Monday, August 27, 2007

12. You dont need to be Born Rich

The architect of his own fortune;

HE IS the man behind the new design for Wembley Stadium - which controversially scraps its famous twin towers.

But whatever your opinion of Sir Norman Foster and his futuristic visions, no one can deny that he has become the style guru of modern architecture.

Clients around the globe are queuing up for a Foster "signature" building with its trademark sleek, smooth lines.

Today Sir Norman, 64, employs almost 500 people, has offices in London, Tokyo and Hong Kong and a business that enjoys a pounds 20 million turnover. He even owns his own fleet of aircraft.

That's not bad for a working-class lad from Manchester who left school at 16 and drove an ice-cream van to get himself through university.

What makes Sir Norman's story all the more remarkable is that he is the only British architect of note who comes from such a modest background.

An only child, he left school for the traditionally safe white-collar job in the local town hall - but he wanted so much more. As a boy, he had read books about the designer Frank Lloyd Wright in the public library and was gripped. But the odds were against him.

"The idea that anyone in the neighbourhood where I grew up would go to university was like saying: `I'll be the next Pope'," he recalls.

"I wasn't able to get a grant to go to university so I paid my own way. I sold furniture, worked in a bakery, a cold store and drove an ice-cream van."

He also applied for every scholarship and drawing competition he could. In 1959, his hard work paid off and he won pounds 100 and a silver medal from the Royal Institute Of British Architects for a measured drawing of a windmill.

SIR Norman says: "I took off to Scandinavia to look at the new architecture and I haven't stopped travelling since."

His current portfolio includes a transformation of the British Museum, building the first new bridge over the Thames for a century and, of course, the hottest job in the industry - the design of the new Wembley Stadium, which he unveiled on Thursday.

His previous projects have moved from being architectural talking pieces to household names. The Reichstag Building. The Hong Kong And Shanghai Bank. Stansted Airport.

He has also designed the huge new Canary Wharf Jubilee Line station and HSBC tower, a proposed assembly building for the new Lord Mayor Of London and a plan for a Millennium Tower in the City. The London headquarters of his firm Foster & Partners, in Battersea, is a modern riverside palazzo overlooking the Thames. Rows of architects toil on long tables in a room like a railway terminus. At the helm sits Foster himself, notorious for his high standards and drive.

One visitor described it as a cross between a Manchester cotton mill and the headquarters of IBM.

Poised and perma-tanned, Sir Norman - a quiet man whom some regard as cool and detached - looks more like a pop star than an architect. And he has the accessories to match.

A keen flier, he jets around Europe in a white Cessna Citation - one of several planes he owns.

He is a regular on the well-heeled party circuit and in 1990 was embraced by the Establishment when he received a knighthood for his services to architecture.

His private life has ensured him constant media attention. His first wife, architect Wendy Cheesman died of cancer in 1989, leaving him devastated. After a brief liaison with Anna Ford, he married Sabiha Malik, the flamboyant ex-wife of Andrew Knight, chairman of News International.

His current wife Elena Ochoa, whom he married three years ago after meeting at the University of Barcelona, is a psychopathologist known in her native Spain for presenting the hit show Hablamos De Sexo (Let's Talk About Sex). The pair have been seen together on the pages of Hola! magazine, that bastion of celebrity life.

But the publicity surrounding Sir Norman's professional endeavours has not always been flattering. Many of his most daring designs such as the Millennium Tower have been ridiculed.

BUT his commitment to his work has never been in doubt. Many say it borders on the manic. "I don't know how to stop," he agrees. "Like a child's toy, I keep spinning. If I stopped, I'd fall over.
"I took my son to Scandinavia and we went sledging with teams of huskies. At first I thought the dogs were being overworked, but I quickly learnt that they are never happier than when pelting flat out.

"I'm not very different."

When the architectural historian Charles Jencks asked him whether his working-class background had been a disadvantage he replied: "Not in the least."

"It gave me a single-minded vision as I sat in the public library as a boy reading about Frank Lloyd Wright.

"None of those middle class kids knew what they wanted from life."

Further Reading:
Lord Foster: Stormin' Norman
Norman Foster - Architect

See Also:
Note #7. If you've got "it" use it!