Tag: Norman Foster

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

Chapel by Francesco Magnani and Traudy Pelzel, MAP Studio, Vatican Pavilions, Venice Biennale, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

Vatican Pavilions on the Island of San Giorgio, Venice Biennale

Scattered across the lagoon-facing parkland behind the great Santa Maria Maggiore church, you will find eleven temporary pavilions commissioned by the Vatican. The pavilions have been designed by renown international architects, including Norman Foster, Smiljan Radic, Edouardo Souto de Mora and Terunobu Fujimori. It is a rare collection of contemporary sacred architecture and the first time Vatican takes part in the Venice Biennale.

Chapel by Flores Prats, Venice Biennale 2018, Vatican Pavilions, photo © Marianna Wahlsten
Details from chapel by Spanish architects Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats, photo © Marianna Wahlsten


Chapel by Flores Prats, Venice Biennale 2018, Vatican Pavilions, photo © Marianna Wahlsten
Open space inspired by constructivism, chapel by Ricardo Flores and Eva Prats, photo © Marianna Wahlsten

The Skogskapellet by Gunnar Asplund was the guiding reference, that architectural historian Francesco Dal Co gave to the eleven invited architects. They have all imagined a small, spiritual space within a forest-like environment, the structure connecting to the site. Away from the tourist crowds of Venice, the whole area indeed is a beautiful place for quiet contemplation, as well as an opportunity to witness some exquisite designs. The concept of the pavilions follows the Serpentine Summer Pavilions format.

Chapel by Smiljan Radic, Vatican pavilions, Venice Biennale, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten
Tapering cylindrical form with reinforced concrete, chapel by Chilean architect Smiljan Radic. photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

Vatican chapel by Norman Foster, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten
A complex tensile structure of struts and cables, chapel by Norman Foster, Venice Biennale 2018, photo ©Marianna Wahlsten

Apart from the size of the plot (seven by ten meters) given to each pavilion, the architects responded to the brief with a range of interpretations of religious iconography. Norman Foster used wooden struts engineered for an airy tent like space where three crosses form the central supporting system for the pavilion. Shrubs planted on the sides of the building will grow over the summer months to slowly transform the atmosphere of the space. Spanish architects Flores Prats and Chilean architect Smiljan Radic (who did the Serpentine Pavilion in 2014) provided spaces with more abstract religious symbolism.

Chapel by Terunobu Fujimori, photo © Marianna Wahlsten
Wooden chapel built with an old Japanese charring technique for improving the durability of cedar tree planks, by Terunobu Fujimori, photo © Marianna Wahlsten

Perhaps the most direct response to Asplund’s forest chapel is Terunobu Fujimori’s pavilion, which from the outside looks like a summer cabin of unusual, childlike proportions. Constructed directly on the ground, its sturdy structural beams form a cross inside in the same way as in Foster’s more open space.

These pavilions provide a great opportunity for observing details, materials and structures, as well as the larger historical and artistic dialogues in which they so clearly take part. The choice of architects presented in the Vatican’s exhibition area demonstrate a will to take part in contemporary cultural and artistic debates. The Vatican’s introductory participation is one of the highlights of this year’s Biennale. It also makes you think how sacred spaces must be hugely inspiring commissions for architects, perhaps anticipating also a new kind of spirituality needed for the planet.

La Biennale, Vatican Chapels