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Review: Foster + Partners on Display at the Nasher
by Jerome Weeks 29 Sep 2009

The Nasher’s show of architectural models from Foster + Partners, designers of the Winspear, may be a sideshow for the Big Event in the Arts District next month. But it’s a dandy sideshow: elaborate scale models of influential buildings (for the toy-train-hobbyist in us all), plus some real context for our new, Giant Red Operatic Panic Button.


Sir Norman Foster and his architectural firm, Foster + Partners, are far better known in Europe than they are in America. One can actually say, for instance, that Foster has re-shaped London more than any architect since Sir Christopher Wren —  who designed St. Paul’s and 51 other churches after the Great Fire of 1666.

From his justly celebrated transformation of the British Museum with the Great Court and Reading Room (above) to the “Gherkin” (the bullet-shaped insurance company headquarters — below), Foster’s hand on the town is everywhere. Even the Thames and the iconic Trafalgar Square have not escaped his influence. Foster + Partners designed the first pedestrian bridge across the river since Tower Bridge (1894) and transformed Trafalgar’s traffic bottleneck into a true, open, civic plaza as well as an expansive front porch for the National Portrait Gallery.

In contrast to such omnipresence in Europe, the current exhibition at the Nasher Sculpture Center, The Art of Architecture: Foster + Partners, is, surprisingly, the first major retrospective of the firm’s work in the United States. Whether its reputation in America will be amplified by the opening of the Winspear Opera House remains to be seen. The Winspear should get some attention, however. It’s Foster + Partners’ first-ever, free-standing opera house — as noted by the company’s head of design, Spencer de Grey. He led a Friday media tour of the Nasher’s fascinating exhibition of F + P’s  intricate wooden models and wall-size photos.

In these parts, though, Foster is still best known for his 46-story tower on top of the six original floors of the Hearst Magazine Building in New York City. Which means that the firm’s American reputation is shaped, so far, by the single instance it’s worked here in a very American genre: the commercial office tower. Yet Foster + Partners’ singular achievements in Europe (with the exceptions of the Gherkin and the Commerzbank in Frankfurt) have generally been in more creative and more industrial (infrastructural) forms: airports, museums and music halls, stadiums (notably, the Wembley), government buildings, train stations, zoos, bridges and master plans.

What’s more, to my eye, the Hearst (right) is perhaps the least successful of their recent projects. Characteristically, they have fashioned a stunning interior, a vast, cathedral-like space, one of the airiest inside any Manhattan skyscraper. Like Foster’s best, it opens and illuminates.

Yet I can’t get my head around the jolting juxtaposition of Joseph Urban’s squat, bank-like base with its 1920s’ art deco flourishes set against the rather clunky-looking, steel-framed, dark-glassed, “diagrid” above it.

Which is unusual — not the expansive inabilities of my head, which remain stubbornly rocklike — but the abrupt conjoining of Foster’s intentions with a historic building. Working extensively in Europe, the firm has often faced projects in which it needs to renovate, re-interpret, restore or extend existing structures — cramped, old-fangled structures, at that. Their remarkable successes — such as the treatment of the German Reichstag — have managed to infuse contemporary materials, technology and ideas into venerable buildings. They consistently breathe new life, access and “functionality” into them.

3954173316_cf5dcecc54-300x234In the bargain, the F + P re-dos are usually not modest efforts. The firm is currently working on a $380 million “upgrade” to the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts in Moscow. It will transform an entire sector of the city into a “cultural quarter.” At the Nasher, the Pushkin project is by far the largest, most elaborate model on display — with a two-tier, illuminated table, the better to view the extensive underground connections the project will require. That’s Spencer de Grey (right) pointing out features of the Pushkin at the Nasher.

As grandiose  as these projects often are, they’re marked with a gracefulness and simplicity that are Foster hallmarks.

These are the four factors I see in his work:

1) He’s inherited a modernist vocabulary. He employs simple, bold, often unconventional shapes, often with smooth, gleaming surfaces. But he gives the vocabulary a mix of elegant finish and friendliness, making his architecture more palatable to the public than the kind of trash-the-past iconoclasm or radical austerity that marked other modernists. Think of him as Mies-ian but with curvier, friendlier  inclinations. Of course, it also can make his work feel corporate-with-a-smile. It can still seem as coolly impersonal as any mid-century skyscraper. But with the appropriate gracious acknowledgments that we little humans exist.

2) He treats classical elements and the democratic principles of civic institutions with care. Unless they came with a historic site, you’d be hard-pressed to find on a typical Foster project any neo-classic columns or traditional Renaissance proportions amid all the futuristic lines. But historical and cultural precedents are granted respect. Foster follows a kind of “higher loyalty” to the historic sites he works with, a case of returning to first purposes.

Many of them, after all — the civic and cultural landmarks — were meant to serve the public. The Reading Room, for example, handled a few hundred visitors. The British Museum, which houses it, now attracts millions. So in clearing away previous additions, F + P re-thinks and expands its target buildings until they attain a grander statement of their civic and architectural origins. Foster particularly likes large atria and spiraling ramps leading to viewing decks — as in London’s City Hall (left). These at least symbolically suggest an open government, even if the institutions are far from it, in practice.

3) Speaking of ideals, F + P’s projects incorporate humanistic values — as, of course, Foster himself proudly affirms in the exhibition brochure. Recall that Foster started out in the ’60s. It’s typical of F + P’s concern for ecological issues, for instance, that several of their achievements, notably the Hearst, have been awarded LEED “gold” certifications — which is difficult to pull off with old buildings that are pre-AC, pre-solar power, even sometimes pre-electricity. And most of the public who see something like the Gherkin and the Commerzbank are unaware of the ways the towers have re-engineered office life for the better, sometimes in commonsensical ways — by employing natural sunlight whenever possible or with ‘sky gardens’ that increase air circulation and greenery.

4) In keeping with his modernist inclinations, Foster makes his buildings smoothly engineered and makes ordinary engineering look beautiful. He works to unite efficiency and grace with his industrial projects: a Renault warehouse, a cargo terminal, gas stations, product designs. In these, he likes to avoid the typical, squared-off, girder-and-I-beam structures for custom-built “trees” or “trusses” — support columns that spread wide or simply split, as with his gorgeous cable bridge, the Millau Viaduct (right).

All of which leads us to the Winspear. The Nasher exhibition, curated by Jed Morse, is laid out with two galleries of F + P projects on the ground floor and then an entire room devoted to the new opera house below. The idea with the Winspear is to document the design process — right down to the choices of materials for carpets and door handles and the white-gold surface that will front the balconies.

It’s worth remembering that at Foster’s suggestion, the Winspear and Wyly swapped locations. Where the Wyly is currently, between Flora and Ross, there wasn’t enough room for the Opera House and the Annette Strauss Artist Square. As is clear from the rows of early models on display at the Nasher, F + P eventually settled on a floorplan similar to I. M. Pei’s Meyerson. That is, the entire Arts District is laid out as a tight grid, and F + P respected that, with the general configuration of the two buildings following the grid (each main entrance faces Flora Street with offices in the back toward Woodall Rodgers).

But the performing halls themselves are rotated off-axis. It makes for more interesting shapes (recall the Meyerson’s famous swirling windows) and with the Winspear, it permitted opening up ground space alongside the hall for the Strauss facility and Sammons Park, both of which fit under the Winspear’s solar canopy.

We now see that canopy — thanks to the Nasher show — in the context of F + P’s environmentalism (it shades the Winspear lobby, cutting down on AC costs) and the attention the firm pays to master plans and the ‘urban ecology.’ The canopy, the park and the Winspear cafe will provide the Arts District with its best shot, so far, for a public gathering-place — before the Woodall Rodgers Park opens in a couple years. But that will be several blocks away — which, as we know, in Dallas terms, means it might as well be in Irving. That canopy may be the best thing Foster brings to the district as a whole.

Finally, a note about the Nasher show itself. At many architectural firms, table-top models are not exactly in favor. Flat-screen digital displays are  more the rage, providing clients with more dazzling visuals. And the scale models that do get made these days are often cheap cardboard affairs — built to be thrown away. As de Grey emphasized on the Friday tour, none of the models at the Nasher was constructed for the exhibition. F + P has an entire department devoted to in-house demos. Hence, their delightful, wooden-ship-in-a-b0ttle artistry.

When the Nasher offered a similar exhibition with its own architect Renzo Piano, the center found it had a hit. So backstage studies of architects have now become one of the Nasher’s emphases, a very welcome development.

It’ll be hard to top the quantity and quality of Foster’s models, though. And it’ll be hard to top the bits of humor and spirit in the show. Along with the models, the exhibition features small drawings and close-up sketches, a number of which have a David Macaulay-ish whimsy when it comes to  explaining details (the handwriting is a little hard to read, at times, though).  I couldn’t find if the draftsman was credited anywhere, but I’ll quote an appropriate line of his anyway: “The ‘city within a city’ has always been full of surprises!”

phpYiSo2oPMPhotos of de Grey and Reading Room model courtesy of Alex Knesick