Book review: Norman Foster: A Life in Architecture

Norman Foster: A Life in Architectureby Deyan SudjicWiedenfeld & Nicholson, 352pp, £20

'How do you become an architect?" As a young man, Sir Norman Foster put this question to one of the architectural assistants in the practice where he was working as an assistant to a contract manager. He had arrived there half by accident and half by design, but when the assistant replied, "You find a school of architecture, you apply and, if you are accepted, you go," he wasted little time in doing just that.

Today he is the most powerful architect on the planet. At 75, he employs more than 1,000 people in offices worldwide, working on as many as 200 major projects at any one time, and is responsible for some of the most respected and instantly recognisable buildings in the world, from the Reichstag in Berlin to the Swiss Re building in London, otherwise known as the Gherkin. He has a personal fortune of 170 million and remains utterly, fascinatingly, driven.

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It is the exploration of this drive that is one of the more interesting elements of Norman Foster: A Life in Architecture by the esteemed architecture critic Deyan Sudjic.

What propels a quiet only child from working-class Levenshulme in Manchester to go from reading Dan Dare comics and obsessing over model aeroplanes to planning entire cities? Sudjic goes some way towards answering this question, going into detail on Foster's early life and his drive to elevate himself from his humble beginnings, but falls a little short elsewhere. It being a biography "of one of the world's foremost architects, written with his full co-operation," Sudjic massages an ego that could probably do with a little gentle pummelling here and there.

His biography tells the story of a smart, focused individual determined to escape his working-class roots and explore his fascination for buildings, bicycles and aeroplanes. With well-meaning but fairly distant parents, Foster was left to navigate this path alone, attending Manchester University then Yale, later teaming up with fellow architect Richard Rogers before going it alone with Foster & Partners.

All Foster's big projects are covered, from the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts – an aircraft-hangar-like space to house Lord Sainbury's art collection – to the Shanghai Bank in Hong Kong, New York's Hearst tower, the rippling glass roof of the Great Court at the British Museum and Foster's current baby, Masdar, the carbon-neutral city in Abu Dhabi.

For those with little knowledge of Foster's work, this book makes for a decent introduction, but anyone looking for any meaty revelations, new anecdotes and answers from Foster himself on more awkward questions will likely find themselves disappointed.

When Foster started working at his first architectural practice, he drew on linen, preparing surfaces with talc beforehand. Working with ruling pens, he lived in fear of unleashing a ghastly splodge of black ink over his perfect drawing. It happens to all architects at some time or another, particularly those who work as prolifically as Foster, but Sudjic might have you believe that not one of his buildings has been blighted by the occasional ugly blotch of ink.

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While he does cover the bumps in the long road of Foster's career, Sudjic simply accepts Foster's line on the various controversies he has found himself caught up in. There's the inflated expense of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, that famously wobbly Millennium Bridge and the use of the wrong type of stone for the British Museum, to name a few.

The answers to such questions need not paint Foster in a negative light, but the questions should at least have been asked. We're left wanting to hear from a less deferential voice on his achievements and could have done with insights from other leading architects, rather than leaving it to Sudjic – and to Foster himself, whose own contributions are a touch bland. He seems to have been given far too easy a ride.

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The success of the book comes from its insights into the young Foster's life. For a man who today wields so much power and commands so much respect, his vulnerability is touching. There's the story of his humiliation when, as a child, he holds a cricket bat the wrong way around. There's the time he feels crippling embarrassment when he addresses Sir Robert Sainsbury and his wife as "Bob and Lisa".

Most touching of all, however, is his relationship with his parents, who found it difficult to address or understand their only child's incredible drive to occupy a world very alien to theirs. Not knowing how to handle the situation, his mother doesn't ask him how he got on on his first day at university, something that hurts him deeply. Later, this time failing to understand his own parents' feelings, Foster takes off for Yale without so much as a backwards glance.

Such intimate anecdotes are not, however, particularly common. Beyond his relationship with his parents, we are privvy to very few details of his private life. His relationship with his first wife, who died of cancer, is given very little space, while his second wife gets just a sentence.

Sudjic has successfully answered the question as to how Norman Foster became an architect, and goes a long way to answer the "why". But those seeking answers to many of the other questions about one of the world's most fascinating living architects won't find them here.