A Personal Reflection

It has been said that if you wish to see far ahead in time then you must first look back to see lessons from the past. Looking back over my five and a half decades of experience in practice there are a number of lessons that inform the creation and the very nature of the Norman Foster Foundation, the ideals that it should promote and the means to achieve them.

The birth of our Foundation as an independent institution wishing to promote research and projects, and separate from my own architectural practice of Foster + Partners, grows out of several aspirations. One of these is to help new generations to be better prepared to anticipate the future, especially in times of profound global uncertainty – in particular those professionals who are concerned with the environment. In other words, young architects, designers, engineers, civic leaders and artists.

First we wish to promote interdisciplinary thinking. True collaboration between seemingly disconnected fields of design and thought is at the heart of a holistic approach to design that I have pioneered over the years with many colleagues. It is even more relevant today as populations shift to cities and face new interactions with artificial intelligence, robotics, energy demands and climate change. Sustainable design needs to engage all the professions right from the start in a shared endeavour – it is not about fashion but survival.

Early in my career I became aware as an architect of the shortfalls of thinking about buildings in isolation, and we have seen the negative effects of that trend over the past several decades. Moving beyond architecture as an urbanist, with a passion for improving the quality of life in cities, I know that the design of our infrastructure is the ultimate challenge. It is the spaces in between that are the urban glue binding together the individual structures – the matrix of routes, public spaces, services and transportation. In a holistic approach all of these issues and the professions they represent would interact together at the same time. I describe it as questioning traditional hierarchies and adopting a round table approach to creativity. The rewards of such an integrated design quest are manifold: higher performance and quality, economic benefits and a greater element of delight.

At the scale of individual projects, I have with this approach steered projects to break down social barriers, create communities of zero energy and zero waste, work with nature to promote wellness and beauty, and to realise spaces that can adapt to change over time.

Behind this philosophy there are hidden inspirations that link environmental design to the lessons and imagery from art, technology and history. Also to the fore is the importance of making and manufacturing. Industry is inseparable from the realisation of dreams and the raising of standards.

Interdisciplinary thinking brings together all these separate strands and is the guiding principle that will lead all the foundation’s efforts in the years to come.

Also guiding our work and initiatives is the value of architecture, infrastructure and urbanism to serve society – to make a difference for the better, for the collective good. This may have a utopian ring to it but the reality is that everything that surrounds us is the result of a conscious act of design. The quality of design determines the quality of our lives – it can be good, bad or mediocre. It is never about cost – always about attitude of mind. There are four resources – materials, time, money but above all else creative energy. The Foundation is about informing and channelling the creative energy of youth in anticipating the future.

The seeds for these ideals to come to life and eventually for the Foundation’s birth were first sown in 1999 when I received the Pritzker Prize for Architecture at a ceremony in Berlin and with it a sum of one hundred thousand dollars. My wife Elena reminded me of the value of my travels in Europe whilst at university, which were made possible by my winning student prizes. She suggested that we use the Pritzker funds to start a Foundation with a programme to award travelling scholarships to architecture students from around the world.

This scheme was established in collaboration with the Royal Institute of British Architects with its more than one hundred affiliated Schools of Architecture in nearly thirty countries on five continents. The programme of the London-based Foundation is ongoing and has proved to be a great success.

However, it convinced us that a more influential Foundation needed a physical presence to communicate with a wider audience. It required spaces for a study centre to receive students and graduates, to provide a home for an ever growing personal archive that documented the ideas behind the Foundation, and gallery spaces to show concepts, films and projects.

This led to the search for a building or a site on which to create one or, ideally, a combination of both. We engaged agents and explored places as far apart as Manhattan, Brooklyn, London’s East End and Battersea, Berlin and Madrid. We even considered more remote rural retreats, mindful of models such as the Black Mountain College in North Carolina, The Judd Foundation in Texas and The Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado.

Out of this process of examining multiple possibilities, the eventual decision was made to base the Foundation’s headquarters in Madrid, a vibrant city with strong professional and cultural links with our family and with excellent connections and possibilities for a Foundation separate from London but with a global outreach.

We found a heritage-listed Palace designed by Joaquín Saldaña in 1912 for the Duke of Plasencia. For fifty years since the nineteen thirties it had been the Embassy of Turkey and more recently before our acquisition was the headquarters of a bank. We have undertaken a major building programme to restore the interior spaces to their former glory. The Palace is set in its own grounds on Calle Monte Esquinza in an area noted for its embassies, institutions and other cultural foundations. It is from this promising location that we will look to develop meaningful and urgent work on some key areas related to our shared living environment.

The Foundation seeks to promote two main streams of activities, one with a focus on research and education, and another with the goal of implementing practical and experimental projects around the world.

On the one hand, the Foundation is rooted in a rich and living archive – a material resource which is linked to a study centre and a digital network of universities and scholars. The archive comprises drawings, sketches, models, films, photographs, prototypes and transcripts spanning over five decades of work. It is constantly being added to and catalogued and at present numbers well over twelve thousand items.

On the other hand, the Foundation initiates, collaborates and implements built projects and prototypes in association with other like-minded institutions, universities and research centres. Seminars, workshops, programmes and events stem out of both these research and practice initiatives bringing together experienced thinkers with emerging talents in architecture, design and technology.

Also situated in the Foundation’s headquarters in Madrid there is a courtyard pavilion – The Pavilion of Inspirations – which houses objects and audio visual images of projects, places, people, sculptures and paintings that can inspire future visitors and participants to the Foundation in the same way that I found inspiration in the past. Over the decades I have pushed the technology of materials, particularly glass, to create an architecture of light and lightness that dissolves the boundaries between inside and outside space. The Pavilion continues that tradition and uses laminated glass walls as the structure to hold up a steel and glass fibre roof with no visible means of support. In the spirit of encouraging a fusion of art and architecture the sculptor Cristina Iglesias created a canopy to cover part of the entrance courtyard and create shade for the Pavilion façade. We hope to host many of our guests, friends and collaborators in these remarkable spaces in the years to come.

The launch of the Foundation’s headquarters in Madrid and the beginning of several exciting initiatives were marked by the inaugural public forum that took place on 1 June 2017 in Madrid’s Royal Theatre. The forum explored, through a series of panels, issues of the City, Infrastructure, Technology, Design and the arts under the title ‘Future is Now’, and sought not only to debate these subjects, but also communicate them to the public and those with a responsibility for commissioning and running buildings, cities and infrastructure systems.

Our launch event in Madrid gave a flavour for the Foundation’s future programmes and projects. Our activities so far and the very existence of the Foundation would not have been possible without the idealism, wisdom, drive and energy of my wife and Trustee Elena. I would also like to pay tribute to our fellow founding Trustees Professor Luis Fernández-Galiano and Professor Ricky Burdett.

I am grateful for the support and encouragement of so many who have not been mentioned and look forward with excitement and enthusiasm to working with them, and others still to come, on potential projects in the future.

Norman Foster
Norman Foster Foundation