Foster and Gehry


If Norman Foster and Frank Gehry had practised in ancient Greece, I imagine that they would have worshipped very different gods. With his low energy concerns and expertise in using natural light, Foster would have naturally gravitated toward Apollo, the powerful sun-god. Committed to high performance design, he would also have admired the much-gifted Apollo for his skill with the bow and arrow - a man-powered, tension-structured and lightweight combination that might have been invented by Buckminster Fuller in a former life. Foster would have especially like Apollo's other role as the god of divination and prophesy, and would doubtless have been a regular visitor to Apollo's most famous temple in the mountains at Delphi. There he would have consulted with the legendary oracle of Delphi, happily tuning in to future architectural and technological trends, and probably offering a few forecasts of his own.

Gehry also has a way with using natural light which might suggest a similar affinity with Apollo, but that doesn't get us to the real heart and spirit of Gehry's work. No, there would have been only one true divinity for Gehry back then: Dionysus, the sensual and very popular god of wine and pleasure. All those exuberant legends and other exotic figures surrounding Dionysus, not to mention the wild festivals: just the sort of thing to inspire one of history's most uninhibited designers. And if Dionysus himself were to relocate in time and place, where would his worshippers feel most comfortable today? Why, hedonistic California of course - Gehry's adopted home state and the main wine producing region in the US. The only thing lacking is a shared worship of fish - adored by Gehry but not especially by Dionysus. Incidentally, Gehry has said that he hopes to retire one day to run his own vineyard. A true follower!

However, appealing as such caricatures may be, like any polarized comparison they obscure the more interesting shades of character and ambiguities that surround both architects and their work. Seminal buildings, such as the Hongkong Bank in Foster's case and the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum in Gehry's, have also come to dominate popular perceptions of what these architects are about, to the extent that they often make us forget that such works were not always typical or representative of their designers' intentions and concerns, and may - as in Foster's case if not in Gehry's - have already been superseded by the architect's more recent projects.

Both architects' paths also overlap in unpredictable ways, each designer mostly travelling in opposite formal and spatial directions, while in other respects coming closer together, most particularly in their working methods, though also in other ways...

From: Architecture, Technology and Process. Architectural Press, 2004, p. 91-93.