Jonathan Meades assesses the great man’s work

The sublime
The sublime
The autoroute bridge spanning the Tarn west of Millau attracted opposition and then acclaim …

I cannot remember who the opposition was, let alone the result, but it was back when Ipswich Town were a successful football team. Autumn 1975, I guess. A friend of mine persuaded me to accompany him to a home game. What I do remember about that day is seeing a work of architecture that astonished and perplexed me: it was the Willis Faber & Dumas building (as it then was) by Mr Norman Foster (as he then was).

Not that I knew the name of the extraordinary structure or its author. How come I had never heard of this prodigy of 1930s modernism? The building was beguiling – faintly sinister, sinuous, sleek as a patent leather shoe, fetishistic. I thought my friend was having me on when he said it had only recently been completed.

Given the ubiquity of Foster and his imitators today, it is difficult to recall how the Ipswich building defied the British mainstream. That mainstream’s defining characteristics were a nervy mannerism, an apologetic half-heartedness, a sycophantic eagerness to please, a desire to create buildings that would not be noticed. The bristling confidence of the 1960s had dissipated.

The late Philip Johnson rather waspishly described Foster as “the last modern architect”. He could not have been more wrong. That epithet ignores modernism’s heterogeneity and countless splits. Foster 30 years ago was among the earliest neo-modern architects. Like Paul Hamilton, Douglas Stephen and Georgie Wolton (I wrote about the latter two on 27 August 2004), he looked back 40 or 50 years to the era of “heroic” modernism, to that utopian period when clean lines and abundant glass were going to change the world.

Foster’s East Anglian landmark is gleaming black by day, transparent at night. Its most evident debt is not to Mies van der Rohe; the smoothness and spareness derive more obviously from the Daily Express building in Ancoats, in Foster’s native Manchester. This was the most thrilling of the three buildings that Owen Williams designed for the newspaper and the most progressive work of its time in that city. It is perhaps significant that Williams, patronised by the Sainsbury family 40 years before Foster, was an engineer as well as an architect. He disdained the arbitrary division of the two endeavours – a division caused by the Victorian eagerness to establish architecture as a profession whose task was to decorate “mere” engineering.

Foster’s allusion to this icon of his childhood is, if you like, an exercise in nostalgia, an expression of a longing for a far-off past, for an ideal seldom glimpsed in this country outside the pages of the Eagle, where Frank Hampson’s drawings for Dan Dare bore an extraordinary kinship to Owen Williams’ work. It is as though, belatedly, Foster gave us yesterday’s tomorrow. This is hardly the act of a cold, robotic, technophiliac, kit-fixated ultra-functionalist.

We should not allow Foster’s preoccupation with manifest structural engineering and the exposure of nuts and bolts to delude us into believing his buildings are programmed to be aesthetically unengaging and emotionally vacuous. The great medieval cathedrals hardly differentiate architecture and engineering yet they are capable of hugely moving us. As are such exemplars of unadorned engineering as the New Bedford River, the Garabit Viaduct, the Forth Bridge and the Itaipu Dam. They excite our awe because of their might and their raw beauty, which is at the other end of the aesthetic scale from prettiness.

Foster’s oeuvre at its best carries an emotional freight more readily associable with candidly expressive architecture: the roofscape of Le Corbusier’s L’Unité d’Habitation; Sir John Vanbrugh’s mad arch at Eastbury; Claude-Nicolas Ledoux’s Arc et Senans. One Foster dictum that is worth paying heed to is that buildings often look most exciting while they are being constructed. Why should a building’s building not be exhibited? After all, process is acknowledged as a component of painting, fiction, music and so on.

At, among others, nocturnal Ipswich, Stansted, the Hongkong & Shanghai Bank, the Torre de Collserola in Barcelona, the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, the structure is defined by the way it’s made. The buildings recount, admittedly obliquely, the story of their construction. Maybe this is a form of narrative architecture.

The supreme example of Foster’s capacity to move, to achieve a thrilling sublimity, is the autoroute bridge across the Tarn, west of Millau. The actual river is maybe 20 m wide. The gulf between the plateaux – the Causse Noir and the Causse du Larzac – is 2.5 km. This is barren, savage country, which may have something to do with the volume of local opposition to the bridge, an opposition that has vanished now that it is finished.

Millau used to suffer appalling jams because traffic had to divert from the incomplete autoroute through the town. Now it suffers jams because all of France wants to gaze at Milord’s soaring masterpiece. Foster makes predictable environmentally correct noises about “minimum intervention in the landscape”. The truth is that it’s an appropriate intervention that has no obligation to fit in because it is a scape in itself, a monument to human ingenuity just as the magnificent terrain is a monument to geology and climate.

La Dépêche du Midi ran a front-page story about Foster visiting Millau for the first time. He helicoptered in for 40 minutes. The bridge was almost finished. Now I know Bill Gates doesn’t write the programs himself; I know Mr Kipling no longer personally makes all the cakes. I have used “Foster” throughout this article to signify Foster and Partners and its predecessor Foster Associates.

But architecture isn’t software, it isn’t transport, it isn’t baking. The question of authorship is raised more than with any other practice: indeed this question threatens to occlude the work. The name is personalised and hierarchical, which prompts a different expectation. When the chef Paul Bocuse was asked who did the cooking at his restaurant when he was away, he replied with attractive candour: “The same people who do it when I’m there.” There is a lesson here. But whether it’s for Lord Foster or for his detractors is moot. And he certainly has his detractors.

This, after all, is the architect who was compared by Piloti in Private Eye not to Wren in London but to Speer in Berlin. I’d dispute that. It is not Foster’s grand gestures that tarnish the reputation. The fact of the buildings having acquired more or less fond nicknames indicates the popular reaction to them: 30 St Mary Axe/The Gherkin, SECC & Clyde Auditorium/The Armadillo, Sage Centre/The Slug.

No, it is the apparent conveyor-belt production of what might be called the practice’s diffusion line that is so dismal. “Minimum intervention” is not a phrase to use of the bulbous, convex Sainsbury’s building at Holborn Circus. Are More London and the ungainly Tower Place and Albion Wharf – whose flashy paucity is shown up by its neighbour, which houses the practice and Foster’s home – anything more than richly arid hackwork? Foster’s place in history is assured. His place in the present is less secure.