Letter from the President

Norman Foster

In February 2020, the trustees of the Norman Foster Foundation (NFF), with what turned out to be a remarkable degree of foresight, cancelled the big event of the Forum which, like its forerunner in 2017, would have been held in Madrid’s Royal Opera House in June. After two years in the making, with much expenditure of time, energy and precious funds, to have to call it off was a bitter blow. We had in place a stellar cast of global leaders on issues of sustainability, civic leadership, energy, the sciences and arts. Fareed Zakariah had agreed to moderate the panel discussions and ex-secretary of state, John Kerry, was to open the day with an address on climate change.

However, it is a tribute to the NFF team that, notwithstanding the challenges of the pandemic, 2020 will be a remarkable year in terms of achievements. The NFF Archive received over 300 new items and fifteen new projects, making available 600 sketchbooks from 1980–1995 to researchers. The contents of a further 300 sketchbooks have been digitised together with 22,000 new plans and drawings.

However, it is a tribute to the NFF team that, notwithstanding the challenges of the pandemic, 2020 will be a remarkable year in terms of achievements.

As a part of its educational programme, the 500th anniversary of Leonardo da Vinci’s death was marked by a collaboration titled Imagining Futures between the Politecnico di Milano, Escuela Técnica Superior de Arquitectura de Madrid and the NFF.

The NFF contributed to two major exhibitions in Spain, each based on individuals with whom I had collaborated in the past. For the first, an exhibition of Buckminster Fuller at the Fundación Telefónica in Madrid, the NFF provided project documentation and the Dymaxion automobile. For Bilbao’s Museo de Bellas Artes, we loaned archive material for an exhibition on the work of Otl Aicher and the Bilbao Metro. I provided a text for the catalogue and narrated a film for showing as part of the exhibition.

Following the close of the Buckminster Fuller show, the Dymaxion automobile was moved into the Pavilion of the NFF as part of the new display to replace the Voisin of Le Corbusier.

The NFF’s Oral History Programme, with its two streams of ‘Inside the Archive’ and ‘Building the Future’, creates video interviews with a wide cross section of individuals—collaborators, engineers, clients, teachers, academics and critics. This year, thirty-nine interviews have been published and forty-seven will be online. The NFF continued its tradition of contributing to the Annual Madrid Architecture week with a third edition of Architecture on Screen, showing ten classic films.

The trustees and the NFF team are forever grateful to the institutions, companies and families that have continued to provide their valuable support over the year and especially in these challenging times of the pandemic.

During the exceptional circumstances we have all lived through this year, I have found myself and the NFF being asked for reactions to the pandemic and proposals for actions in its wake. For the delayed London Royal Academy Summer Show, I responded to one such request with a poster in the form of a graphic post-COVID manifesto. At the end of the show, this will return to Madrid as part of the archive. This was published alongside an article that I wrote on the subject for The Guardian newspaper. One consequence was an invitation by the United Nations in Geneva, to give the opening address on cities to its first-ever Forum of Mayors from around the world— some forty civic leaders.

The project group in the NFF Architecture, Design and Technology Unit continues to be active. Their work on the Odisha slum projects in India saw the finalisation of the master plan for Sai Nolia Sahi and a significant start on the implementation of infrastructure and key buildings. However, the decision of our collaborators, Tata Trusts, early in the year to divert all its activities to confronting the pandemic, was to be expected and was anticipated by our suspension of work. Progress on the two projects for Château La Coste in Provence continues and The Grasshopper observation platform was formally submitted for planning approval. Inevitably, the Foster Retreat in Martha’s Vineyard, with its emphasis on writing fellowships and the American Friends of the NFF, has been delayed by the effects of the pandemic and is rescheduled for an opening in the summer of 2021.

Earlier in the year, the NFF team was invited to join a small project consortium led by the UK engineering office of Expedition and its founder Chris Wise. The client for the project is Network Rail, a division of the UK Ministry of Transport, and the quest is for a product that will rationalise the construction of footbridges across Britain’s railway system to save time and cost as well upgrading the experience for passengers.

The pandemic has resulted in the need to postpone the traditional workshops which bring together ten top graduates from around the world with a similar number of experts as mentors. Other longer planned activities have been brought forward, principally in the areas of documentation. The Rolex Institute is supporting the publication of talks given at the NFF dating back to 2017 on technology and architecture.

For internal research purposes a catalogue is being prepared of the five hundred objects—art, furniture and models—that are currently housed in the NFF. For wider publication, work has been completed on the first of a series of books that will document the contents of my sketchbooks. This initial volume, edited by the eminent writer and Professor of Drawing at the Universidad Politécnica in Madrid, Jorge Sainz, will be a summary selection from the period 1975–2020.

2020 will be the year that the NFF also launches a new kind of documentation in the form of short filmed masterclasses on cities by acknowledged specialists. These will link into the network of 135 universities and institutions that collaborate with the NFF.

In the London based foundation, the jury process to select the winner of the NFF scholarship at the Bartlett School of Architecture drew sixty applications from a field of 150, which was whittled down to a shortlist of ten before the final selection of the winner.

The trustees and the NFF team are forever grateful to the institutions, companies and families that have continued to provide their valuable support over the year and especially in these challenging times of the pandemic.