Foster Locks Lips with Modern History

Event: Building with History: How the Old and the New Can Co-exist in the Modern World
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 04.24.07
Speaker: Lord Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA
Organizer: World Monument’s Fund

Hearst Tower

The Hearst Tower represents two eras embracing each other, says Lord Foster.

Kristen Richards

“Once upon a time there was a beautiful courtyard park,” said Sir Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA, referring to the Great Court at the British Museum, one of London’s long lost public spaces. After the museum was completed in the mid 19th century, the space was filled in with a reading room, and later was used for storage. In 2000, Foster + Partners “reinvented” the space, restoring the reading room and adding a glazed canopy, making it the largest enclosed public space in Europe.

Not quite a year ago, the World Monuments Fund (WMF) launched Modernism at Risk program to address the fact that less than a century after their design and construction, Modern buildings are routinely abandoned, disfigured, or demolished, in many instances because of public indifference. This series of lectures is part of the advocacy program for the initiative and Lord Foster, a champion for preservation and reuse of historic buildings, was the first speaker.

Foster + Partners has designed many projects that illustrate how to extend the life of significant historic buildings, monuments, and public spaces. Speaking of the Reichstag, completed in 1999, he spoke of peeling back every historic layer to uncover the building’s intention and preserve time’s imprint, such as mason’s marks, graffiti left by the conquering Russians, and other war scars. The building has since become a living museum of German history as well as a realization of a modern parliament.

Recalling when he began designing the Hearst Tower, Foster’s idea to hollow out its historic shell was met with opposition. He was not only told it was impossible, but accused of “façadism.” The result, as seen the following night at a reception in Hearst Tower lobby for architects and designers in support of the WMF Modernism at Risk initiative and with Lord Foster in attendance, was an example of his belief that each age makes its own mark. There can be a dialogue between the old and the new — and in the words of Lord Foster speaking about the Hearst Tower’s era-jumping components, “one kisses the other.”