Norman Foster and Banking Architecture: Between Creativity and a Now-Fashionable Style

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Norman Foster and Banking Architecture: Between Creativity and a Now-Fashionable Style
Hubert Bonin, Institut d’études politiques de Bordeaux and Montesquieu Centre for Economic History (

Like French architect Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster (born in 1935) emerged in the 1980s-1990s as a ’’star’’ of large and tall buildings symbolising a move towards the presence of art creativity and imagination among day to day mass culture, transit and business life. To focus on banking architecture, buildings had to contribute to the assertion of some proudness to join or to stay with large globalised finance companies, the power and the legitimacy of which were propped up by such architectural impetus. Emerging from basic ’’neutrality’’ or even mediocrity of numerous buildings packed together in commonplace business centres, such initiatives were intended to pick up the banking corporation from anonymous dullness.

Norman Foster’s architecture philosophy
It is well admitted that this British architect trained in Manchester and abroad in Yale reached his creative profile because he constituted a team of imaginative architects (Richard and Sue Rogers, Wendy Foster, then Buckminster Fuller) which conquered an actual competitive edge from the end of the 1960s to the 1980s. Foster & Partners (created in 1967 and established in London, with more than 600 architects gathered all over the world) thus drew its ’’corporate brand image’’ owing to schemes which took into account altogether architecture and urbanism, people’s moves and adaptation to space, because Norman Foster considered “ the services that allow [a building] to work, the ecology of the building – whether it is naturally ventilated, whether you can open a window, the quality of natural light, the material used – their mass or their ligthness, the character of spaces, the symbolism of the form” [N. Foster, 2000], all this being summed up by some “connecting people”. “We use technology, but not just for its own sake” alongside an untold rule favouring a flexible but a sustainable business city.
N. Foster’s aims were an internal functionality and an openness to the city life, with some part earned to a few doses of utopia, which helped him moving away from “minimalist” architectural trends of the 1970s (William Rogers, for instance) and rehabilitating the “curved lines” – this being crowned by the recent London Swiss Re tower. Last, the originality of N. Foster’s studio was its attachment to a global scope of design: “The central concern of the practive is design excellence, achieved through active collaboration with clients and specialists – from structural end environmental engineers to cost consultants [...]. A wide range of supporting skills underpins the work of the practice, including model making, materials research, specialist computer modelling, visualisation, as well as in-house communications, photographic and printing systems” [N. Foster website].
This led to a renewed approach of ’’urban projects’’ instead of sticking an extra building in a business area. N. Foster’s cabinet has thus piled up contracts with institutions where buildings had to mix working locations for employees and people’s flows, like some part of the British Library or of the British Museum (both in 2001); libraries and museums (the Prado in Madrid, the Carré d’art in Nîmes, etc.) have been surpassed among the opinion by the best-known buildings for a few airports (London-Standsted in 1981, Hong Kong in 1998) or the Canary Wharf station of the Jubilee Line extension (2000), all being perhaps crowned by the rebuilding of the dome of the Reichstag in Berlin for the Bundestag (1992-1999).
Beyond his very talents and his balance between imagination and technics, which are supposed to be the basis of architects’ know-how, N. Foster succeeded in building his own reputation through the informal weaving of some kind of a “philosophy” for his studio and thanks to a worldwide “circuit” of lecturing in universities and arts schools. This enabled him to appear as some “guru” of forms able to handle materials to produce useful chefs-d’oeuvre (like the London Millenium bridge or moreover the recent Millau bridge in France) [see the studio website]. The message did lose its previous originality indeed but it carried an uncompromising desire for the exploration of high-tech innovations and forms in general whilst bearing much attention to the heritage of craftsmanship to provide perfect achievements in detailing parts of each project – even if industrialised and modular building-parts are often use to put a ceiling to costs drifts, so common everywhere in big architectural projects –, or to reach a much more efficient occupation of space. A website dedicated to design ( summed up this “philosophy position”: “The key to Foster’s approach is that he seems always to be aspiring to an elsewhere, another world, partly that of a long-gone age – the world of industrial pioneers, the mystical and fascinating world of Jules Verne, a world too of contemporary futurism, space conquest, science fiction and cartoon strips, a world of suprahuman places. Foster’s single minded individualism is exceptional, he refuses to be lumped in with the ‘high-tech’ style, he recognized no professional peers.” This explains the way of life of his studio, with one large open space, free of subdivisions to encourage good communication between the teams, with its own model workshop, graphics department and photographic studio.
A pragmatic historian’s point of view has to take into account this way of setting up some “legend” of a living guru of architecture, but his clarity imposed to suggest that N. Foster joined some “chic” trend in the 1990s and therefore drew orders from companies aspiring to still more recognition and legitimacy through a token architectural gesture [See: Daniel Threiber, Norman Foster, Hazan, 1998; Norman Foster & M. Pawley, Norman Foster. A Global Architecture, Universe Publications, 1999; David Jenkings, On Foster-Foster On, Prestel Verlag, 2000; Hashim Sarkis, Norman Foster Works, Prestel, 2003; and the series of books published by the studio: Norman Foster. Works].
Norman Foster and a few key banking buildings
N. Foster’s studio was called for half-a-dozen buildings dedicated to finance. The first bank to recruit it was the Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank or its headquarters in Hong Kong; a continuing process had led to the construction of a first building as soon as 1869, to its destruction in 1933 and the cosntruction of a new building in 1935. But the bank had overgrown its headquarters and it decided to regroup all its scattered departements within a single new tower in 1978. From the conception in 1979 to the completion in 1986 (for us$668), the N. Foster studio used 30,000 tonnes of steel and 4,500 tonnes of aluminum to erect a modular construction, which symbolised somewhat the renaissance of Hong Kong as the bridgehead to an emerging new market-oriented China – even if all the components were imported from abroad (from the uk and us, essentially). The building was innovative because it lacked any internal supporting structure, thanks to eight groups of four aluminum-clad steel columns which ascend from the foundations up through the core structure, and the five levels of triangular suspension trusses which are locked into these masts – which allows the building to profit from natural sunlighting all over its levels. Since the Hsbc group is now located in London, this building became the centre of its activities throughout Asia [] [See Norman Foster, C. Seddon, J. Zunz, M. Glover, T. Fitzpatrick, D. Sudjic, K. Sugimura, Foster Associates: Hong Kong Bank, in A+U: extra edition, 5/1988, pp. 1-150. T. Ho, N. Matsuda, Norman Foster, C. Seddon, et alii, Foster Tower: Hong Kong Bank: A Re-evaluation of Tall Buildings, in Process: Architecture, 1986, 70, pp. 1-203; Ian Lambot & Gillian Chambers, One Queen’s Road Central. The Headquarters of HongkongBank since 1864,1986].
The Commerzbank tower was erected among the harsh competition between German banks to brighten up the Frankfurt Innenstadt business area, and it succeeded in overcoming its rivals indeed because it stayed the tallest European construction from 1997 to 2004, with a height of 259 meters and 56 stories... Large space is avalaible because a triangular plan has pushed the core areas to the corners. Four-stories gardens are interspersed as the building rises and provide green oasis for office workers [See Colin Davis, Commerzbank Frankfurt: Prototype for an Ecological High-Rise, Birkhauser Verlag, 1997; Volker Fischer, Norman Foster, H. Gruneis, R. Richter, Norman Foster and Partners, Commerzbank, Frankfurt-am-Main, Edition Axel Menges, 1998].
Opened in April 2004, the London Swiss Re headquarters became notorious because of the design of their Pinnacle Gherking 41 storeys tower, which broke off with the straight design of numerous London skyscrapers – those denounced by Prince Charles... – and was endowed therefore with is “gherkin” nickname because it looks like a plump green pickle – or one might think of a cucumber with upward spiralling strips – in face of the Aviva classical parallepipedal tower. This rethinking of the conception of buildings in business area paved the way to a few other experiences (recently in Barcelona, for instance, by his competitor Jean Nouvel for the Agbar tower). But N. Foster’s building keeps its originality indeed; owing to its steel trusswork and a system of diagonal braces, the structural envelop allows to free the space from columns. The building also contains a spiral of indoor gardens that admit light into interior spaces: “Those become the lungs of the building. They allow fresh air, light and views into the interiors” (N. Foster).
A key case study will focus on the now-well known project of the Hsbc group to duplicate its Hong Kong tower by a new one which should proclaim the new globalised dimension of the bank. At 8 Canada Square in London thus, in the business district developed from the 1980s in the ancient dockyards of London harbour, Canary Wharf, work began in May 1999 for 45 storeys project, designed by N. Foster’s studio. It became the second tallest building in London (210 m) after the Canary Wharf Tower, stability against the wind being provided by the use of a central (34m x 30m) concrete core weighing 150,000 tonnes, with a curtain walling developed by Simon Webster from Arup Façade Engineering. The 110,000 m² of space welcomed the staff from September 2002 before an official inauguration in April 2003: about 8,500 employees were then gathered in the building instead of about twelve locations in the City. Three of the largest trading floors in the City (with 900 dealers) are active there. Once more, thus, the Norman Foster studio reached its aims to balance architectural originality, costs control and speed for the construction itself, cost-consciousness for economies in energy and adaptation to the needs of the users (with a maximum structural flexibility). The Hsbc tower could therefore sum up Norman Foster’s “philosophy”, which mixes modernity in design and architecture, and managerial modernity in project development [See Hsbc: A Proud Heritage. Images from the History Wall at Hsbc Group Head Office 8 Canada Suare, London, 2002; hsbc website;].
More recently, N. Foster’s studio was recruited in Australia to deliver its first tower there, Deutsche Bank Place in Sydney, in December 2005: “The building explores new strategies of adaptable, column-free office space, and is firmly connected at ground level to the context and the spirit of the city” [N. Foster], owing to a large busy square. A mega-grid of with aluminum cladding structures the thirth-one storey tower every three floors, and it is extended aboe the occupied building to create a roof feature which seems to pull the tower upwards alongside a vertical trapezium like some raided business flag.

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