20 Things You Didn’t Know about Norman Foster

Norman Foster

Norman Foster (or to give him his full title, Norman Robert Foster, Baron Foster of Thames Bank, OM, RA) is a British architect renowned in the field of high-tech architecture, an architectural style that grew to prominence in the 1970’s and is known for its inspired use of technology in building design. While many architects have practiced the tradition (Colombo-American Bruce Graham, Italian Renzo Piano and Brit Sir Richard Rogers, to name but a few) none have done so with quite the success and flair as Norman Foster. Known for such iconic structures as the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Headquarters, the Millau Viaduct, and the Gherkin, Foster has become renewed for prizing style and substance over budget; something the vast majority of his clients are more than happy to accept. To find out more about the life and works of the great man, read on.

1. He’s gone from rags to riches

Norman Foster may be living in luxury today, but his start in life was a different story entirely. Born in 1935 in Reddish (a small town on the outskirts of Stockport in the North of England), Foster was the only child of mother Lilian Smith and father Robert Foster. When Norman was a few years old, the family settled in Levenshulme, near Manchester, where his father found work as a machine painter at the Metropolitan-Vickers works in Trafford Park, and his mother as a baker. While the Fosters were hard-working, they struggled to make ends meet; with his parents forced to work long hours to keep just enough bread on the table to survive, the young Norman spent his formative years being looked after by a string of neighbors, friends, and relatives, something he would later say made the relationship with his parents difficult.

2. He was bullied at school

As a child, Foster was something of a dreamer, a quality that singled him out as a target for bullies at his school, the Burnage Grammar School for Boys. The bullying may have been difficult to endure at the time, but it would ultimately lead to the first steps in Foster’s later career. As a means of escaping his tormentors, Foster took refuge in his local library. There, he found solace in such works as Le Corbusier’s Towards A New Architecture and the buildings of Frank Lloyd Wright. The seeds to his future were thus sown.

3. He served in the RAF

Although a diligent student, Foster did not pursue academia after high school, choosing instead to apply for a position as a trainee in the Treasurer’s Department at Manchester Town Hall. The apprenticeship would lead to his first job as an office junior and clerk; both of which he would be forced to abandon in 1953 when he signed up for his national service. Pursuing his long-time interest in aviation, Foster choose to enlist in the Royal Air Force (RAF), where he served out the full period of his service.

4. He started his career at John Beardshaw and Partners

After leaving the RAF and returning to Manchester, Foster disappointed his parents by turning his back on the budding career in civil service he’d started prior to enlisting. Instead, he chose to apply for a position as an assistant in the contracts department of a local architecture firm, John Beardshaw & Partners. After the firm’s founder, John Beardshaw, saw Foster’s portfolio of sketching’s, he was impressed enough to offer him a position on the business’s drawing department.

5. He made crumpets to put himself through college

Inspired by his colleagues at John Beardshaw & Partners, Foster decided to purse architecture seriously. In 1956, he got the ball rolling by signing up to the School of Architecture and City Planning at the University of Manchester. As he didn’t qualify for a maintenance grant, Foster funded his studies by taking on a variety of part time jobs. During his five years at the school, Foster worked from everything as a bouncer to an ice-cream salesman to a crumpet maker at a bakery.

6. He met his future business partner at Yale University

After graduating from the School of Architecture and City Planning, Foster managed to win the Henry Ford fellowship for graduate study in architecture at Yale University. It was while studying at the American institution that Foster met fellow Brit (and future business partner), Richard Rogers. Thanks to their shared passion for architecture, the two quickly hit it off, and would spend the following year travelling the US together, absorbing firsthand the works of renowned American designers like Frank Lloyd Wright, and European architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

7. He founded his first architectural practice in 1963

After departing the States, Foster returned to Britain. In 1963, he, Richard Rogers and sisters Georgie and Wendy Cheeseman founded the architectural practice Team 4. The new business quickly gained a reputation for its high-tech designs, but the partnership wasn’t too last: in 1967, Rodgers left the business, leaving Foster and Wendy to establish a new practice, Foster Associates.

8. He married his business partner

Foster and Cheeseman’s relationship wasn’t restricted to the professional: shortly after forming Foster Associated, the two married and went on to have four sons (two of whom were adopted). Tragically, Wendy died in 1988, leaving Foster to raise their children (the youngest of whom was barely 5 years old) single- handedly. “After her death, he was like a stunned fish out of water,” Norman’s friend of 20 years, the artist Brian Clarke, told the Telegraph.

9. He married 2 further times

After the grief of losing his first wife abated, Foster moved on to Sabiha Malik, the then wife of former executive chairman of News International, Andrew Knight. After Malik and Knight’s divorce, Foster was free to propose: unfortunately, the subsequent marriage proved to be an unhappy one, and the two would divorce in 1995 after only 4 years of matrimony. Happily, Foster would find love again in the shape of Spanish psychologist and art curator Elena Ochoa. The pair married in 1996, and had their first child (a daughter, Paola) together in 1998.

10. He’s the recipient of several awards

In recognition of his prolific work in the field of architecture, Foster has been honored with numerous awards during his 6 decades in the industry. In 1999, he won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, an annual award “to honor a living architect or architects whose built work demonstrates a combination of those qualities of talent, vision and commitment, which has produced consistent and significant contributions to humanity and the built environment through the art of architecture”. He’s also claimed the Prince of Asturias Award in 2006, and the AIA gold medal award in 1994.

11. He was made a knight in 1990

In 1990, Foster achieved one of the most coveted honors for any Brit: a mention on the Birthday Honors list. He was subsequently knighted and granted the title of “Sir”. In 1997, Foster went one step further when he was appointed to the Order of Merit (allowing him to add “OM” to his title) and again in 1999, when he was elevated to the peerage as “Baron Foster of Thames Bank, of Reddish in the County of Greater Manchester”.

12. He was granted an honorary degree

In 2008, Foster’s achievements were recognized with an honorary degree from the Dundee School of Architecture at the University of Dundee. The degree added to what was already an impressive list of accolades: in May 1983, Foster had been elected an Associate of the Royal Academy, and in June 1991, a Royal Academician. In 1995, he was appointed an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, while in April 2017, he was given the Freedom of the City of London.

13. He’s had health problems

Foster’s first wife’s death from cancer in 1988 wouldn’t be the architect’s last encounter with the disease. In the 2000’s, Foster was diagnosed with bowel cancer. Never one to give in, Foster was back to work just a day later, presenting the Riba gold medal to Barcelona. Despite finding the treatment a struggle, Foster managed to find ways of getting through it. “The chemotherapy was pretty horrid, I have to say, but I got through it by reading Lance Armstrong’s book,” he told the Guardian. “I bought a racing bike, and though I didn’t quite manage to win the Tour de France, I’ve cycled marathons ever since.”

14. He takes inspiration from unusual sources

Foster is not one to be prissy about his discipline, and has scorned those who treat is as a fine art. For Foster, inspiration can (and should) be taken from all walks of life:- “The subject is too often treated as a fine art, delicately wrapped in mumbo-jumbo,” he told the Guardian. “In reality, it’s an all-embracing discipline taking in science, art, maths, engineering, climate, nature, politics, economics. Every time I’ve flown an aircraft, or visited a steelworks, or watched a panel-beater at work, I’ve learned something new that can be applied to buildings.”

15. He designed the tallest building in the world

In 2004, Foster was tasked with designing the world’s tallest building, the Millau Viaduct in Southern France. Millau Mayor Jacques Godfrain was clearly pleased with his efforts, telling the BBC’s World Today program; “The bridge is just on the clouds. The architect, Norman Foster, gave us a model of art.” The bridge, which at 300m tall towers above even that most famous of French landmarks, the Eiffel Tower, was designed by Foster to have the “delicacy of a butterfly”. “A work of man must fuse with nature,” he went on to say. “The pillars had to look almost organic, like they had grown from the earth.”

16. He’s been on the cover of an iconic album

In 2012, Foster’s contributions to architecture were recognized by the artist Sir Peter Blake. Blake, who was responsible for the design of one of Britain’s most iconic album covers of all-time, the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely-Hearts Club Band, chose to feature Foster on the cover of his 2012 reworking of the famous artwork. Foster featured alongside a lineup of other influential cultural figures such as Amy Winehouse, Kate Moss, Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Eric Clapton.

17. He worked alongside Steve Jobs

From 2009 up until Job’s death, Foster worked alongside the controversial head of Apple, Steve Jobs, in designing the Apple Campus 2 (later to be renamed Apple Park), in Cupertino, California. Further to Job’s passing in 2011, Foster continued to collaborate with Apple’s board of directors in overseeing the completion of the project. The campus was finally completed and opened to Apple’s employees in 2017.

18. He designed the most expensive office building in the word

In 1985, the Hong Kong Bank declared “it wanted the best building in the world” and tasked Foster as the one to give it to them. Whether or not they got the best building is a matter of opinion; what isn’t in question is what they most certainly did get, which was the most expensive office building in the world (at that point, at least). From initial estimates of $500 million, the costs soon started to rack up at an exponential rate. By the time of its completion, the extravagant block is estimated to have cost the bank a staggering $1.3 billion.

19. He started to go green in the 1990s

In the 1990’s, Foster started getting into sustainability in a big way, rolling out various energy-conserving measures in his new builds. The most classic example of this period is the Commerzbank Headquarters, Frankfurt, which was designed in 1997. Among its many features are outdoor sky gardens, natural ventilation and a central atrium that acts as a chimney for heated air.

20. He’s a member of several boards

Foster currently serves on the board of trustees for a number of projects, including Article 25, an architectural charity that promotes sustainable architecture projects in areas affected by poverty or natural disaster, and the Architecture Foundation, the UK’s first independent architecture center that promotes architectural theory and practice through public exhibitions, competitions and debates.


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