Norman Foster


The phrase 'made in Hong Kong' has not always implied the very best that money can buy. But buildings of this quality do not just happen anywhere, at any time. They happen because a rare combination of circumstances leads them to happen. That does not just mean that an innovative, perfectionist architect was lucky enough to have an innovative, perfectionist client who wanted the best and had enough ready cash to be able to afford it. Nor was the Hongkong Bank merely maintaining a well-established tradition and standard when it once again demanded to have 'the best bank in the world'. With '1997' closing in, and the Sleeping Dragon next door waking up at last to claim its rightful place in the world, and with it the territory of Hong Kong, the whole project is a calculated gesture of self-confidence designed to steady the nerves of Hongkongers for the changes ahead.

Such gestures do not come cheap. But there are still other considerations which put this extraordinary venture in proper perspective. Hong Kong is no longer just the Crown Colony of Hong Kong. It is one of the 'four tigers', or 'mini-Japans', which, along with Taiwan, South Korea, and Singapore, comprise the front line of the burgeoning Pacific Rim economies. Many analysts go so far as to claim that the global centre of economic energy has already shifted away from the West, and that it is the nations of the Pacific region, centred on, and pulled along by the Japanese economic locomotive, and also by the newly liberated Chinese economy, which will dominate in the next century. It is towards this larger, Pacific stage, that Foster's subtle regionalism is appropriately directed. And if this building points the way towards one kind of rebirth, then that architectural event pales in comparison with the other awakening it also symbolises.

From: 'A building for the Pacific Century'. The Architectural Review, July 1986, p. 60.

Understandably, William Morris and his followers in the Arts and Crafts Movement saw nothing in industrialisation but 'hard' machines, rigid mass-production lines, human alienation and a block to artistic expression. What they could not see was that industrialisation would not always have to mean such things. Neither is it necessary to subscribe to any mystical Zeitgeist, or 'spirit of the times', in order to recognise the impact of technological change on society, or to want to get the most out of the available materials and tools of modern industry, as Foster does. Failure to do so would mean a tragic loss of opportunity to take advantage of the new technology to create a more responsive architecture. Unlike the machine models of the First Machine Age but like the computers which are increasingly used in their design, manufacture and day-to-day operation, Foster's architectural 'machines' are designed for interactive use. They might also be called 'soft machines', not just for their adaptability or 'smart' environmental control systems, but because they exhibit a responsive character in the way they are made. Anything but the stamped-out replicas of early Modernist ambition, they look like the finely crafted, custom-made machines they are. As such they resolve some long-standing architectural conflicts of aims. The Bauhaus failed to deliver the 'new kind of collaborator for industry and the crafts' promised by Gropius, because neither he nor any of his colleagues could cross the gulf between the creative and craftsman-like attitudes and skills taught in the Bauhaus workshops, and the technological and commercial realities of industrial production. Foster's work demonstrates that the gap between the art and craft of architecture and the machinery of industry can be bridged after all, but only by dispensing with orthodox Modernist dogma on standardisation. And that goes for even conventional production machinery. With the general introduction into the building industry of Beer's cybernetic factory, the gap promises to be reduced still further, to the point where it may become meaningless. As Foster puts it: "The concept of a new era of craftsmanship - 'hand made by robots' - opens up an exciting prospect in which technology can design out standardisation and produce richly customised 'one-offs'.

From: 'From hard to soft machines'. In I. Lambot (ed). Norman Foster: Buildings and Projects, Vol. 3. Watermark, 1989, p. 19.

...Beyond such debates about form and meaning, however, the completion of Terminal 3 (in Beijing) begs a much larger and more worrisome question, around which the future course of air travel hangs, and with it, much of modern development generally. Foster and Mouzhan Majidi, Foster's CEO and the lead architect for the project, who also worked on Chek Lap Kok, justly claim that, with all its energy efficient features, including plentiful natural light and low-level displacement air supply (note the characteristic Foster 'pods'), Terminal 3 is one of the most sustainable building designs of its kind. However, unlike the grand railway terminals that partly inspire the Foster model, the awkward fact is that airport terminals are specifically designed to support a far different and less sustainable form of transportation. This has long been a contentious point, but soaring fuel prices and levels of pollution - not least in Beijing itself - have brought the issue to a sharp focus, as never before.

Many years earlier, the Hongkong Bank faced a promising but uncertain future as Hong Kong prepared for the colony's return to China. Conceived and designed on a suitably expansive scale for a transport industry serving the fastest growing and second largest economy in the world, Beijing's Terminal 3 and its users face an equally promising but suddenly uncertain future of a different kind. The Dragon has spread its wings, but how long it will be able to keep up its headlong flight, or what new directions it might take, remain to be seen.

From 'The Dragon Spreads its Wings'. The Architectural Review, August 2008, p. 48.