Meeting Norman Foster

As the Boston Book Festival wrapped up its rich three days of activities around the city recently, one thousand people gathered in the spectacular space of Trinity Church for the culminating event. And I was supposed to be one of them. If I could just find a parking spot. 

"Will you get a chance to relax this weekend?" the chatty middle-aged guy had queried the day before, as he rung up my groceries at a Trader Joe's far from the city. "Actually, yes. I'm going to a talk by what many consider the world's greatest living architect."

"In Boston?" the clerk leaped on the wrong piece of surprise. "But you'll have to find parking!"


And of course, I was having trouble finding somewhere and resorted to the labyrinthine confines of a downtown mall lot. It is impossible to express the confusion of possible paths. The main way even involved squeaking past a ventilator shaft built in the very middle of the path. The influence of a great architect was certainly not in evidence. What a relief to finally be outside in the fresh air, once a miracle spot had opened up. 

I scuffled over to Copley Square, boldly entered the magnificent Victorian hulk of Trinity just in time, and looked for a place to park myself. Being more of a compact car than my big old cumbersome van, I declined the easy back rows and opted for the front of the full crowd. I plonked myself in a little spot on a pew beneath the pulpit and had time to gaze around in awe. Great spaces never get old. 

The first thing Foster did after he was introduced by architect Graham Gund was to acknowledge that it was a privilege to appear in such an historic venue, the first great triumph of American architect Henry Hobson Richardson.

Echoes of Home

Then Sir Norman Foster gave a slide show of ideas: juxtaposed developments in the design of everyday objects and echoed ideas in the development of architecture.

For this he frequently referenced the Sainsbury Center from my home town in England. I was amused to find I was the only audience member chuckling at his quips and quotes on the building's Norfolk and Norwich setting. 

Norman Foster, Trinity Church, Boston. Slide shows Foster with architecture iconoclast Buckminster Fuller, Sainsbury Ctr. Norwich


Foster was then interviewed onstage by the beautiful Paola Antonelli from Mexico who is the Senior Curator in the Dept. of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. During the interview she vividly described the privilege, at the age of fifteen, of sitting between the pilots in the cockpit as a flight descending into Mexico City Airport: how the land spread out, charged closer; how it rushed up to meet one. The view utterly delighted and enthralled her.

As he listened to her vivid description, Foster leaned forward, focused intently on the speaker's face, as though the audience was suddenly irrelevant, and his eyes twinkled with delight. He seemed to be utterly gripped by the vision she had spread before his mind's eye. The 79-year-old venerable giant of the design world was as enthralled as a child.

I enjoyed seeing his delight up close when afterwards, as the crowds outside dispersed, I was able to thank Foster for the Sainsbury Center in Norwich, England, with its influence in my youth to love architecture, great design, and the visual.  His eyes crinkled with delight at the story.

Trinity Church, Copley Place, Boston, against the contrast of the Hancock Tower

The Boston Book Festival main tent, where book signings take place

The autograph line

Meeting Norman Foster

The Future of the Airport

Foster is himself an avid pilot and he famously relaxes with solo glider flights where, in the isolated silence, he frequently gets answers to architectural conundrums. His award winning designs of airport terminals, from Stanstead outside London, to Hong Kong and more recently Beijing (at five miles long, the largest space in the world under a single roof), have repeatedly reinvented the airport terminal as we know it.

Going back to the talk, Foster said he concluded it was time to do it again and was pleased to say that his latest commission will once again challenge the convention of the terminal.  A $2.2B radical airport terminal design in Mexico City is slated to open in 2018, aiming to serve 120 million passengers a year. The structure seen from above will echo the national symbols of Mexico: the eagle, the snake and the cactus. Foster explains the symbolism and showcases the design in this recently released preview. 


A few choice remembrances from the talk:

Curiosity opened my mind and opened my eyes.

I enjoy the introvert, sketchbook in hand; but also the extrovert, sparking off a creative team.

The role of the architect is to be a good listener, to understand what the concerns and needs are. The story of architecture is the story of explorations, the art of the possible; of seriously listening.

The flamboyant, Mexican-native interviewer opened her chat by stating that she had visited the Millau Viaduct in the south of France, one of Foster's masterpieces. It spans an entire valley and is the highest bridge in the world, higher than the Eiffel tower. Referencing that visit, she said, "Lord Foster, I have been in tears in front of your architecture." And then she asked him if there was ever a building that had made him cry? The look of surprise on this patriarchal Englishman's face!

I cry inwardly ... inwardly ...

was his measured answer, as the audience murmured amusement. But the touché moment came at the conclusion of the interview, Foster having outlined his grand plans for the Mexico City airport terminal. The interviewer concluded, "Lord Foster, I am really looking forward to crying when I go to Mexico City."