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Centre Pompidou, Paris to host the largest retrospective exhibition on Norman Foster

With the participation of Foster + Partners and the Norman Foster Foundation, the ‘Norman Foster’ retrospective exhibition dedicates itself to the leader of the ‘high-tech’ architectural trend.

by Jincy IypePublished on : May 02, 2023

Visionary architect Norman Foster (87) has designed some of the world’s most splendid, radical, and iconic edifices that exude confidence and power, from the Gherkin in London, UK to the Millau Viaduct in Aveyron, France, and the Apple Park in Cupertino, United States. Widely regarded as a leader of the ‘high tech’ trend in global and British architecture, Foster, born in 1935 in Manchester, has surpassed pinnacles, with several hundred works studied or realised on a global scale that regard the environment and sustainability at heart.

Drawing for Comprehensive School, Newport (1967) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Drawing for Comprehensive School, Newport (1967) Image: Courtesy of Foster + Partners

Organised by the Centre Pompidou, Paris, the Norman Foster exhibition is set to open from May 10 – August 7, 2023, designed by Foster in collaboration with Foster + Partners and the Norman Foster Foundation, as a large-scale retrospective exhibition dedicated to the British architect who became the 21st Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate in 1999. Curated by Frédéric Migayrou, deputy director of the Musée national d’art moderne, and chief curator of the design and industrial prospective department, the exhibition will take over nearly 2,200 sqm of Centre Pompidou’s Galerie 1, level 6, tracing and reviewing at length, the diverse periods in the architect’s career, including the highlights of his ‘cutting-edge’ creations, such as the headquarters of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (Hong Kong, 1979-1986), the Carré d’Art (Nîmes, 1984-1993), Hong Kong International Airport (1992-1998) and Apple Park (Cupertino, United States, 2009-2017).

  • JPMorgan, 270 Park Avenue (2022)  | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    JPMorgan, 270 Park Avenue (2022) Image: Norman Foster; Courtesy of dbox / Foster + Partners
  • JPMorgan, 270 Park Avenue (2022) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    JPMorgan, 270 Park Avenue (2022) Image: Courtesy of dbox / Foster + Partners

The layout of the exhibition design evolves over seven, prudent themes—Nature and Urbanity, Skin and Bones, Vertical City, History and Tradition, Planning and Place, Networks and Mobilities and Future perspectives—supported by an accretion of architectural drawings, sketches, original scale models and dioramas, along with numerous videos, that will enable visitors to uncover around 130 major projects by Foster.

Millau Viaduct (2004) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Millau Viaduct (2004) Image: Ben Johnson

“Any encounter with the work of architect Norman Foster immediately conjures up what seems to be his most striking projects, those that are synonymous with the image of a city, a region or, more simply, have changed the shape of a site or the configuration of a location or a square. Large airports, transport networks, tall buildings, the headquarters of large companies, public buildings, major structures, urban development programmes, museums… with several hundred projects studied or completed throughout the world, Norman Foster has engaged with the full complexity of the organisation of great industrial societies,” the press statement shared by Centre Pompidou mentions.

Hearst Headquarters (2006) (L); Salesforce Tower at Sydney Place (R) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Hearst Headquarters (2006) (L); Salesforce Tower at Sydney Place (R)Image: Chuck Choi; Brett Boardman

Ossifying a site with the city, its people, and nature through his architectural contributions, he has participated and contributed towards the complexity of massive industrial institutions. “As an architect of networks, exchange systems, transport, and communication organs, Foster has always sought to put the concept of environmental control at the heart of his creations,” the organisers relay. “He developed a global systemic understanding of nature and technology, reconciling technological progress with a sustainable ecological approach. The notion of a system, central to all his work, stems from a comprehensive understanding of the environment, the biosphere, and the technosphere. For him, architecture must take into account the new modes of interrelationships between populations, nature, and technological environments,” they add.

  • Apple Park (2018) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    Apple Park (2018) Image: Steve Proehl
  • Carré d´Art, Nimes (1984) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    Carré d´Art, Nimes (1984)Image: James Morris

The pristine location is apt for the major architectural exhibition, as this is the very building that was among the first manifestations of the ‘High Tech’ architectural trend of which Foster is widely regarded to be a leader—he founded the Team 4 agency in London in 1963 with British architect Wendy Cheesman (Foster’s spouse) and British-Italian architect Richard Rogers who, along with Italian architect Renzo Piano, would be the architect of the Centre Pompidou in 1977. In 1967, Foster founded his eponymous practice, Foster Associates, which became Foster + Partners in 1992.

  • Team 4 | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    Team 4Image: Courtesy of Foster + Partners
  • Norman Foster and Buckminster Fuller | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    Norman Foster and Buckminster FullerImage: Ken Kirkwood

At the Centre Pompidou, a drawing gallery greets guests at the entrance of the exhibition space, showcasing items never seen before in France, including drawings, sketchbooks, sketches, and photographs taken by the British architect. Works by French painter, sculptor, and filmmaker Fernand Léger, Romanian sculptor, painter and photographer Constantin Brancusi, Italian painter and sculptor Umberto Boccioni and Chinese contemporary artist, documentarian, and activist Ai Wei Wei will also be presented in the retrospective exhibition, because they are cited as Foster’s sources of inspiration and resonate with his architecture, along with industrial creations, a glider, and automobiles.

  • Great Court, British Museum (2000) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    Great Court, British Museum (2000) Image: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners
  • Bloomberg Headquarters (2017) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    Bloomberg Headquarters (2017) Image: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

“Norman Foster imposed the image of a practice that has preserved its identity as a global agency always open to research and innovation, and which integrates all technical, economic, social and environmental dimensions in its projects. A broader understanding of the concept of (the) environment as including nature, and the whole biosphere, is a central preoccupation in his work. He identifies high technology with a technosphere that monitors the destructive effects of the industrial world with an economy that is compatible with life on Earth. This global concept combining the deployment of technologies with a comprehension of the concept of environment is founded on the work of Richard Buckminster Fuller, the American architect with whom Foster worked on various projects. Thus, as early as the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when industrial society was waking up to environmental challenges, Norman Foster participated in the emergence of the ecological movement and its development in the course of more contemporary projects,” adds the Centre Pompidou.

  • Bloomberg Headquarters (2017) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    Bloomberg Headquarters (2017) Image: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners
  • Queen Alia International Airport (2012) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    Queen Alia International Airport (2012) Image: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

Organisation of the exhibition

(Text from Norman Foster)

Drawing gallery

Sketching and drawing (have) been a way of life for as long as I can remember. Someone said that, if you ask me a question, then I will do you a sketch. The spontaneous concept sketch, which might seem like a blinding flash of inspiration, is most likely borne out of a total immersion in the many issues. For me, design starts with a sketch, continuing as a tool of communication through the long process that follows in the studio, factories and finally onto the building site.

  • Millenium Bridge (2000) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    Millenium Bridge (2000) Image: Nigel Young / Foster + Partners
  • Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters (1986) (L); Commerzbank Headquarters (1997) (R) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
    Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank Headquarters (1986) (L); Commerzbank Headquarters (1997) (R)Image: Ian Lambot; Nigel Young / Foster + Partners

The drawing is a more premeditated exercise and the cutaway sectional perspective, along with three-dimensional details that I favour, have their links to past influences. In 1975 I started the habit of carrying an A4 notebook for sketching and writing – a selection of these (is) displayed in the central cabinets, surrounded by walls devoted to personal drawings. A further cabinet contains back-lit transparencies which I have captured with a camera and they chart some of the diverse design influences over time.

Lunar Habitation (2012) (top); Mars Habitat (2015) (bottom) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Lunar Habitation (2012) (top); Mars Habitat (2015) (bottom)Image: Courtesy of ESA / Foster + Partners; Courtesy of Foster + Partners

Nature and urbanity

These are two parallel worlds which intersect creatively. We can preserve nature by building dense urban clusters, with privacy ensured by design – the opposite of unsustainable urban sprawl. We can blend with the landscape by digging into it or leaving it undisturbed, by touching the ground lightly. By bringing nature into our cities and buildings we can humanise spaces with greenery, views, fresh air and natural light – more healthy, joyful and consuming less energy.

Vatican Chapel (2017) (L); Boathouse and Retreat (1956) (R) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Vatican Chapel (2017) (L); Boathouse and Retreat (1956) (R) Image: Courtesy of the The Norman Foster Foundation; Norman Foster

The tree is a metaphor for the ideal building. It breathes and responds to changes in the seasons. It is inspirational as a cantilevered structure in harmony with nature. As a self-sustaining ecosystem, it harvests water and solar energy, recycles waste and absorbs carbon dioxide. These design principles date back to the nineteen sixties. However, in the last decade, they have been scientifically proven to create environments which, compared to conventional practice, are more healthy and with improved levels of human performance. What is good for our spirit can also be good for the environment.

Great Court at the British Museum (2000) (top); Bloomberg Headquarters (2017) (bottom) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Great Court at the British Museum (2000) (top); Bloomberg Headquarters (2017) (bottom) Image: Norman Foster; Courtesy of The Norman Foster Foundation

Skin and bones

It was an eminent critic who observed that all of our projects could be categorised as either skin or bones depending on whether the dominant external expression was of the smooth façade – the skin – or the skeleton of a supporting structure. This figurative expression is not arbitrary, rather it is the outcome of considering, in each case, the relationship between the separate systems of structure, environmental services and external cladding. The selection of projects to illustrate this theme is random - and from all of the other categories. There are parallels between architecture, art and design.

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (1978) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts (1978) Image: Norman Foster

In a medieval cathedral, the structure is the architecture, and the architecture is the structure, as in several of our towers. Links can be drawn with the white gridded structures of Sol LeWitt, and Fernand Léger’s construction workers in their network of iron girders. The smooth aerodynamics of our skin projects resonate with the streamlined forms of automobiles and sculptures by Boccioni and Brancusi, and bear comparisons with the world of aviation – the streamlined fabric of airships or the white composites of high-performance sailplanes.

Millenium Bridge (2000) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Millenium Bridge (2000) Image: Courtesy of The Norman Foster Foundation

The vertical city

The skyscraper is emblematic of the modern-age city and is a reminder that the city is arguably civilisation’s greatest invention. A vertical community, well served by public transport, can be a model of sustainability especially when compared with a sprawling low-rise equivalent in a car-dependent suburb. Our own design history of towers is one of the challenging conventions. We were the first to question the traditional tower, with its central core of the mechanical plant, circulation and structure, and instead to create open, stacked spaces, flexible for change and with see-through views.

Here, the ancillary services were grouped alongside the working or living spaces. This led to a further evolution with the first-ever series of ‘breathing’ towers. In the quest to reduce energy consumption and create a healthier and more desirable lifestyle, we showed that a system of natural ventilation, moving large volumes of fresh filtered air, could be part of a controlled internal climate. My tower design in the Yale Master Class was prophetic in its elimination of the central core.

Skybreak House (1963) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Skybreak House (1963) Image: Norman Foster

History and tradition

It has been said that if you want to look far ahead to the future, first look far back to in time. This advice applies to many of our historic projects where the designs are rooted in a study of the past. Recycling an existing building, particularly one of civic importance, is far more sustainable than building afresh. Historic structures are typically marked by layers of growth – each of its own period – and our approach has been to continue that pattern with a respectful imprint of today, rather than a pastiche of the past.

Tradition in architecture overlaps with history and for me, it is the vernacular or indigenous tradition – once described as Architecture Without Architects. It fascinated me as a student and led me to measure and draw a medieval barn and windmill. The vernacular continues to inspire me as a design influence – not only in its forms but in the use of materials and the environmental lessons of cooling and heating before an age of cheap energy.

Stansted Airport (1991) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Stansted Airport (1991) Image: Norman Foster

Planning and places

Placemaking is related to the world of urban spaces – it is the infrastructure of streets, plazas, parks, bridges and connections – the urban glue that binds together the individual buildings and determines the DNA or identity of a town or city. The place is also the spirit, even if not spiritual by its origins. Infrastructure is at the heart of master planning and can generate, transform or reinvent a city or region. It can respond to crises from which, historically, cities have always emerged stronger. It can encourage the community of neighbourhoods and, by urban design interventions, show how small changes can deliver major environmental gains. Masterplanning can encourage a compact, sustainable, walkable and equitable city. It can bring nature and biodiversity, whether as a protective green belt, in parks, avenues of trees or dispersed through the urban fabric to beautify and clean the air we breathe. As a student, I analysed and documented some of the great European squares. Then, as now, I am as fascinated by the architecture of urban places, and the outdoor rooms, as I am by the architecture of individual buildings.

Private House (1962) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Private House (1962) Image: Courtesy of The Norman Foster Foundation

Networks and mobility

Mobility of people, goods and information need physical infrastructure, whether down on earth, aloft in space or on another planet. The growth in air travel, alongside high-speed rail networks, has provided us with the opportunity to reinvent the international terminal – to elevate it as the gateway to a nation, with all the attendant symbolism – to open it up to the sky for delight as well as savings of energy and maintenance. Bridges that connect riverbanks or plateaus in the landscape also have a heroic and symbolic dimension and have led us to structural innovation in the pursuit of visual lightness and identity of place. Even the digital world needs to come down to earth in the transmission tower which offers similar scope for reinvention.

Chesa Futura (2002) (top); Retreat at Pill Creek (1964) (bottom) | Norman Foster | Centre Pompidou | STIRworld
Chesa Futura (2002) (top); Retreat at Pill Creek (1964) (bottom) Image: Courtesy of The Norman Foster Foundation


Futures overlap with Networks and Mobility but are projected ahead in time and space. It anticipates a more autonomous world where clean energy sources are abundantly available – free from transmission grids and mega power stations. The Norman Foster Foundation is working on this concept with MIT’s Centre for Advanced Nuclear Energy Systems. A similar trend is apparent in mobility with autonomous self-driving systems. There are parallels with the recent revolution in telecommunications as satellites and handheld devices have replaced telephone exchanges and endless poles and cables in the landscape. Working with the European Space Agency and NASA, we have explored Lunar and Martian habitations. The dome-like structures have visual similarities with the system of droneports that we proposed for rural Africa – both use the earth of their locality as prime construction materials and all, literally, grow out of their sites. The science fiction fantasies and inspirations of my youth are the project realities of today.

The 'Norman Foster' retrospective exhibition will be held at Galerie 1, level 6 at the Centre Pompidou, Paris, from May 10 – August 7, 2023.

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