Norman Foster, Preservationist?

October 24, 2008

Sir Norman Foster, the iconoclastic British architect, is one of the most consistent ideologues in the profession. He makes it perfectly clear where he stands, and it is not with lovers of historic buildings. From his beginnings as a technological guru in the early 1970s to today, he has argued that technology has all the answers for what ails society, particularly when it comes to creating habitable space. One of the first architects to develop a self-supporting glass curtain wall, he is fascinated, indeed obsessed, with high technology and muscular engineering. Virtually every Foster building is a manifesto.

To be sure, Foster has created some memorable buildings. The Willis Faber office building of 1971-75 amazed the world with one of the first “green roof” applications and undulating glass walls. His Hong Kong bank was an icon of 1980s architecture, a kind of “glam rock” castle supported on outrageously large trusses that set records for cost overruns. And his recent triumph of engineering over space, the Beijing airport, impressed the world with both British engineering and Chinese construction management. He appears to relish proving his critics wrong, and pulling off seemingly impossible stunts. Megalomania is his game, and he is good at it.

In 1984 Foster had to deal with a historic site of major international stature–the Maison Carre at Nimes, France. This treasure of Roman architecture is perhaps the best preserved and most beautiful example of a small temple from the 1st century A.D. anywhere. A man of enormous ego, his first sketches suggested that the diminutive historic building should become a sideshow for a gigantic festival of culture of the kind now associated with “blockbuster” art museums. What he eventually constructed, after a decade of controversy, was a cartoon-like glass carton with spaghetti columns that make a mockery of the beautiful temple across the new plaza. His website trumpets the “dialogue” between old and new, suggesting that the building he designed was a necessary icon of its own time. It has become a cliche of modernist responses to old buildings, with many kitschy imitators throughout the world–a testament to a time of confusion and aesthetic dementia among architects.

During the 1980s, it was hard to believe that any worse example of the clash between modernism and historic cities could pass muster with conservationists in Europe, but Foster continued his destructive march. His next victim was the Reichstag in Berlin, one of Germany’s most sensitive and emotionally-charged monuments. Foster’s response to the reuse challenge here was to insert a giant nightclub globe in the center of the charred dome, create a glass roof that is likely to fail within a decade, and treat the rest of the building like a shopping mall. The public cheered like rowdy soccer fans at a Manchester United match, and Foster was on to London, where he made a similar, though less outrageous, glass enclosure over the courtyard of the British Museum. The populists in Britain were vindicated, while scholars and historians scurried back into their cubicles in shame. For a rippingly good satire based on this kind of cultural pandering, look at Giles Waterfield’s novel, The Hound in the Left-Hand Corner.

Foster Associates credentials as preservers of the world’s most beloved monuments rest mainly on these dubious projects. Until now, he has not achieved the kind of commissions in the United States that have propelled his career in Europe and Asia. The director and board of the New York Public Library decided last week to give him his big opportunity on this side of the pond. New Yorkers who care about historic preservation should be prepared for the same kind of imperious contempt for old buildings that he has shown in his work at Nimes, Berlin and London.

Sir Norman will have his hands full in New York, both because of the complexity of dealing with a vast windowless space designed for books, and because the New York City Landmarks Commission is one of the toughest in the world at insuring that architects create “appropriate” interventions in historic buildings. When Renzo Piano, a truly excellent architect who respects historic buildings, went too far in his initial concepts for an addition to the Morgan Library (a Charles McKim masterpiece), he was chastened by the LPC and the resulting building was far better for it. Foster is thin-skinned and will almost certainly clash with the LPC, even though the current panel is favorable to modernist additions.

Let’s look at how a typical preservation master plan works when handled by architects who respect and love historic buildings, as it may help predict how successfully the NYPL project will proceed from here forward. First, planning begins by researching the history of the structure and assessing the significance of every material, space and feature in it. Next, preservationists create precisely detailed conditions surveys of all of these elements, identifying those most fragile or inviolable, and those capable of withstanding re-use. Finally, the architects propose only those interventions that will not harm the truly significant features in the building, whether they be interior spaces or exterior elements. When Davis, Brody Bond completed their restoration program nearly a decade ago, their analysis concluded that the library had achieved a balance or reused spaces and historically restored ones. Why did the current board reverse course and repudiate these studies?

While no one can second guess the decisions rendered in the past several months, it appears on the surface that the board and director were unduly influenced by a $100 million gift from the founder of Blackstone Capital Management, Steven A. Schwarzman. Thus, when confronted with the opportunity to create new space where none was warranted, they chose an architect who is very good at following just such a brief.

So, Norman Foster is the perfect designer for this board, and this director. Is he the perfect designer for the magnificent Beaux Arts masterpiece that stands in the center of one of the earth’s most influential cities, the symbol of American culture for the rest of the world? As this brief critique of his record shows, Foster’s operation on Carrere & Hastings’ building will no doubt be as ham-handed, glitzy, and techo-crazed as his efforts in Berlin, Nimes and London.

New York deserves better, both from its cultural leaders and from its designers. Amidst Palin-McCain sideshows and media feeding frenzies, it is hardly surprising to find arts boards turning to agressively high-tech starchitects when confronted with big monetary gifts. Those who respect the art of Carrere & Hastings can only hope that the public process of design review, like the democratic process, will prevent the kind of disaster suffered by Foster’s European clients. Better yet, perhaps the trustees will recognize their error and pursue a different course.

One Response to “Norman Foster, Preservationist?”

  1. […] You can also consult some of my previous blogs: A Twist of Fate, Messing With A Masterpiece, or Norman Foster, Preservationist? Like this:Like2 bloggers like this post. Posted by Mark Alan Hewitt Filed in Architecture, […]

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