Lord Norman Foster on urban infrastructure, technology, and design

Pritzker prize-winning architect Lord Norman Foster delivered his version of design theater-in-the-round at the rotunda auditorium in Penn’s Anthropology Museum on Tuesday evening, before Philadelphia’s design community.

Lord Foster, whose firm Foster + Partners is designing the forthcoming Comcast Innovation & Technology Center at 18th and Arch streets, was on hand to accept the 2015 Louis I. Kahn Memorial Prize from Philadelphia’s Center for Architecture. In return Foster delivered a wide-ranging talk ruminating on his list of greatest-hit projects, like the HSBC tower in Hong Kong and the Sainsbury Center in England; details about the new Comcast building; and his broad influences including Kahn himself. His talk was followed by a question and answer session facilitated by WHYY’s Chris Satullo.

It was fascinating to hear Foster’s thinking about materials, light and lightness in architecture, his firm’s conceptual work on lunar habitation (using 3-D printing and moon dust!), and how he traces threads of inspiration through his works. Among my takeaways were Foster’s perspectives on urban infrastructure; the creative union of manufacturing, technology and commerce; design life; and his work on the Comcast Innovation & Technology Center.

On Comcast tower and integration into city fabric

“I remember walking with John [Gattuso of Liberty Property Trust] to the site. We walked through the downtown, which was alive, full of life with the activities of the sidewalk. As we got nearer the site, it became more bleak. I remember having this conversation, that it’s really important that we bring the sidewalk to life, that there is life at the public level not only “

On connectivity and the new Comcast:

“The building will be connected to an extraordinary network of public transport. So we’re talking about a sustainable city and a sustainable building, we’re talking about the infrastructure and the connections. Good public transport is absolutely fundamental to that. And here there’s a tremendous investment in that connectivity and seeking to demonstrate, as a kind of manifesto, that those experiences underground don’t have to be miserable experiences. They can be uplifting. They really can be part of the architecture. So a tremendous amount of effort is going to those below ground spaces.”

On technology:

“We associate, I think in a rather arrogant way, that technology is something of our age, it’s something new. Technology brought man out of the cave.”

On design and innovation as a creative union:

While Comcast seeks to foster a creative environment for technology and innovation in the building Foster + Partners designed, Lord Foster sees a connection to earlier efforts, such as the birth of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in the 18th century.

“I protest the separation of high culture and making of things and research.”

Advice for budding designers:

The evening was a benefit for Philadelphia’s Charter High School for Architecture + Design, what advice did Lord Foster have for the students?

“If you’re really excited about architecture, about design, and you’re so exited by it that you want to live it every waking minute, and you’re totally absorbed by it, then great. But if you’re not then my advice would be to find something else.” 

In celebration of Foster’s selection for this year’s Kahn prize, the Center for Architecture (1218 Arch St) is hosting an exhibition: Designing Our Skyline: The Comcast Innovation and Technology Center by Foster + Partners which will run through July.

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