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Who is Norman Foster & how can 
architects learn from him?

Topics Covered


Norman Foster, or Baron Foster of Thames Bank, is a name that resonates with both aspiring architects and seasoned professionals alike. From towering skyscrapers to cutting-edge bridges, Foster’s work has influenced cities around the globe. But who is Norman Foster? What got him into architecture, and what can we all learn from his storied career? Let’s delve into his world!

Early Life and Education

Born in Stockport, England, in 1935, Foster’s path into architecture wasn’t exactly straightforward. Raised in a working-class family, he began his working life in the Manchester City Treasurer’s office. An interest in design and construction grew as he ventured into the world of town planning.

Foster then served in the Royal Air Force before attending Manchester School of Architecture. From there, he won a scholarship to Yale University in the U.S., earning a Master’s degree in Architecture. His journey teaches us that passion and perseverance can take us to unexpected heights!

Building a Career in Architecture

Norman Foster founded Foster Associates, now known as Foster + Partners, in 1967. With a love for high-tech design and an eye for innovation, Foster quickly became a pioneer in modern architecture.

His emphasis on using steel and glass, combining aesthetics with functionality, created an entirely new approach to building. His open and collaborative working environment also made his firm an incubator for fresh ideas and talent.

Iconic Works

The Gherkin, London

To the discerning architectural eye, Sir Norman Foster’s 30 St Mary Axe, colloquially known as the Gherkin Building, stands as a testament to contemporary design, merging sustainability with an avant-garde form that is both functional and symbolic.

Form and Aesthetics


At first glance, the building’s elliptical shape is its defining feature. This isn’t a mere stylistic flourish; it arises from an astute combination of structural rationale and environmental strategy. The spiraling bands that wrap the building are a poetic expression of the floor plans, breaking the mass into a series of shifting layers that gracefully reduce its visual weight and soften its skyline impact.

Structural Innovation


Adopting a diagrid structure – a network of diagonally intersecting metal or concrete elements – the Gherkin eschews the need for a conventional frame. This absence of interior columns creates expansive, uninterrupted floor spaces, enhancing flexibility and maximizing rental areas. The diagrid also imparts significant strength, facilitating the tapering form and producing savings in materials.

Sustainability and Environment


In an age demanding sustainable architectural solutions, the Gherkin is a paragon of eco-friendly design. Its aerodynamic form, with the facade’s diamond-shaped panels, encourages natural ventilation. These panels operate as a double-skin system, reducing heat gain and providing insulation. The building’s shape itself aids in reducing wind loads, minimizing the urban heat island effect.

Moreover, the shafts that spiral between each floor create a natural ventilation system. They draw in fresh air from outside and allow warm air to rise and exhaust, a process enhanced by the pressure differentials and stack effect. This results in a substantial reduction in the building’s reliance on mechanical ventilation and air conditioning. It’s a testament to how form can enhance performance.

Urban Context and Connectivity


Located in London’s financial heart, the Gherkin’s position presented challenges. Yet, Foster and his team embraced these, sculpting a base that respects the surrounding urban context. The building’s footprint cleverly integrates public spaces, creating a plaza that invites pedestrian interaction and offers respite in the bustling cityscape.

Its height and distinctive shape, though certainly contemporary, engage in a subtle dialogue with the historic landmarks around, from the Tower of London to St. Paul’s Cathedral. It’s neither overpowering nor recessive, but a harmonious addition to the skyline.

Interior Spaces


Inside, the Gherkin is as much about spatial quality as its exterior is about form and sustainability. The atrium spirals up to the pinnacle, drawing the gaze upwards, creating a sense of dynamism. Natural light permeates the building, reducing dependence on artificial lighting. This, combined with the open-plan spaces, engenders a sense of transparency and collaboration — essential for modern workspaces.

The Gherkin Building isn’t merely an iconic structure for London’s skyline. It exemplifies the ideals of modern architecture, combining form, function, and sustainability. Foster’s design language speaks to the evolving needs of urban spaces and workplaces. The Gherkin stands as a reminder of architecture’s potential to address global challenges while uplifting the human spirit.

HSBC Headquarters, Hong Kong


A symbol of strength and stability, this headquarters is more than just an office building; it’s a statement piece that redefined banking buildings.

In the heart of Hong Kong’s bustling Central District stands the HSBC Headquarters, a groundbreaking piece of architecture that is both a nod to the city’s colonial past and a vision of its future.

Structure and Flexibility


The building’s most striking feature is its modular design, which revolves around the concept of a “suspended” building. Foster’s ingenious structural system suspends office floors from steel masts, resulting in a column-free interior that fosters openness and flexibility. This feature was, in part, a response to the rapidly changing nature of banking operations, ensuring that the building could adapt to the bank’s evolving needs.

Transparency and Light


Foster employed a glass facade, emphasizing transparency and accountability, which are paramount in banking. The open atriums and reflective mirrors also ensure that natural light filters through every floor, reducing energy costs and creating an uplifting work environment.

Cultural Integration


Foster was mindful of Hong Kong’s cultural milieu. The building is raised on pillars, creating a public space below and allowing pedestrians to traverse and partake in the longstanding tradition of the noontime lion dance. Feng Shui principles were incorporated, from the positioning of escalators to the flowing water installations, underscoring the bank’s respect for local customs.

Reichstag, Berlin


Foster’s renovation of the Reichstag added a stunning glass dome, symbolizing transparency in government and seamlessly blending old with new.

The Reichstag Building’s renovation was no ordinary project; it involved rejuvenating a structure marred by war and decay, and turning it into a symbol of a reunified Germany. Foster’s intervention here is a masterclass in blending historical reverence with contemporary design.

Dome and Vantage Point


The iconic glass dome is a centrepiece of Foster’s design. Symbolizing transparency in governance, visitors can ascend its spiralling ramps to a viewing platform, overlooking the parliamentary proceedings below. It offers both a literal and metaphorical perspective on democratic processes.

Energy Efficiency


The Reichstag is a beacon of sustainable design. The dome doesn’t just serve an aesthetic purpose; it acts as a natural light and ventilation source, focusing sunlight into the plenary chamber below. A large sun shield tracks the movement of the sun electronically and blocks direct sunlight, which could dazzle those below. This blend of design and functionality represents a forward-thinking approach to energy efficiency.

Respecting the Past


Instead of obliterating traces of history, Foster chose to preserve bullet holes and graffiti left by Soviet soldiers. These serve as poignant reminders of the building’s, and Berlin’s, tumultuous past.



The Reichstag’s interiors, though modern, exude warmth. Materials like terracotta and timber imbue a sense of organic comfort. The plenary chamber, designed to foster debate, has a hemispheric form where members of parliament sit in a circle, promoting a sense of equality and collaboration.

What Can We Learn from Norman Foster?

Sustainability Matters


Foster’s emphasis on eco-friendly design isn’t just a trend; it’s a mission. His work with renewable energy and materials shows us that sustainability is both beautiful and necessary.

Innovation is Key


Foster never shies away from trying something new. Whether it’s unique building shapes or pioneering construction techniques, his willingness to experiment sets a precedent for creativity in architecture.

Collaboration Leads to Success


Foster’s collaborative approach within his firm and with clients reflects the importance of teamwork and open communication in architecture. No design is an island, after all!


Norman Foster’s impact on architecture is beyond a mere collection of buildings. It’s a legacy that reminds us that architecture isn’t just about concrete and steel, but about innovation, collaboration, and responsibility to our environment.

Whether you’re sketching your first building or overseeing cityscapes, Foster’s career provides valuable insights and inspiration. His story is a reminder that architecture is a living, breathing art form, constantly evolving and challenging us to look beyond the blueprint. Here’s to the architects who dare to dream, just like Norman Foster!

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