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Britain's Foster Wins the Pritzker

Architecture The designer known for his large-scale, light-filled structures will receive industry's top honor.

April 12, 1999|NICOLAI OUROUSSOFF | TIMES ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Norman Foster, known for his sleekly elegant glass-and-steel building designs, has won the 1999 Pritzker Prize, architecture's most coveted award, to be announced today. This is the latest in a string of honors for the British architect, who received the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1994, France's Grande Medaille d'Or in 1991, and was knighted in 1990.

Foster's most recent project is the renovation of Berlin's Reichstag, which, when it opens this month, will be reinstated as the seat of the German government for the first time since 1933. The building's new glass dome--with ramps spiraling up its center--has already become an emblem of reinvigorated German democracy.

Foster is best known for large-scale buildings, including a $1-billion headquarters for Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corp. in Hong Kong; the Carre d'Art cultural center in Ni^mes, France; London's third airport, in Stansted; and Hong Kong's recently completed $20-billion International Airport, the world's largest. His best designs reflect a belief in technology's ability to create a more humane world, where natural light and air function as therapeutic tools--a vision that dates back to early Modernism. In Foster's hands, these themes are articulated with a remarkable degree of technical refinement.

Commenting on the award, architecture critic and Pritzker juror Ada Louise Huxtable said, "The buildings are beautiful, elegantly conceived and exquisitely carried out in the most basic terms, the expert use and expression of the structural technology of the 20th century."

Foster was born in 1935 to a working-class family in a suburb of Manchester, England. His first contact with architecture came while working in the contracts department of a local architecture firm, John Beardshaw & Partners, where he was soon promoted to draftsman. At 21, he left to study architecture at Manchester University, and later won a fellowship to continue his studies at Yale. There, he met Richard Rogers and James Sterling, both of whom would also become major figures in London's architectural scene.

Rogers, in particular, was close to Foster in his architectural sensibility. The two joined Wendy and Georgie Cheesman in 1963 to form Team 4, and began to design buildings marked by a machine-like aesthetic and a sensitivity to ecological issues. Later, Foster also collaborated on the design of the Samuel Beckett Theater with the American Buckminster Fuller, designer of the geodesic dome and the Dymaxion House, who also saw technology and mass production as a means of liberating society from the chaos and misery of common life. The theater was never built.

But Foster went on to a remarkably prolific career. Among his best early works is the Willis Faber & Dumas headquarters, completed in 1975 in Ipswich, England. Foster enclosed three floors of open plan offices behind an undulating glass skin. Gently suspended from a series of columns, the glass facade is a technological tour de force, foreshadowing the architect's obsession with structural lightness. The building also reveals Foster's early idealism. Offices overlook an internal court intended to be a social meeting place for workers. It also includes a swimming pool on the ground floor and a rooftop terrace with a cafe set at one end--a nod to Le Corbusier's earlier roof plans that were conceived as natural landscapes lifted up off the ground. Indeed, Foster's building is meant to serve the nearby community as well as the office itself.

"I think that that building is about the spirit of the workplace, a belief that it can be an uplifting experience," Foster said in a recent telephone interview. "It is about rediscovering the quality of the family firm when it has gone up in scale to 1,350 people." Foster's later works became increasingly technologically refined. His 1979 design for the Hong Kong bank remains his greatest work. For it, Foster inverted the standard skyscraper plan--instead of creating a solid core of elevators and services running up the building's core, Foster created a massive exterior steel frame, allowing the center of the building to remain completely open, as a gigantic, 13-story-high atrium. At street level, Foster created a large covered plaza, with a delicate glass roof pierced by escalators so that people can peer straight up to the banking hall above.

Foster is particularly proud of the building's social complexity. The Hong Kong bank "broke down a very large building into these villages, one on top of the other," Foster says. "You take high-speed elevators to various reception points, and from those points you can fan upwards and downwards by escalators. And the decision to lift the bank up over the pedestrian realm created a civic space underneath. On weekends it is an incredible social gathering point."

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