The prolific Foster + Partners released designs for three huge international schemes last year, but do they have any architectural merit?

I wonder if the beginning of 2008 is going to be as busy for Norman Foster as the end of 2007 seems to have been? In three successive weeks the Foster Corporation released details of schemes for “The World’s largest Building” in Moscow, a new city for 200,000 in Muscat and Oman, and an entirely new “carbon neutral” resort on the Black Sea.

Foster's Crystal Island in Moscow

It is hard to know what to make of these projects. How well thought-out are they? The Moscow scheme looks like a giant teepee. Is this a “one liner” to give the clients something to talk about, or a project that has been worked out over years and years? The Gherkin could be described as a “one-liner” yet it is a remarkable building.

A practice like Fosters has 10 hopefuls applying for jobs every minute. A couple of recent graduates with a design thesis for a new city with an Arabian coastline may have filtered to the top of the interview pile, just as the Sultan of Oman is hanging up. Suddenly they’re told: “We need a scheme for a new city in Oman. Now. Those two terminals are free, and you’ve got till this time next week. Let me know when you’ve finished.”

Foster's new city in Oman

Unlike the Moscow megalith, one of the attractive aspects about of this particular scheme is that someone seems to have realised the habitat that the Bedou have been adopting for centuries to survive in that climate may, after all, have something to recommend it. You know, souks, thick walls. Shade, tiny windows. Overhangs, shade, courtyards, pools. Tiles. Palm trees, shade.

I spent some of my boyhood in the Gulf and when I see illustrations of glass malls and 40-storey buildings I think: "What happened to shade? How green is that? Is cheap land really THAT scarce?"

Foster's Black Sea resort

The same sort of thinking seems to have been applied to the holiday resort. In Bulgaria. Much more “Friends of the Earth” and much less Las Vegas. It reminds me of a very low-key resort called “Monadnock” described in Ayn Rand’s “The Fountainhead”, a preposterous tale of an architect reinventing architectural civilisation on his own by going back to first principles. It’s not preposterous for architects of course, although I’m not sure how you actually get to a carbon neutral resort. By camel I guess.

Occasionally I have had people say to me “I’ll buy this site if I you can tell me how am I going to get 30 flats onto it." I used to become frightfully excited and set aside some long nights with the sketching paper. Now I just say “Well, let me have four or five grand to be getting on with, I’ll have a think about it “

That’s what these schemes look like. Indeed, I remember reading about the flak flying around the Battersea HQ when Foster realised that some Middle Eastern hadn’t gotten around to actually stumping up the half a million feasibility fee for a green city somewhere hot. Perhaps this release is his way of showing the Sultan’s accounts department that he’s actually done something.