers from Yale Paul Rudoplh and Serge Chermayeff.

As a culmination of Foster’s futuristic aspirations, the exhibition introduces some of the projects developed in collaboration with NASA, in which architecture moves to outer space. Designs for stations on the Moon and on Mars are part of an architectural strategy, demonstrating how Foster + Partners continues to look forward, always motivated by expanding what is possible technologically. In order to find ecological solutions, the starchitect strongly believes that technology will eventually save the planet.

Centre Pompidou