Always in control

The Norman Foster biography that isn’t

Being the most successful architect Britain has known since the imperial heyday of Lutyens – and arguably since the Baroque brilliance of Wren – ought to make you a very interesting person, but that’s no use unless you’re prepared to open up your private life a little to reveal it. The trouble with Norman Foster – Lord Foster, OM, in fact, winner of every honour going in his profession and a great many outside it, a man who reinvented modern architecture and sold it to the world, Mr. Gherkin to Londoners – is that he is both very private and a total control freak. He is a biographer’s nightmare.

Now this is an authorized biography, which means that Foster calls the shots. It is published by the company of his old friend Lord Weidenfeld. It is written by Deyan Sudjic, one of a succession of critics who have been close to Foster over the years. Sudjic describes how he has flown with Foster (until recently a keen pilot), dined with Foster, been in the back of cars with Foster, and so forth. Being authorized, he says, “suggests a certain intimacy between subject and author.” How intimate, you wonder? As ever with Foster, the answer is: not very.

But one thing in this book surprised me a lot. In an almost throwaway paragraph towards the end, it is revealed that Foster has had serious health problems. A heart attack is mentioned, also “a fight with bowel cancer, once mistakenly diagnosed as terminal”. Huh? No great surprise, perhaps, given the incidence of these things in men who reach their mid-seventies, in a stressful occupation, as Foster has. But Foster’s leanness and fitness are legendary. He seemed almost immortal, compared to many of his contemporaries. It comes as no surprise that, after the health scares, he has redoubled his fitness regime, competitively ski-ing, speed-cycling and running like someone 30 years younger. But – this being the stuff of biography – you’d expect a bit of detail. You don’t get it.

“Norman Foster is a man who is hard to read. He maintains an inscrutable façade that is as carefully composed and unemotional as that of his own work…when he was gravely ill, nobody knew,” says Sudjic. Including him, I presume. All kinds of questions raise themselves – when? Where? How serious? Who was with him? What did he say to them? What treatment did he need? How long did he take to recover? What were his thoughts on this warning of his inevitable mortality? Silence.

There’s another casual aside, in which Sudjic sidesteps an absolutely key phase in Foster’s life. It’s all over so quickly, I can quote it all:

“There were a number of girlfriends. His relationship with Anna Ford got him into the gossip columns for a while, and then came a second marriage to Sabiha Knight in 1991, dissolved less than five years later.”

My god, what a lot is compressed into those three lines about Foster’s life after his first wife Wendy died of cancer in 1990. But again, the shutters come down. So let me fill you in a little.

The reality was that those were tumultuous times – the cliché description would be ‘the lost years’ – both for him emotionally (the stories of his stormy relationship with Ford, exaggerated or not, were legion) and for his business. At that time it started to turn out some very ordinary buildings indeed, with Foster himself behaving somewhat erratically. I was once invited to meet Norman and Sabiha designing a secret competition entry together in a locked basement room, a strange PR exercise which backfired when Foster gradually became visibly impatient with his wife’s insistent suggestions.

Then there’s the one about the client who was given a ride to Italy in Foster’s private jet, and rashly offered to pay for the fuel. When the bill arrived, so the story goes, it obliterated any possible profit from the little furniture-design job he was doing for them. True? False? The point is that Foster is the kind of big character around whom such stories circulate, often affectionately, the way they did around another great architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. But you don’t get so much as a whiff of them in this book. There are mentions of his economic ups and downs, but very little – apart from his obviously driven character, and a reference to occasional temper tantrums – on his personal demons. His several children scarcely feature. His friends and former colleagues say very little.

The book is better on his early life. Foster is a rarity in being an architect (a middle class profession) from the wrong side of the tracks (though if you believe Malcolm Gladwell’s take on such apparent prodigies in “Outliers”, you might say he was born at the perfect time, and in exactly the right conditions, to achieve great success). He was working-class Manchester boy from the Levenshulme district, “an isolated only child” who made things out of Meccano and suchlike construction kits, read the adventure comic The Eagle with its chisel-jawed space pilot action hero Dan Dare, was an actual trainspotter of real steam locomotives (the line ran past the end of his street), liked drawing things – see his notebook sketch of a medieval timber-frame thatched house – was teased a bit at school when he held a cricket bat the wrong way round.

He left school at 16 after some poor O level grades and landed a clerical job in the town hall. But he left that to fight his way into architecture school, taking any job going to pay his way. Although he gives us more on the character of the place than the people (the family members described are all flat, with no discernible personality, even Foster’s parents Robert and Lillian, shown here with their boy), Sudjic nonetheless convincingly evokes the threadbare lives of the Foster family at this time with their gaslit homes with no telephones. The story of Foster’s determined escape from that world – to London, thence to Yale, and back to London for his first business partnership with the glamorous Richard Rogers, forever surrounded by adoring women – is dispassionately recounted.

Tightly-wound Foster always envied Rogers’ easy charm. But Foster, as Rogers quickly realized, was far better at communicating ideas.

You hear a lot about the buildings, of course, which is good only up to a point, since it’s the person you want to know more about. Foster really did reinvent architecture, at a time when modernism had lost its way. From his 1970s masterpieces such as the glass-walled, turf-roofed Willis Faber building in Ipswich (now Grade 1 listed) via the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank tower – conceived as a stack of bridges – to the Reichstag, the Gherkin, many great museums and airports, he is an undoubted genius. But I think we know this. What is meant to be a biography starts to resemble an architectural monograph – particularly in its second half, after Foster becomes an international phenomenon. There are so many buildings and projects to describe that it all becomes a bit breathless and disjointed. And are we really going to be fascinated by a lengthy description of the management structure of the mighty Foster office?

Finally Sudjic admits: “This is perhaps not so much a biography, but an account of what it is like to be an architect in a time when…” etc. That’s honest, because, indeed, this book fails as a biography. Foster the brilliant, world-beating architect remains an enigma.

“Norman Foster: a life in architecture” by Deyan Sudjic, pub. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, hb, 300 pages, £20.

Text © Hugh Pearman, images sampled from book © Norman Foster. Extended version of the review first published in The Sunday Times, May 30, 2010, as “Under Construction”.

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