In 1978 the future arrived in Norwich. It came in the form of a museum designed by Norman Foster. The Sainsbury Centre (above) was built to house the supermarket dynasty’s art collection, and was like no other museum in Britain. 150m long and clad in shiny steel, its western and eastern fronts boasted huge glass windows, which were surrounded by a steel frame that looked more like the internal parts of a rocket than ornamentation for a façade. Inside, a double-skinned structure allowed all the service areas to be hidden in the walls and underground, leaving a cavernous central space for exhibits. This was an art gallery in the form of an aircraft hangar.
Forty years later, the Sainsbury Centre is hosting “Superstructures”, a thorough (and thoroughly enjoyable) new exhibition that explores the work of Foster and contemporaries like Richard Rogers, Nicholas Grimshaw and Michael and Patty Hopkins. Together they formed a cohort whose style came to be known as “high-tech”, owing to their liberal use of ideas and techniques from science and industry. Their buildings were often assembled from complex kits of prefabricated parts, like cars or planes, and wore their engineering on the outside, as in the external lifts and pipes of Rogers’s Lloyd’s Building (1986), which resemble the guts of some enormous robot. They also drew on sci-fi to create space-age constructions like Grimshaw’s domes at the Eden Project in Cornwall (2001). Thanks to its futuristic exuberance and grandeur, “high-tech” became the dominant style for corporate headquarters and public buildings. Foster remains its leading exponent. His office for Apple, which opened in 2017, comes in the form of a giant white ring – a space station that fell to Earth.
The exhibition is less interested, however, in recent projects. Beginning with a model of the Sainsbury Centre itself, it explores the development of “high-tech” through drawings and models of famous buildings like the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Eurostar terminal at Waterloo station in London, the latter represented by a series of expressive wooden models of the building’s stainless-steel exoskeleton. The exhibition prompts one central question: how is it that a group of architects from Britain – a country often cast as an architectural backwater – came to rule the world?
The answer is that they synthesised three influences: the technological architecture of people like Jean Prouvé, who began making prefabricated buildings in the 1940s; the optimistic derring-do of the space age; and a British tradition of inventive engineering. Foster was born in Manchester, Britain’s first industrial city, in 1935. Growing up in a terraced house with a Victorian railway bridge at the end of the street, he was exposed from an early age to the great 19th-century industrial architecture and engineering of Thomas Telford, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Joseph Paxton, who became models of architectural ambition for him. As well as looking back he looked forward. As a boy he devoured the adventures of Dan Dare, a British comic strip about the pilot of an interplanetary space fleet. Foster was inspired by the curvaceous space ports and futuristic cities. As a young man doing National Service in the RAF he fell in love with aeroplanes, which were just beginning to make flying accessible to the general public. When, in 1991, he was asked by the BBC to pick his favourite piece of architecture, he chose the Boeing 747.
These ideas had their first expression in the now-demolished Reliance Controls factory in Swindon (1966) by Team 4, a short-lived group that comprised Foster, Rogers, Wendy Cheesman (who married Foster) and Su Brumwell (who married Rogers); Foster, Rogers and Brumwell befriended each other while studying at Yale. A steel-framed shed with corrugated sides, it had all the aesthetic charm of an out-of-town warehouse. Foster’s office for Willis Faber and Dumas, an insurance company, completed in 1975, took its brown-tinted windows from the car industry. Though these early buildings were modest in scale, they won critical acclaim: Reliance Controls won a Financial Times award for industrial building of the year and the Willis building was described by the Architectural Review as a “Spielbergian spaceship”. This brought high-tech to the attention of global firms like HSBC, for whom Foster created a humongous headquarters in Hong Kong (1986) using techniques from oil-rig design and ship-building.
It is not hard to see why high-tech appealed to international business. Its focus on the future mirrored advances in computing and automation. Architects’ grand statements echoed the grand ambitions of the companies who occupied their buildings. But it came with problems. The first was price. The HSBC Building was, at the time of construction, the most expensive ever built. In 2014 Lloyd’s of London considered leaving its home, citing the huge cost of maintaining the external services. The second is that purity of design often bumps up against messy reality. Examine Foster’s model for Stansted Airport (1991) – which, as the blueprint for airports worldwide, remains perhaps high-tech’s most influential project – and you’ll see a neat patterning of repeated units in grey and white, as pure as a geometric, abstract painting. Travel through it in the present day and you’ll be trapped in a labyrinth of gaudy chain shops, distracting your eye from the original structure.
Foster’s Apple building is a case in point. The space is divided by glass walls, which gives it the clean, clinical beauty of an Apple device and is supposed to encourage a sense of transparency and cohesion among the staff. Earlier this month, the building hit the news when it emerged that some staff had injured themselves by walking into them.
Superstructures Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, Norwich, until September 2nd