A spaceport, a new solar-powered city, and how to save a slum: J.M. Ledgard meets a towering figure in architecture and finds him poised halfway from the Victorians to the space age 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, November/December 2012

IT IS NIGHT and I am taking a taxi back through the desert from Norman Foster's carbon-neutral Masdar City. We are lost, idling on a back road on Yas Island, behind Ferrari World, a racetrack and what claims to be the largest indoor amusement park in the world. My taxi driver, a Syrian, calls for directions to the hotel. I step out of the car. The only sound is the rustling of the desert wind and behind it the call of wading birds on a nearby lagoon. The smell is of tarmac. The underside of the sky glimmers with oil flares. On the horizon is the centre of Abu Dhabi—a rectangular smudge. 

No wonder we got lost, I think, when we finally get to the hotel. It is no place, or more precisely its sense of place is redundant. It hovers, brightly lit, seemingly untenanted. The windows of my room do not open. I think, this building is not a Foster building, not by a long shot. I sit at the desk in my room and make notes about Masdar, Foster, "sustainability" and "resilience", and I can clearly imagine the architect anatomising this nowhere, his soft Mancunian burr, amiable, yet precise. Foster thinks we'll build cities higher, closer, safer, quieter, cleaner and smarter. I want to believe him, but then I think about Africa and what is coming there.

THE FOSTER AND PARTNERS studio, on the south bank of the Thames between Albert and Battersea Bridges, is both busy and austere. A Nordic hospital, I thought when I wandered in, but this may only be because I live in Africa and have become attuned to tropical vegetation and mess. In any case, the coolness is offset by the vitality of the young architects with their espressos propped up along a long, narrow counter by the entrance. Foster and Partners is a magnet for young talent. They work harder for less money than at some other firms, but, like a trainee in a Michelin-starred restaurant, they learn from the best. Foster says the firm is his greatest achievement. It is supple, youthful, and even though apprentices fly easyJet while the master pilots into London from his home in Switzerland in his own plane, there is a sense of common purpose. In this, Foster builds what he preaches.

The studio floor is washed in light from double-height windows that give out onto the Thames. Across the brown swirling waters of the river is the rich terracotta of Chelsea. Nearly everyone works in this large, quiet, unbroken space. "Whatever their job description," runs Foster's challenge to himself, "everyone has a place at one of the long workbenches; the arrangement is very fluid, with no division between design and production." Yet the studio clearly shows the Victorians' influence on Foster. The ghosts of great 19th-century engineers are apparent in the sweeping views of London and its hidden engineering. Foster has X-ray eyes that take in not just bricks and mortar, but the flow of people, vehicles, water, waste and energy into and out of buildings. His choice of lordship—he is Baron Foster of Thames Bank—is a tribute to the Victorian Sir Joseph Bazalgette, who built the London sewer system, the Embankment, and Albert and Battersea Bridges.

One of Foster's strengths is that he balances his enthusiasms. He is the modern architect on a tightrope holding a pole. At one end of the pole are the Victorians: Bazalgette, Alfred Waterhouse (who designed Manchester Town Hall), and all kinds of systems thinkers. At the other end is the space age, represented particularly by his friend Buckminster Fuller. "Buckie" was a radical American architect and thinker who invented the geodesic dome, and pushed Foster towards utopianism. "Buckie once said that you can consider me a trim tab. Everyone admires the Queen Mary when it sails by in all its glory and pomp," Foster says, "but it is really the trim tab that makes such a difference." I nod blindly. Later I find out that a trim tab is an additional rudder that helps keep a ship or a plane on course.

For our interview, Foster sat at a table at the Albert Bridge end of the building. Architects and journalists had warned me beforehand that he was brittle, opportunist, slick at escaping blame. There was a refrain that he was played out, that he had lost his way with bling projects in bling places. In my brief encounter, at least, he was not at all like that. My fears that I'd be meeting a Scrooge overseeing a body of Cratchits were allayed when early on he got up and walked me across the office to show off detailed charts on the performance of shade, cooling and insulation in Masdar City. Instead of employees parting in front of him, he swerved cheerfully around them—the genius-shithead roller-coaster described by some of Steve Jobs's Apple colleagues was nowhere in evidence. At 77, Foster was almost boyish; a performance perhaps, except that he was also cheerful, generous with his time and thoughts, and, most tellingly, his greatest enthusiasm in the conversation was for somewhere he did not know and had not yet seen.

His first enthusiasm was Manchester. Foster was born in the city in 1935, and grew up in a terrace in Stockport—something like the compact and chattering homes in "Coronation Street". Foster's mother and father were "blue-collar" (he doesn't say "working-class"); at the end of the street was a railway bridge, whose arches framed larger, middle-class houses beyond. Even as a boy, Foster drew Manchester. He saw the city clearly: grimy, yes, but larger than life. Manchester was the first city of global trade and attendant futurism. It held the spark of the industrial revolution, the inventiveness and cruelty of mill-owners, Engels and Marx in Chetham's library, coal and railways, energy and speed, the whole acceleration. Could Foster have been the same architect if he had grown up in Bristol or Canterbury? Would he have become an architect at all? As it was, Foster "wangled" his way into a job at an architecture office and was accepted to study architecture at the University of Manchester. A scholarship to Yale followed, where he met another towering British architect, Richard Rogers, and the course was set. 

Foster became prolific. Even his biographer, Deyan Sudjic, the director of the Design Museum in London, finds summing up his oeuvre defeats him. Of Foster's early works, Sudjic points to the Willis Faber & Dumas building in Ipswich (1975). From the outside, it is a piece of obsidian, simultaneously slicing light and sucking it in. The interior structure was even more original: Foster used escalators in the three-storey building, a rooftop garden and a swimming pool to show that the workplace could be democratic and not a place for drudgery. The Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia followed in 1978. The brief was to open up art to daylight, to make it, again, more democratic. Foster's own description credits its design as having "an infinitely flexible system for the control of natural and artificial light". The lightness of the structure—the first of many forms influenced by aircraft hangars—was groundbreaking; it was the space produced by the building, not the building itself, that afforded beauty and utility. Just as significant was the timing. Both edifices were built in the dog years of British class warfare and hyperinflation. They sent a message that even in difficult times Foster could build something unencumbered.

With the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and desktop computing, what happened to Foster's firm reflected what happened more broadly: capital sped up and went global, air travel became commonplace, telecommunications went portable. Hong Kong was one of the first frontiers of the emerging economies. Foster's Hongkong and Shanghai Bank, finished in 1986, is probably the most significant building in his early history. It marked the arrival of a new kind of tower. It was also among the last buildings to be completely physically modelled. Thereafter, computer modelling offered progressively more fantastic aerated designs. Above all, the building struck a blow for Asia, standing as majestic proof of a continent's return to greatness. The firm became Foster and Partners, a machine capable of building consistently good and sometimes astonishing buildings right across the planet.