Foster + Partners’ Bruno Moser Talks 2067

In anticipation of Foster + Partners 50th-anniversary journalist and architecture critic Alexander Ostrogorsky talked to Bruno Moser, practice partner and head of its Urban Design team.

Bruno Moser / photo by Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute

Norman Foster founded his practice in 1967, and in 2017 Foster + Partners celebrates its 50th anniversary. Over the past half of a century the «ordinary guy from Manchester’s work class suburbs» became a Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate, was granted a title of a lord, created one of the largest global architecture companies and built a dozen and a half of most recognisable buildings in the world. In any case, his is the story cherished by the press and architectural society both. Foster accomplished something that so many can only dream of: built a successful business and remained a figure recognised by the public and respected by colleagues. His secret — Foster managed to turn radical and utopian ideas of the 1960s, futuristic projects envisioned by Buckminster Fuller and Archigram into real, tangible, profitable and fame-attracting iconic buildings.

Drawing inspiration from this 50-year-long story, Foster + Partner’s Urban Design Group head Bruno Moser during his lecture at HSE High School of Urbanism’s newly opened Shukhov Lab spoke of the milestones planned for the next 50 years, when the company will expand to Mars and the Moon. Strelka Magazine talked to Bruno about the architect’s role in building the future and whether thinking of the future is even that important after all.

1971-1975 Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters, Ipswich, England. An office center in Ipswich was one of the first large projects carried out by the Foster’s practice. Foster’s talent for using technology is reflected in the continuous glass façade: the building spreads through the entire lot, using the space with maximum efficiency. Escalators carry building employees from the first floor through the atrium to terrace and pool up top. Special glass, reflective during the day and semi-transparent at nighttime, was developed for this project. Ironically, the designed flexibility of the internal space can no longer be employed as the building has been listed and changes to it can no longer be made.
1979-1986, HSBC Main Building, Hong Kong. Foster, best known today as designer of large objects, had a hard time scoring a large-scale project in the UK. He received his first contract for designing a skyscraper in Hong Kong, where the intentions of the architect and his customer happened to coincide: HSBC wanted to make a global statement that the island was becoming a new global financial center. Although multiple considerations (including Feng shui) influenced the design, the completed building looked like a megamachine straight from the pages of Archigram. The skyscraper immediately became a hallmark of high-tech style.
1984-1993, Carré d’Art, Nîmes, France. The united museum, library, and cultural center in Nîmes was a product of culture decentralization program launched in France during the 1980s. Back then each city was receiving its own Centre Pompidou, and in Nîmes the new center of culture would inevitably compete with Maison Carrée, one of the most famous and best preserved temples of the Roman era. The Foster’s project was selected over other 11 contest participants, including Frank Gehry and Jean Nouvel — the age of star architects was already near.
1991-1997, Commerzbank Tower, Frankfurt, Germany. Permanent exhibition at the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt starts with a cave and ends with a local skyscraper designed by Norman Foster — there is hardly a better way to explain what architecture is to general public. Commerzbank building is largely considered to have been the first eco skyscraper in Europe. Use of natural lighting and ventilation here are surprisingly extensive for a building which still remains the Germany’s highest.
1991-2003, Duisburg Inner Harbour master plan, Duisburg, Germany. The 20th century put Duisburg through a lot of trials. One of Ruhr’s main industrial centers, the city was nearly destroyed by Allied bombing during the World War Two. In the 1970s, as steel and coal mining industries spiraled into a crisis, Duisburg together with the rest of Ruhr fell on hard times. A decision was made to turn the Inner Harbour, a port zone forming a part of a logistical hub along the Ruhr river, into something completely new: a new city center which would attract developers, business and residents. The project was the first among dozens, if not hundreds of projects for renovation of waterfront industrial zones, including Moscow’s ZIL.
1992-1998, Hong Kong International Airport. One of the major skills of any successful businessman is the ability to not only attract new customers, but to keep the old ones coming for more, and Foster has been quite successful at that. In the 1970s the HSBC building became a symbol of Hong Kong’s new role, and in the 1990s this success demanded infrastructural support in form of a new city airport. The airport was built on a separate island, and Foster focused his attempts on alleviating both passenger interaction and the facility processes. The airport — much like at the start of the era of the air transportation (by the way, Lord Foster is a licensed pilot) — is a giant hangar people that pass through on their way from the city to the aircraft. With the roof of the building rid of any complex equipment, open and transparent airport building area comprised a total of 570,000 m2.
1971-1975 Willis Faber and Dumas Headquarters, Ipswich, England. An office center in Ipswich was one of the first large projects carried out by the Foster’s practice. Foster’s talent for using technology is reflected in the continuous glass façade: the building spreads through the entire lot, using the space with maximum efficiency. Escalators carry building employees from the first floor through the atrium to terrace and pool up top. Special glass, reflective during the day and semi-transparent at nighttime, was developed for this project. Ironically, the designed flexibility of the internal space can no longer be employed as the building has been listed and changes to it can no longer be made.

— We are sitting in a building where Vladimir Shukhov worked for many years, and Shukhov is one of the people to whom Norman Foster referred as a source of inspiration. Foster even spoke against demolition of Shukhov’s Shablovka tower. Yet neither Shukhov nor Foster’s teacher Buckminster Fuller, or today’s Sergey Brin or Elon Musk are architects — they are all engineers. So maybe engineers are the main heroes of human history, while architects only get to make a colourful wrapping for their inventions? Should we ask ourselves, the architects, if we make any difference at all?

— No, I think architects do make a difference and it’s an important profession. Yet what kind of example do Shukhov, Fuller or 2015 Pritzker laureate Frei Otto set for us? It’s the approach where one should think about design and structure and engineering in an integrated way, and that approach allows to create outstanding things capable of changing our lifestyles, our perception of cities and the modern world. And I think that their approach and spirit remain true today, and that is something we need very much. With the way our cities evolve and change, it’s not just about the design of space in itself, although that’s obviously important. Architects, designers, engineers, transport planners all need to work together to be able to address the challenges that we face today.

— What role does an architect play here?

— We build infrastructure, housing, office buildings, whole new cities. It’s continuous renewal. I think architectural and urban planning skills will remain relevant for a long time. I would argue that there’s a distinction between designing buildings and doing urban planning ‒ while architects are best at designing single structures, a different skillset is required to design cities.

— Do we live in times when architects have no obligation to provide new, radical, even utopian version of the cities of the tomorrow? Do we even need utopias anymore? We still struggle to realize that modern technologies have changed everything.

— I think there is still a place for utopias, yet they are moving away from being simply how people envision future cities. The building we sit in appeared years before us, and the way it is used has changed a lot. What’s happening outside these windows is very different from what was happening there many years ago. The changes became more subtle, they lie in the way we interact with the city. Will flying cars pass outside these windows some day? Or will people stop owning personal cars altogether? The authors of the past focused on physical appearance, often failing to address the content of the cities.

— What changes will be most notable?

— I’m not a futurologist, but I would agree with those who say that there will be a progression to fully autonomous vehicles. That will be the age of service mobility — a term that is being thrown around a lot today — when the tie between owning a vehicle and personal mobility will be severed. A car will arrive, pick you up and transport you to your destination, then park or move straight to another passenger. This one little change could transform how the street outside these windows will look.

— At one point you used to work on London School of Economics research projects The Endless City and Urban Age. And then you moved to Masdar City at Foster and Partners. How did it feel to move from researching unflattering reality of modern metropolises to working on something nearly utopian?

— In this project we tried to create a new vision for a city located in a part of the world that had developed in a somewhat unsustainable way over the last 50 years. Through the availability of oil in the region a lot of wealth became available and the cities there developed in a very land-hungry, very sprawling fashion. We made an attempt to explore an alternative direction which would employ useful solutions developed here, like narrow streets and shading, and at the same time would diminish the negatives such as large amount of private transport and extensive use of air conditioning. Today at already completed Masdar Institute of Technology, local air temperature and microclimate show that more natural ways of providing coolness are capable of improving life in these cities.

1994-2000, Great Court at the British Museum, London Great Britain. The British Museum building, designed by Robert Smirke, was one of the first buildings created specifically to house a public museum. The British Museum is a monument both to architecture and to culture. In the mid-19th century a library was built in the inner court, which made travelling through the building unnecessarily complicated: with main court obstructed, reaching a destination within the square-shaped museum now required moving along its perimeter. British Museum’s eternal competitor, Louvre, number one on the list of most visited museums in the world, had since undergone extensive transformation which both resolved museum’s logistical issues and gave it a modern look thanks to the glass pyramids designed by Ieoh Ming Pei. By giving the British Museum’s court a glass roof (6,000 m2 large, 478 tons of metal, 315 tons of glass, 3,312 glass panels), Foster earned his own spot in history: one year before the project was completed, the architect was awarded with the Pritzker Prize.
1992-1999, Reichstag reconstruction, Berlin, Germany. After the German reunification, the new-old state required a symbol of power which would be just as complex, a symbol both new and old, which would remind of traditions, yet not of traditions of the 20th century, and provide an outlook for the future. The Reichstag, built in the late 19th century, was at that moment just an architectural monument not in its best state. Its choice as a place of parliament meetings meant performing extensive restoration. Foster took part in the official contest and entered the second stage with the project dubbed after Wim Wenders’ film The Sky over Berlin (released globally as Wings of Desire). According to the proposal, the Reichstag would be covered with a glass canopy, not unlike Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Wrapped Reichstag. The government asked the contest finalists to simplify their projects, nodding at the size of disposable funds, but refused to provide the any exact numbers. Foster made the correct interpretation of that request and redid the entire project. As a result, the now-famous glass dome was born. The dome opens a view both into the main meeting hall below and the united city around, standing symbol to open government and renewed country becoming the new center of the unified Europe.
1997-2004, 30 St Mary Axe, London, UK. Nicknamed The Gherkin, 30 St Mary Axe is an engineering masterpiece, bringing the theme of eco-conscious office building to a whole new level. Wind tunnel tests were extensively used in the design calculations: the wind circumvents the building, decreasing the pressure and reducing costs of ventilation, heating and cooling. The first steps in that direction were made back in 1971 by Foster’s teacher, genius engineer and futurologist Buckminster Fuller in his Climatroffice concept, where a geodesic dome was adapted to serve business needs. However, the 30 St Mary Axe offers several innovations of its own. Firstly, the building was the next step in development of the high-tech look. If before technological internals of the building were put on display like in an uncovered engine, now being high tech meant that no technical elements could be left out in the open — it’s no coincidence that iMac was released at the same time. Secondly, the Gherkin was London’s first next generation skyscraper, launching a war for global economic leadership with New York.
1993-2004, Millau Viaduct, Millau, France. At some point Foster became that type of architect whose projects were so big, complex and expensive, that they always happened to be a part of large-scale political or economic processes — the European unification, for instance. Although building a bridge across the River Tarn was a part of road development plans since the 1970s, France’s strengthening ties to both North and Southern Europe gave that project the push it needed. Designing, constructing and operation of the bridge (in form of 75-year-long concession rights) were all put up for a contest — there is little doubt that Foster’s practice being a part of the winning consortium mattered quite a bit for the judging commission.
2000-2006, Hearst Tower, New York, USA. Building a skyscraper in the home of skyscrapers was no easy task, and nor was deciding what a 21st century skyscraper was after the 9/11. The new building is sitting on top of the old one, built in 1928. Back then, the construction was interrupted by the Great Depression and stopped at six floors, with the completed foundation reminiscent of those of the Moscow’s Seven Sisters. In 2000, just ahead of the new crises, the Hearst Corporation returned to its unfinished tower — but this time it had to be built on top of an architectural monument. In order to make the building lighter, the architects used Shukhov’s steel gridshell, reducing the amount of steel used by 20 percent. The Hearst tower was later dubbed (10 years after the Commerzbank Tower) the «first eco skyscraper» on Manhattan. The tower collects rainwater and preserves energy, and has achieved high (though not high enough to be certified) LEED score.
2007, Masdar City, Abu-Dhabi, UAE. An experimental city, a laboratory city, an open exhibition city, the project was born when Arabian sheikhs, concerned with predictions for the upcoming carbonless future, turned their heads towards alternative energy. The result is something in between the Silicon Valley and VDNKh: a research institute for green technologies wrapped into the cover of a Potemkin village in a middle of a desert. The project aims to reduce the city’s energy usage to its minimum, with most efforts aimed at the abuse of air cooling, the main energy-draining perpetrator. The street layout, their width, building height were solutions born by vernacular architecture and complemented by special materials, solar panels fields and usage of electric cars for public transportation. The completion of the project has been repeatedly postponed due to crises, and, with new technologies constantly arising, the Masdar City faces a risk of turning into Arabic version of VDNKh after all.
2006-2010, Khan Shatyr, Astana,Kazakhstan. This project, just like another one in Astana, is often ignored by Foster’s fans: although this project is technologically complex and extensively uses Foster’s favorite membranes, it’s also very complex ethically. Can architects partner up with dictators? Kazakhstan president Nazarbayev makes dealing with Arabian sheikhs look like no big deal. Nonetheless, this collaboration sends a positive signal for the CIS, as Foster’s architecture always signals development, success and power. Maybe Kazakhstan is Russia’s true competitor among the post-soviet states.
2012-2015, Moon and Mars stations. The practice teamed up with the European Space Agency and NASA to develop future habitats for humans living and working on the Moon and Mars. A special module would carry robots to the Moon or Mars, where they would gather and process local soil, applying a protective layer on top of the module. The resulting habitat would look alike to a mud hut. As a part of this project, special tests were made using material identical to the lunar soil.
2015, Redline, Rwanda. Infrastructure and roads in particular remain one of the largest problems experienced by the African countries. Rural and semi-urban can be self-sufficient, but even then they require medicine supplies from the bigger cities. The proposed solution: drones and droneports simple enough to be built by the local residents. A rather complex vaulted brick structure, an example of such droneport, was presented at 2016 Venice Biennale. This was the first project carried out by The Norman Foster Foundation, a non-commerce organization, which has become the main object of Lord Foster’s efforts since he stopped taking an active part in day-to-day operations of the practice.
2016, Fuel Station of the Future, Nissan and Foster + Partners. Collaboration between the car manufacturer and the practice had a strange start: Nissan asked the practice to sketch a charging station for electric cars. The request itself was prompted by PR reasons, as for some reason general public favours architects over large corporations. However, in response Nissan received a flurry of solutions, ranging from turning the entire city into one large car charger to turning the cars into chargers themselves. Everything would charge everything, with nothing going to waste — just a step behind a perpetuum mobile. Fuel Station of the Future was a car show success, but failed to reach the scale of Tesla.
1994-2000, Great Court at the British Museum, London Great Britain. The British Museum building, designed by Robert Smirke, was one of the first buildings created specifically to house a public museum. The British Museum is a monument both to architecture and to culture. In the mid-19th century a library was built in the inner court, which made travelling through the building unnecessarily complicated: with main court obstructed, reaching a destination within the square-shaped museum now required moving along its perimeter. British Museum’s eternal competitor, Louvre, number one on the list of most visited museums in the world, had since undergone extensive transformation which both resolved museum’s logistical issues and gave it a modern look thanks to the glass pyramids designed by Ieoh Ming Pei. By giving the British Museum’s court a glass roof (6,000 m2 large, 478 tons of metal, 315 tons of glass, 3,312 glass panels), Foster earned his own spot in history: one year before the project was completed, the architect was awarded with the Pritzker Prize.

— However, the project has been controversial from the very start: building an entire city from the ground up can hardly be called an effective use of resources. Did you manage to achieve the set goals, and how has Masdar been developing since?

— We commissioned the Masdar Institute of Technology with its labs and teaching spaces, and we are no longer involved in the project. There has been a lot of thinking and talking about what a sustainable city really is. In my opinion, at some point it is important to shift from thinking of doing, to build it just to test if it works. In reality a sustainable city is something very different depending on which part of the world you’re in, what kind of problems does that region experience and what type of technology would be most efficient there.And I think it’s also important to acknowledge that the city is not a real estate project. One can build several buildings close to each other, but a city needs many other layers to make it come all together. One of the challenges of Masdar was that a lot of the infrastructure projects that would connect it to the surrounding areas didn’t happen as fast as they were planned. Local and regional transportation failed to develop simultaneously with the project, and this lack of connectivity made it very difficult for Masdar to take off properly, as a city cannot be isolated from its surroundings.

— What are your thoughts on professional education for architects and city planners?

— In many ways the world has gotten much faster and more complicated. I think we need to train the next generation of designers, architects and city designers to think much more interdisciplinary. The challenge is not to necessarily cut short on the design education but to find ways of layering in a much more deep understanding of other disciplines — very much in tradition of Shukhov. Designing a «nice building» is not going to cut it anymore. I think it makes sense from a structural point of view for city designers to understand the sociology, the transport and engineering of cities.

— In every discipline people ask themselves what is going on and are wondering what will be next. How and what can we even learn from them?

— I should probably ask you that! What we do within our team — I lead Urban Design at Foster + Partners — is try to look at a challenge or a project from many different points of view. We need to take into account commercial realities and the fact that at the end of the day somebody has to pay for whatever we are going to build. We must think very carefully about the end users of sociology of the place, not just about the buildings themselves but also about the space between the buildings. So, we got a little interdisciplinary team that includes landscape architects, planners, social anthropologists, economists and other experts, trying to provide these different points of view. I’m not claiming that we can capture every facet but I think we try very hard to create a balanced vision of the project’s future impact and understand the needs and aspirations of our stakeholders.

— How do you measure the success of urban projects? With some of them lasting for decades and having so many factors involved it can be hard to discern success from failure.

— I think there are different ways of looking at it. One is to observe the end users. If they are happy, and if there are many of them, that probably means that you did everything right. Trafalgar Square, which we redesigned in 2003, is one such example. Clients coming back to you are another indication of success. For instance, we were doing a lot of work with the city of Dusseldorf in Germany, and over the years we had an ongoing relationship based on the initial master plan. We would look at different aspects of the situation, develop a solution and get it implemented. But there is no common recipe, every case is unique. On the one hand, we are trying to take advantage of technologies such as GIS and become more objective with our solutions. Today that amount of available data has dramatically changed our understanding of cities and revealed hidden layers of how places function. At the same time, I think it is important to balance out the data research with actually being on the street and talking to people. Some things just cannot be expressed in numbers. At the end of the day in every project, you need to adjust the way you work on the fly because everything always starts changing faster than you could ever imagine.

Bruno Moser / photo by Egor Slizyak / Strelka Institute

Finally, we have been trying to adopt an integrated way of work at the office, which means that we are all sitting in an open office and nothing obstructs the exchange of ideas. The Urban Design team consists of 10 people, so we are a tiny part of the office which employs almost 1500 people. We work predominantly on urban scale projects, including anything from strategic planning aspects to more traditional master planning work. We also work closely on a lot of projects with the architects who are dealing with a single building and need to understand the way people will use that space, or to analyse the flow of people inside it.

— In your lecture, you are going to talk about year 2067, when Foster + Partners will be celebrating its 100th anniversary. If Foster and Partners continues to exist for another 50 years, that will be the first time in history when an architectural practice will have witnessed so many changes. What does having fifty years of experience mean? What changes happened through these fifty years, and do you expect in the next fifty?

— The founder’s spirit is strong at Foster + Parters. The group of people that Foster assembled around himself continues his mission, although Lord Foster no longer oversees every project personally. He created the company basically from the ground up. There has been a progression of themes over time and we always revisit those themes before making a new step. We always strive to maintain relationships with our clients, to have the opportunity to go back to our buildings and see how they function. Our design board reviews our every project, assuring their quality. We do want to be at a cutting edge of design and use technology to the best of our abilities, but we realise that creating high-end offices New York is something very different from providing designs for schools in Africa, and we are willing to push those boundaries.

Text: Alexander Ostrogorsky
Translation: Philipp Kachalin