Norman Foster Foundation
Like many married men, Norman Foster takes enormous pride in his garage. His is brand new, an immaculate structure made of German glass and polished Japanese mirror, built behind a petite 1902 palace in Madrid that has been refurbished to house the Norman Foster Foundation, an archive and research center inaugurated on June 1, the illustrious British architect’s eighty-second birthday. The day before, itching to show the place off, Foster had some friends over.
“Jony!” said Norman, greeting Jonathan Ive, the T-shirt wearing chief creative officer of Apple. The two tanned designers brought it in for a hug. Ive had just arrived, presumably from Apple’s new Foster + Partners–designed donut-shaped headquarters in California. In short order, the garage door, a two-and-a-half-ton slab of glass supported by one wheel, was pivoted open by four hired hands, sweeping past Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, depicting a Futurist man rushing in the direction of Le Corbusier’s original 1926 Voisin Lumineuse coach, which Foster acquired and had impeccably restored. The “Pavilion of Inspirations,” as it is referred to in press material, is a storehouse for memorabilia and miscellaneous Guy Stuff that a dad, if he is wise, knows not to bring into the house. In the architect’s case, a large Andreas Gursky photograph of the Engadin Skimarathon (Foster participates annually) and a large Robert Longo drawing of Russian fighter jets (Foster flies planes, the civilian type). Contained within a big vitrine were, among other mementos, miniature tensegrity structures and Dymaxion cars; Zeppelin models and Lionel model trains; an Olivetti typewriter; and, perhaps to tickle Ive, a first-generation iPhone.
Come evening, the driveway played host to a cocktail reception. Ivorypress publisher Elena Ochoa Foster, the architect’s glamorous Spanish spouse, was parked between the front gate and the palace porch, wearing a gold Claude Lalanne collarette and oversize, squared glasses. She welcomed invitees with kisses and inimitable facial expressions. Foster had told me that the choice to locate the foundation in Madrid was not determined, as many assume, by his wife’s nationality. But witnessing her cool, larger-than-life personality at the party—before wedding Foster, in 1996, she made a name for herself as a professor of psychopathology and as the host of a TV show called Let’s Talk About Sex—it is hard to imagine it located anywhere else (let alone Brooklyn, which was under consideration along with Manhattan, Berlin, and London).
Lord Foster, less comfortable with freeform conversation—he fidgeted with his white Apple Watch as we spoke—prefers to ground discussion in things. Fortunately, there were plenty of things inside the palace. A selection of Foster’s models and sketches were displayed in nine rooms across two floors, which the architect roamed, hobnobbing with esteemed guests including James Costos, the former United States ambassador to Spain, and his partner, Michael S. Smith, the Obamas’ White House decorator, as well as billionaire captains of industry Alberto Cortina and Plácido Arango, companion of artist Cristina Iglesias, whose carbon-fiber canopy was suspended over the driveway. The usual accusation that architects are hopelessly complicit with power can’t be leveled against Foster: He is not some naive pawn of the powerful global elite but rather one of its members, with an estimated fortune of $220 million, according to last year’s Sunday Times Rich List. As for me, a pitiful, unpedigreed freelancer, I was underdressed and underage. With a few exceptions—Ochoa and Foster’s two teenage children, and middle-aged old money like Pia Getty—the attendees were up there in years. Septuagenarian Bianca Jagger, dressed in a beige full-length coat and silver platforms, seemed spritely, though, compared to the reclining bronze by Henry Moore next to her.
By 8:30 the next morning, most of these eminences, plus legions of students, had packed the seventeen-hundred-seat Teatro Real. The foundation’s director, María Nicanor, who arrived from London’s Victoria and Albert in January, kicked things off. Manuela Carmena, Madrid’s left-wing mayor, implored Foster in her welcome speech to help “reduce inequality in our city.” But as the day went on, this plea for equality proved one of the few things the guru-participants—drawn from art, architecture, urbanism, academia, and the tech industry—could not care to imagine. Titled “The Future Is Now,” the conference sought to demonstrate the foundation’s holistic, interdisciplinary approach to urgent global issues. The artists—except for Cornelia Parker, who kept it refreshingly kooky—spoke the studied managementese of consultants, discussing the “culture sector” (Olafur Eliasson) and its “very large return on investment” (Maya Lin). “First become a billionaire, then become a mayor,” advised Michael Bloomberg, who, after taking jabs at Trump, millennials, and other lowlifes, offered glowing endorsements of Elon Musk and similar visionaries. “You are one of them,” he said, gesturing to Foster. “Jeff Bezos is another one.”
Listening to Bloomberg and others talk, you started to feel that any apprehension about their future could not possibly be born of legitimate political or ideological difference. Instead, it’s some sort of character flaw—an indication of constitutional weakness. It took the conservative Ivy League historian and TV pundit Niall Ferguson, part of the panel on technology, to shatter the liberal consensus. And that’s when things got bizarre. (Was I really agreeing with Henry Kissinger’s authorized biographer?) After sitting through a keynote by architect Matthias Kohler on robotic construction, a conversation between Financial Times managing editor Gillian Tett and a tight-lipped Jony Ive (“The change right now is . . . intoxicating”), and then a long-winded fried-eggs-versus-omelets analogy by MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte, Ferguson pounced. “There’s other things to do with eggs,” he said, recalling how, the night before, Tesla’s chauffeuring conference participants were targeted by angry huevos-wielding cab drivers protesting Uber. The self-appointed “voice of doom,” Ferguson accused the people who work in technology of being historically ignorant and warned of an impending backlash against their innovations by labor. “The rotten eggs have only just begun to fly!” Negroponte, giddy techno-optimist, dug in: “There is no question that twenty years from now, people will learn French by swallowing a pill.”
What goes in must come out, and Foster, who in his opening keynote championed the great life-giving potential of sewage for urban agriculture, returned to fecal matters. “I was reminded that really there is a history of technology responding to crises,” he said in his closing remarks, explaining how the Great Stink of London (1858) was overcome by the construction of a new sewer system, and the Great Manure Crisis (1894) by the eventual transition from horses to automobiles. Will high-rise farms fertilized by human waste satiate growing urban populations and stave off ecological collapse? If there’s one thing optimists and pessimists can both agree on, it’s that the future is shit.