You can count on Dr Gavin Stamp, who has never liked Foster, to disparage the Gherkin; and you can count, too, on Simon Jenkins, who has never been fond of buildings made since his boyhood in the 1890s (with the astonishing exception of the Millennium Dome), expressing his magisterial distaste. But middlebrow papers whose beige readers in Nuneaton and Worksop had never heard of the man till he produced a wobbly bridge and got sold a load of iffy stone for the British Museum? And Rowan Moore?
Admittedly, Moore went no further in London’s Evening Standard than to suggest that Foster’s oeuvre is of, let us say, a varying standard, that his is only a mediocre talent that is always at its best. Still, the knives are out. Which may, of course, be nothing more than a manifestation of the English practice of knocking worldly success (which is ghastly, but not quite so ghastly as fawning on it). Me, I’m all for the Gherkin, and the Fencing Mask, and whatever else Foster has up his Oxford cotton sleeve. Fairly all for it, anyway.
In 1975, the playwright Dusty Hughes, with whom I was staying in Woodbridge, dragged me to watch Bobby Robson’s Ipswich Town, a team then in its pomp, play at Portman Road. I recall nothing of the game, not even the identity of the opposing bubble-perms. But I remember with startling clarity my first sight of the sinuous black building we passed on the way to the ground. And I remember, too, telling Dusty to pull the other one when he said that the Willis Faber and Dumas headquarters (as it was then known) was new. It wasn’t new, it was modern. First sight had suggested that this building, now called the Willis Carroon Building, was some forgotten tour de force of the 1930s (and 25 years ago there were plenty of those). It was so sleek, so confident, so grandiloquent in its reticence, so bereft of the mannerism that had increasingly characterised English architecture since the late 1950s and which was, by the mid-1970s, in its exhausted decadence. Later, I watched it turn to day, its lighted interior shining through as night crept over the drab town around it.
A substantial proportion of new buildings look as if they are “homages” to (rip-offs of) the great man
Of course it was new, and it was modern – sort of. It was a couple of years later that Philip Johnson, then in his Chippendale phase and never one to let actuality get in the way of a good epigram, called Foster “the last modern architect”. He was wrong. Foster was the first neo-modern architect. The first of many, very many. Johnson was also right. That Ipswich building is not merely indebted to Owen Williams’ Daily Express building in Foster’s native Manchester; it could not have existed without it. But so what? Pugin could not have existed without the Middle Ages, Chesterton without Stevenson, Beethoven without Bach.
My misgivings about Foster are not those of the persons I mentioned at the top of this column. Indeed, they aren’t really about Foster but about his example, his influence. Over the past 10 years, a school of Foster has grown up with energetic insidiousness. It has grown to the point where a substantial proportion of new buildings look like they are by Foster and Partners, are using a Fosterian template, or are “homages” to (rip-offs of) the great man. Of course, a proportion of these works are by Foster and Partners, a practice that possesses, if you approve of it, a signature which, if you don’t, is a one-trick pony. But at least it’s their signature, their trick. It’s the countless buildings that aren’t by Norm’s boys that should be a cause for concern. Not because so many “young” architects are borrowing or stealing (that, after all, is the way of the world), but because they’re all doing it from the same place. Not since Lutyens has an English architect been so relentlessly plagiarised.