In anticipation of Foster + Partners 50th-anniversary journalist and architecture critic Alexander Ostrogorsky talked to Bruno Moser, practice partner and head of its Urban Design team.
Norman Foster founded his practice in 1967, and in 2017 Foster + Partners celebrates its 50th anniversary. Over the past half of a century the "ordinary guy from Manchester’s work class suburbs" became a Pritzker Architecture Prize laureate, was granted a title of a lord, created one of the largest global architecture companies and built a dozen and a half of most recognisable buildings in the world. In any case, his is the story cherished by the press and architectural society both. Foster accomplished something that so many can only dream of: built a successful business and remained a figure recognised by the public and respected by colleagues. His secret — Foster managed to turn radical and utopian ideas of the 1960s, futuristic projects envisioned by Buckminster Fuller and Archigram into real, tangible, profitable and fame-attracting iconic buildings.
Drawing inspiration from this 50-year-long story, Foster + Partner’s Urban Design Group head Bruno Moser during his lecture at HSE High School of Urbanism’s newly opened Shukhov Lab spoke of the milestones planned for the next 50 years, when the company will expand to Mars and the Moon. Strelka Magazine talked to Bruno about the architect’s role in building the future and whether thinking of the future is even that important after all.
— We are sitting in a building where Vladimir Shukhov worked for many years, and Shukhov is one of the people to whom Norman Foster referred as a source of inspiration. Foster even spoke against demolition of Shukhov’s Shablovka tower. Yet neither Shukhov nor Foster’s teacher Buckminster Fuller, or today’s Sergey Brin or Elon Musk are architects — they are all engineers. So maybe engineers are the main heroes of human history, while architects only get to make a colourful wrapping for their inventions? Should we ask ourselves, the architects, if we make any difference at all?
— No, I think architects do make a difference and it’s an important profession. Yet what kind of example do Shukhov, Fuller or 2015 Pritzker laureate Frei Otto set for us? It’s the approach where one should think about design and structure and engineering in an integrated way, and that approach allows to create outstanding things capable of changing our lifestyles, our perception of cities and the modern world. And I think that their approach and spirit remain true today, and that is something we need very much. With the way our cities evolve and change, it’s not just about the design of space in itself, although that’s obviously important. Architects, designers, engineers, transport planners all need to work together to be able to address the challenges that we face today.
— What role does an architect play here?
— We build infrastructure, housing, office buildings, whole new cities. It’s continuous renewal. I think architectural and urban planning skills will remain relevant for a long time. I would argue that there’s a distinction between designing buildings and doing urban planning ‒ while architects are best at designing single structures, a different skillset is required to design cities.
— Do we live in times when architects have no obligation to provide new, radical, even utopian version of the cities of the tomorrow? Do we even need utopias anymore? We still struggle to realize that modern technologies have changed everything.
— I think there is still a place for utopias, yet they are moving away from being simply how people envision future cities. The building we sit in appeared years before us, and the way it is used has changed a lot. What’s happening outside these windows is very different from what was happening there many years ago. The changes became more subtle, they lie in the way we interact with the city. Will flying cars pass outside these windows some day? Or will people stop owning personal cars altogether? The authors of the past focused on physical appearance, often failing to address the content of the cities.
— What changes will be most notable?
— I’m not a futurologist, but I would agree with those who say that there will be a progression to fully autonomous vehicles. That will be the age of service mobility — a term that is being thrown around a lot today — when the tie between owning a vehicle and personal mobility will be severed. A car will arrive, pick you up and transport you to your destination, then park or move straight to another passenger. This one little change could transform how the street outside these windows will look.
— At one point you used to work on London School of Economics research projects The Endless City and Urban Age. And then you moved to Masdar City at Foster and Partners. How did it feel to move from researching unflattering reality of modern metropolises to working on something nearly utopian?
— In this project we tried to create a new vision for a city located in a part of the world that had developed in a somewhat unsustainable way over the last 50 years. Through the availability of oil in the region a lot of wealth became available and the cities there developed in a very land-hungry, very sprawling fashion. We made an attempt to explore an alternative direction which would employ useful solutions developed here, like narrow streets and shading, and at the same time would diminish the negatives such as large amount of private transport and extensive use of air conditioning. Today at already completed Masdar Institute of Technology, local air temperature and microclimate show that more natural ways of providing coolness are capable of improving life in these cities.
— However, the project has been controversial from the very start: building an entire city from the ground up can hardly be called an effective use of resources. Did you manage to achieve the set goals, and how has Masdar been developing since?
— We commissioned the Masdar Institute of Technology with its labs and teaching spaces, and we are no longer involved in the project. There has been a lot of thinking and talking about what a sustainable city really is. In my opinion, at some point it is important to shift from thinking of doing, to build it just to test if it works. In reality a sustainable city is something very different depending on which part of the world you’re in, what kind of problems does that region experience and what type of technology would be most efficient there. And I think it’s also important to acknowledge that the city is not a real estate project. One can build several buildings close to each other, but a city needs many other layers to make it come all together. One of the challenges of Masdar was that a lot of the infrastructure projects that would connect it to the surrounding areas didn’t happen as fast as they were planned. Local and regional transportation failed to develop simultaneously with the project, and this lack of connectivity made it very difficult for Masdar to take off properly, as a city cannot be isolated from its surroundings.
— What are your thoughts on professional education for architects and city planners?
— In many ways the world has gotten much faster and more complicated. I think we need to train the next generation of designers, architects and city designers to think much more interdisciplinary. The challenge is not to necessarily cut short on the design education but to find ways of layering in a much more deep understanding of other disciplines — very much in tradition of Shukhov. Designing a "nice building" is not going to cut it anymore. I think it makes sense from a structural point of view for city designers to understand the sociology, the transport and engineering of cities.
— In every discipline people ask themselves what is going on and are wondering what will be next. How and what can we even learn from them?
— I should probably ask you that! What we do within our team — I lead Urban Design at Foster + Partners — is try to look at a challenge or a project from many different points of view. We need to take into account commercial realities and the fact that at the end of the day somebody has to pay for whatever we are going to build. We must think very carefully about the end users of sociology of the place, not just about the buildings themselves but also about the space between the buildings. So, we got a little interdisciplinary team that includes landscape architects, planners, social anthropologists, economists and other experts, trying to provide these different points of view. I’m not claiming that we can capture every facet but I think we try very hard to create a balanced vision of the project’s future impact and understand the needs and aspirations of our stakeholders.
— How do you measure the success of urban projects? With some of them lasting for decades and having so many factors involved it can be hard to discern success from failure.
— I think there are different ways of looking at it. One is to observe the end users. If they are happy, and if there are many of them, that probably means that you did everything right. Trafalgar Square, which we redesigned in 2003, is one such example. Clients coming back to you are another indication of success. For instance, we were doing a lot of work with the city of Dusseldorf in Germany, and over the years we had an ongoing relationship based on the initial master plan. We would look at different aspects of the situation, develop a solution and get it implemented. But there is no common recipe, every case is unique. On the one hand, we are trying to take advantage of technologies such as GIS and become more objective with our solutions. Today that amount of available data has dramatically changed our understanding of cities and revealed hidden layers of how places function. At the same time, I think it is important to balance out the data research with actually being on the street and talking to people. Some things just cannot be expressed in numbers. At the end of the day in every project, you need to adjust the way you work on the fly because everything always starts changing faster than you could ever imagine.
Finally, we have been trying to adopt an integrated way of work at the office, which means that we are all sitting in an open office and nothing obstructs the exchange of ideas. The Urban Design team consists of 10 people, so we are a tiny part of the office which employs almost 1500 people. We work predominantly on urban scale projects, including anything from strategic planning aspects to more traditional master planning work. We also work closely on a lot of projects with the architects who are dealing with a single building and need to understand the way people will use that space, or to analyse the flow of people inside it.
— In your lecture, you are going to talk about year 2067, when Foster + Partners will be celebrating its 100th anniversary. If Foster and Partners continues to exist for another 50 years, that will be the first time in history when an architectural practice will have witnessed so many changes. What does having fifty years of experience mean? What changes happened through these fifty years, and do you expect in the next fifty?
— The founder’s spirit is strong at Foster + Parters. The group of people that Foster assembled around himself continues his mission, although Lord Foster no longer oversees every project personally. He created the company basically from the ground up. There has been a progression of themes over time and we always revisit those themes before making a new step. We always strive to maintain relationships with our clients, to have the opportunity to go back to our buildings and see how they function. Our design board reviews our every project, assuring their quality. We do want to be at a cutting edge of design and use technology to the best of our abilities, but we realise that creating high-end offices New York is something very different from providing designs for schools in Africa, and we are willing to push those boundaries.