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As far as some critics are concerned, Lord Foster of Thames Bank is a victim of his own success. And what a success that is. One of two architects (with Richard Rogers) who stormed from the beleaguered UK 1960s avant-garde to the top of the world premier league, Foster is – astonishingly in the UK – hugely commercially successful, on the rich list and a peer to boot. That may be what the critics do not like.
Foster’s practice started with Richard Rogers and their wives as the hip Team 4 – pioneering high-tech, celebrating and heroizing the new world of lightweight technology. When Foster and Rogers split, their takes diverged. Foster’s first independent icon was the gorgeous Willis Faber & Dumas ‘Black Piano’ in Ipswich (1975), with its slinky, reflective walls and rooftop, kidney-shaped garden. But it was the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia (1978) – a high-tech shed as Parthenon in an English landscape – that defined his direction. Foster made high-tech classic.
In 1986, while Britain struggled to support home talent, Foster was completing the most expensive building in the world. The Hongkong and Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong, with its earthquake-proof cross-bracing and vast, public-access underbelly daylit by mammoth sunscoops, was glamorous and tough, tackling environmental, civic and architectural issues on a grand scale. It was one of the great projects that launched the UK profession into unprecedented popularity and world fame.
At Stansted Airport (1991) – finally! A UK public client! – Foster’s love of flying produced aviation romance. This big aircraft hangar, dappled with sunshine and high-tech shadows, simplified complex circulation into the clearest possible plan. This was Foster’s heyday. At home, his foot was in the establishment’s door (the Royal Academy’s Sackler Gallery, 1991). His own, elegant Battersea Thames-side office and penthouse (1992) became a landmark for the cognoscenti. Abroad, the commissions got bigger: the elegant Carre d’Art in Nimes (1993); the Commerzbank eco-office in Frankfurt (1997); the world’s biggest construction project, Hong Kong Airport, Chek Lap Kok (1998). The workload boomed and main¬tenance of quality became essential. Tales of staff employed to check the aesthetic rigour of items in the office fridge were apocryphal.
By the late 1990s, Foster’s commissions were ubiquitous, prestigious – notably, the rebuilding of Berlin’s Reichstag (1999) – and newsworthy. Most dramatically, London’s Millennium Bridge (2002), linking St Paul’s to Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern, wobbled and had to be closed and damped down. No egg stuck to Foster’s Teflon exterior but the critics had cooled: Foster had not just gone establishment, he was the establishment.
His plain, grey, classical Modernism is so prevalent it is often judged by its failings, not its extraordinary worldwide successes. Critics lament the fun of Willis Faber, the technological daring of the Hongkong Bank, the purity and wit of the Sainsbury Centre, or the absolute rigour of detailing and proportion of his pure classical phase. The avant-garde, of course, has long overtaken him. And why not? Foster has nothing left to prove. He has already conquered the world.