The world-famous architect and his Porsche 356
Porsche-loving architect Lord Norman Foster turned boyhood dreams into a stellar career that has reshaped the global landscape
In front of a 15-metre long mural by the British artist Grayson Perry, created using an ancient Sumatran weaving technique, stand a Porsche 356 Coupe and Cabriolet. The sculpture, fashioned from 14 different shades of thread, depicts the different stages in the life of a man and now hangs on the garage wall of world-renowned architect Lord Norman Foster.
Foster was born in England in 1935. He grew up in the working-class city of Manchester from where, as a young boy, he wrote an award-winning essay about racing on the Nürburgring. “I realised I was fascinated by race cars, especially Porsche’s designs with rear-wheel drive,” recalls the 85-year old today. “For me these cars are works of art like futuristic sculptures.”
Foster left school at the age of 16 and books and magazines were the primary source of inspiration in his youth. The Eagle comic book, with its weekly mix of futurism, technology and architecture, inspired the youthful Foster, who began to dream of becoming a pilot. Military service with the Royal Air Force soon followed, and some years later he earned his pilot’s license, something he still holds to this day.
Following his stint in the RAF, Foster applied to read architecture at the University of Manchester where a bold design for a windmill earned him an award in only his second semester. In 1961, the precocious student won a fellowship at Yale. From here, he and fellow student Richard Rogers would drive a Volkswagen Beetle across the US, drawn to the form and function of American architecture that had sprung up after the Second World War.
After completing his degree at Yale, Foster worked for a few months in San Francisco and it was here that he fell in love with the 356. “The car had a cult status in California,” he remembers. “It was actually a niche product, but every time I took my MGA in for servicing, there were a lot of them around. Even the head designer at my office drove one. I was immediately fascinated by the form and the idea of this car.”
Foster and his wife Wendy founded the Foster Associates architectural office in 1967. Later renamed Foster + Partners, it would become a global force, with buildings such as the 44-story HSBC office tower in Hong Kong and Beijing Capital International Airport still regarded as ground-breaking feats of contemporary design.
With his home in the centre of St Moritz, Foster continues to play with the accepted norms, to unite old traditions with new ideas. ‘Chesa futura’, or house of the future, is a space-aged vision of modern living, clad in over 250,000 had-cut larch tiles. “Chesa Futura is very alive,” says its creator, “just like my Porsche here.”
Lord Norman Foster at his home, Chesa Futura, in St. Moritz
Foster’s Fish Silver Grey 356 is an immaculate early split window model. “The way the car reflects Chesa’s form and vice versa – isn’t that wonderful? It was delivered to a buyer in Hamburg in October of 1950. In 1955, it was bought by RAF squadron leader Robert ‘Porky’ Munro, who imported it to Great Britain and registered it with a license plate reading UXB 12 for ‘unexploded bomb’. In 1957, Munro became the head test pilot for the Hawker-Siddeley Kestrel, the prototype for the Harrier Jump Jet – one of my favourite designs.”
Foster still loves driving his car on the winding local roads and over the mountain passes of his adopted home. Yet the odometer shows only around 6,000km. “That will probably change now that my youngest son has his driver’s license,” says Foster with a smile, before recounting the early history of his 356.
The other 356 is a later C Model Cabriolet, now equipped with a ski rack for the impromptu cross-country ski excursions that Foster loves. “The glamour that people associate with the 356 these days belies its roots,” he notes in a philosophical tone of voice. “It was developed at a time of scarcity and made of the parts available in the post-war years.”
Apple Park: the computer giant’s headquarters opened in 2017 as a monumental infinite loop. It encircles a 12-hectare park.
A parallel perhaps with Foster’s own humble origins, and hard-fought rise to the top of his game. In 1990, he was awarded a knighthood and in 1999 was made Lord Foster of Thames Bank, allowing him to sit in the British parliament’s House of Lords.
That same year, Lord Foster also received the coveted Pritzker Architecture Prize in Berlin and subsequently won the contract for restructuring the German Reichstag building. “This might be my most meaningful project,” he reflects of the extraordinary restoration of so historic a building for a recently reunified Germany.
But the milestones kept coming. Following a call from Steve Jobs, Foster designed what may well be the most spectacular office complex in the world – Apple Park in Cupertino, Silicon Valley. “That was a really special type of collaboration,” says Foster. “Steve didn’t want me to see him as a client but rather as a member of my team. He told me how in his youth, Silicon Valley produced most of the fruit for America. This was the inspiration for Apple Park."
Lord Norman Foster certainly appreciates the significance of our collective history, its ability to endure and influence design. Something he sees in his beloved 356, still treasured and driven as Porsche intended despite his advancing years. “I value these sports cars very much, like I do my life. It is a privilege to still be able to enjoy every drive.”