One of the most influential architects of the 21st century, Norman Foster has designed a vast range of buildings.
Some are familiar London landmarks, such as The Gherkin and Millennium Bridge, while many other examples of his work are found worldwide.
Lord Foster has designed important civic buildings, public infrastructure, airports and offices – we take a look at his life and highlight some of his most astounding work.
Dive in to find out all about him!
Born in 1935 in Manchester, Norman Robert Foster attained his first degree from the University of Manchester School of Architecture and City Planning and his master’s degree in architecture from Yale School of Architecture. To help fund his studies, he took numerous jobs including ice cream salesman, nightclub bouncer and nightshifts in a bakery. (IJERT, 2021)
After his studies he travelled in America for a year, viewing work by renowned architects including visits to nearly all of Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings. He also has a keen interest in the works of Le Corbusier, Oscar Niemeyer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
Foster set up an architectural practice in 1963 called Team 4 with fellow Yale student Richard Rogers and sisters Georgie and Wendy Cheesman, which gained a reputation for high-tech industrial design. The firm members went their separate ways and Foster and his then-wife Wendy Cheesman founded Foster Associates, which later became Foster + Partners in 1967.
The firm worked with American architect Richard Buckminster Fuller for many years, inventor of the geodesic dome, and they collaborated on many ground-breaking projects. Fuller’s influence on Foster is reflected in the triangular forms he used to surface many of his later designs.
While Norman Foster’s architectural style had a high-tech outlook in his early designs, with growing awareness of climate change, he went on to develop a sustainable approach over five decades (IJERT, 2021) and became known for his use of curvilinear forms, steel and glass. Always aware of new technologies and the visual arts, Foster is described as a modernist and yet is traditional in many ways. He describes the very essence of his design process as integration, regeneration, adaptability and flexibility, as well as communication, economy and ecology.
Today, Foster + Partners is a worldwide practice with offices in over 20 countries. Over the years, Foster won over 400 awards and many national and international competitions (Pritzker Prize).
One of the most famous architects today, Foster is president of the Norman Foster Foundation, set up to promote interdisciplinary thinking and research to help younger generations of architects and designers anticipate the future.
Based in Madrid, it operates globally. In 1999 Lord Norman Foster became the 21st Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate and in 2002 was awarded the Praemium Imperiale Award for Architecture in Tokyo. In 1999 he was made a life peer in the Queen’s birthday honours list, becoming The Lord Foster of Thames Bank.
Keen to nurture young talent, Baron Foster has taught architecture at higher education levels in the UK and United States and lectured all around the world, influencing new generations of architects. The RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) Norman Foster Travelling Scholarship, supported by the Norman Foster Foundation, offers £7,000 to a student of architecture to support international research on a subject and location of their choosing.
9 amazing buildings designed by Norman Foster
London City Hall Building, 2002
One of the most important buildings created by Foster + Partners over the last 20 years, City Hall was designed with the aim of demonstrating democracy with an emphasis on the environment. The wrap-around glazing over the ten storeys suggests the ideals of democracy and transparency, with Londoners able to see into the chamber, creating a sense of seeing government at work.
The sloping shape provides shade to the lower floors and reduces wind contact with the building. The chamber includes 250 seats for the public and press to view meetings and debates. City Hall’s prominent position on the riverbank with a view of Tower Bridge underlines London’s historic role as a major world city (IJERT, 2021).
Being a spherical building, City Hall uses 25% less energy than a cubic building of the same volume would, which minimises solar heat gain and loss. It’s built with thermally efficient cladding and the amount of glazing and cladding is calculated to take advantage of sunlight in winter and shading in summer.
Sustainable architectural strategies in the building include PV panels, triple glazing, and heat pump technology. The scheme includes a sunken amphitheatre, café and exhibition space (Foster + Partners). Over 15,000 people worked there when it was home to the Greater London Authority until it moved premises in December 2021.
The Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe), London, 2003
Now an iconic part of the London skyline, The Gherkin comprises 41 floors with open plan space on each level. The tapered shape and lack of edges reduce wind deflection compared to a rectangular tower, which is the biggest challenge faced by skyscraper designers. The building is energy efficient and the hexagonal panels on the glass façade enable active air circulation (Archeetect.com, 2022).
HSBC Building, Hong Kong, 1986
The Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation (HSBC) building is one of the first examples of Norman Foster’s high-tech architecture. The brief here was to create `the best bank building in the world’ and his response was to design a 50-storey skyscraper made from steel and glass.
The building is unique as it has no traditional internal supporting structure; instead, steel trusses and lifts are located outside the building to create more space inside. This was a complex building site as there was a short timescale for the project, which meant that factory-finished modules were used in the construction.
The need to build upwards and downwards simultaneously led to a suspension structure, with pairs of steel masts built in three bays. The construction involves three towers of differing heights, garden terraces, and the maximum amount of natural light is reflected through the 10-storey central atrium down to a public plaza below.
Willis Faber & Dumas Headquarters, Ipswich, 1971
This was the first time that Foster designed a green building, though many more were to follow. Created for insurance company Willis Faber & Dumas, it was designed with low energy consumption as its very essence. Just three stories high, the building’s glass curtain wall pushed new technologies to their limits.
The all-glass façade hangs from a clamping strip at roof level and the solar tinted panels, each 2 meters square, are jointed together with silicon. The glass appears to be almost black by day and at night becomes translucent to reveal the interior. With a rooftop restaurant, green roof and garden, the building aims to create a sense of community in the workplace.
The low-rise, free-form layout follows the curves of Ipswich’s medieval street pattern. The building was awarded Grade I listed status in 1991 making it the most recent building to achieve this grading. It’s heated by natural gas and the energy-conscious design has won it many awards both for energy efficiency and architecture.
Foster said it was: “A conscious effort to elevate the workplace. It represents the vision of the office as a place that is filled with sun, has fantastic views, where everybody wants to work because you can sunbathe on the lawn at lunchtime.”
The Reichstag Building, Berlin, 1999
Built between 1884 and 1893 and home to the German parliament, this building was damaged in the 1933 Reichstag fire and in World War II. After German reunification in 1990, Foster+ Partners were engaged to redesign part of the structure and created a glass dome over the main meeting room, symbolising new beginnings. The dome provides natural light and ventilation; at its core is a light sculptor, reflecting light down into the central atrium.
A sun shield blocks solar glare, and as darkness falls, the process is reversed and the dome becomes a beacon of light, illuminating the interior. The scheme also involved an observation platform and terrace restaurant. The building burns renewable biofuel to produce electricity; surplus heat is stored as hot water and the building creates more energy than it uses.
Foster commented that the public stand above the members of parliament who represent them: “They can look in on them, down on them, and see the process of democracy at work. Our energy strategy of the building is quite revolutionary, relying on totally renewable sources of energy – burning vegetable oil in a cogenerator to provide heat and electricity.”
Millennium Bridge, London, 2000
London’s first pedestrian bridge connects two sides of the city, linking St Paul’s Cathedral with Tate Modern on Bankside. The suspension bridge is made of steel and spans 320 meters. It has two Y-shaped legs supporting cables that run along the sides of the deck, with steel transverse arms clamping onto the cables to give support. The low level of the cables allows pedestrians uninterrupted views of the river and city. The bridge has a minimalist, slim profile and is illuminated at night.
Hearst Tower, New York, 2006
The structure of this office skyscraper is made from stainless-steel frames, with 85% of the steel being recycled (Archeetect.com, 2022). In the 1920s, publisher William Hearst commissioned a six-storey Art Deco building with the idea that it would form the base of a skyscraper.
While this did not happen as he planned, 80 years later, a scheme was devised to build the tower. The new tower is 44 storeys high and has a glazed exterior with a triangulated `diagrid’ form, which uses 20% less steel than a conventionally framed building and appears to create triangular windows.
The cut-back corners between the diagonals create a faceted outline. The tower shares Art Deco touches with the base building, creating a link between them. In line with Foster’s awareness of climate change and sustainability, the building collects rainwater for use in cooling systems.
Crossrail Place, Canary Wharf Tube Station, 1999
This mixed-use scheme includes the overground section of the new station for Crossrail. Foster’s building encloses the station, new retail units and a landscaped park on the roof which is accessed by bridges. The scheme has a lattice timber roof that wraps around the building, with an opening in the centre.
Between the wooden beams are plastic cushions filled with air, creating a highly insulating environment, enabling people to enjoy the gardens all year round and a microclimate for the plants. The scheme includes four levels of shops and cafes, and sustainable features include rainwater harvesting and grey water recycling.
Millau Viaduct, France, 2004
This is the world’s longest road bridge, spanning 2500 meters across a valley in the south of France. Its elegant design broke several records in its construction – it has the highest pylons in the world, the highest road bridge deck in Europe and it surpassed the Eiffel Tower to become France’s tallest structure. Each section of the cable-supported suspension bridge spans 342 meters. Constructed mainly from steel, the tapered columns give the bridge a lightness of touch, enabling it to have a minimum impact on the landscape.
IJERT (International Journal of Engineering Research & Technology). 2021. Architecture and Politics: An exposition of the London City Hall Building by Sir Norman Foster. [Online]. Available here (Accessed 30th June 2022)
Re-thinking The Future. Undated. Know your architects. [Online]. Available here (Accessed 30th June 2022)
Archeetect. 2022. The 10 most famous Norman Foster buildings. [Online]. Available here (Accessed 30th June 2022)
Foster + Partners. Undated. Norman Foster. [Online]. Available here (Accessed 30th June 2022)
Pritzker Prize. Undated. Norman Foster. [Online]. Available here (Accessed 1st July 2022)