Lauded by many as Britain’s greatest living architect, Lord Norman Foster used a lecture in Manchester to slam Green Belt release, promote Northern transport plans, and remind North West leaders that “design pays… but it’s never about how much money you spend.”
One of only four architects to be ever granted an Order of Merit, Foster was chosen to present at the inaugural Royal Fine Art Commission Trust lecture, held last week in Manchester Town Hall. He was introduced by the Trust’s chairman Lord Palumbo as “an architect at the pinnacle of his profession” and “a genius”.
Foster’s opening gambit was direct: “Design is at the core of our society, the very essence, the infrastructure that links communities and brings prosperity.”
Returning to the building that inspired the start of his career in the early 1950s, Foster began with a celebration of Manchester Town Hall, held up as “an emblem of civic pride and achievement”. He highlighted that when it was built in the 1860s, the brief was an ambitious one: to make it “equal if not superior to any building in the country”.
Foster advocated the importance of transport improvements across the region, which he said “cannot be overestimated”. Despite six out of Britain’s eight conurbations being located around the Peak District, he pointed out that the last big infrastructure innovations in the North were largely Georgian or Victorian, such as the ‘Snake Pass’ road between Manchester and Sheffield, built in 1821.
He welcomed rail infrastructure projects such as HS2, but highlighted a missed opportunity: “Our thinking is not holistic, and our anticipation of change could be improved. With extensive infrastructure for HS2 planned, this could be used to channel water, electricity, boost internet connectivity.”
While design work on the £3bn scheme has been ongoing for some time, Foster posited it was not too late to make changes, and joked: “All architects know no matter how much time you’ve been given to do a competition, at one minute to midnight you’ll still be doing it all over again.”
However, he was derisive when it came to the UK’s approach to housebuilding.
“If I had one plea to make it would be: safeguard the Green Belt. Until you lose it, you don’t know what you have, and it is unique to this country,” he said.
“We consume the land as if it is freely available. We think in terms of units, not communities, and what kind of environment do we create? Change becomes a threat. There’s no incentive for housebuilders to take a risk, so why would they challenge it? It has become a comfort zone.”
Foster’s architecture features across the world, from iconic city buildings to large-scale projects such as the development of Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport which involved levelling a mountain, Virgin Group’s Spaceport in New Mexico, and the £4bn Apple HQ under construction in California.
Speaking to Place North West after the lecture, Foster was adamant that despite working on so many high-profile and high-budget schemes, it wasn’t money that made a successful development.
“It’s a combination of the project, site and the people behind it; does someone really want to do something properly? It’s not about the amount of money or the size, it’s about attitude of mind.”
With these factors in mind, was a city such as Manchester capable of developing the kind of iconic buildings delivered by Foster elsewhere: London’s Gherkin or New York’s Hearst Tower?
“If the poorest quarter of a suburb in Buenos Aires can make a building which becomes a civic monument…” Foster smiled, referring to the City Hall designed by his practice for Argentina in 2015. “You look at the technology behind that building, it’s very basic. It’s poured concrete, you can’t even use steel, it’s not affordable.
“Many of these exercises are in very poor communities. If Manchester has done it in the past, Manchester can do it any time it chooses. Anyone can do anything if they feel strongly enough about it.”
Despite a lengthy architectural career, Foster’s schemes in the North West are minimal. Three and Four Hardman Square in Spinningfields, Manchester; the recently completed £6m Maggie’s Cancer Centre at The Christie; and Urban Splash’s Woodfield Road in Altrincham, are Foster’s only projects in the region. Which begs the question, why?
“I’m looking at projects all over the world; in California, New York, and we go where the action is,” Foster replied. “You go where you’re invited as an architect. But that means the people who invite you have a wider view, a wider perspective. They’re looking for talent, they’re looking for enthusiasm, they’re looking for commitment. But you have to want that, and if you don’t want it…” He shrugged. “It’s always easier to take the easy way out, and choose someone you know.”
During his lecture, Foster made a point of thanking “the true architects of innovation”; business and civic leaders in cities he has worked in, including media magnate Michael Bloomberg, former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, Argentina’s President Mauricio Macri, and Apple chief executive Steve Jobs.
Asked what his message would be to North West politicians and developers, Foster’s response was quick: “Design pays, and it pays with prosperity and opportunity.
“Everything is designed; whether that’s well, badly, or it’s mediocre and average. But that’s never about how much money you spend on it, it’s just about attitude.”