“I Have No Power as an Architect, None Whatsoever”: Norman Foster on the Design of Global Infrastructure

“I can’t even go on to a building site and tell people what to do,” said Foster.

Paul Keskeys Paul Keskeys

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The notion of sustainability and its relevance to the architectural profession has been a hot topic lately, and in 2015, one of the United Kingdom’s top architects weighed in on the issue. Speaking to The Guardian’s Rowan Moore, Norman Foster pulled no punches when airing his views on the plight of global infrastructure while discussing the social, economic, political, and environmental hurdles to be negotiated by contemporary society.

Foster emphasized the scale of the challenge faced by architects, engineers, and urban planners in an age when the development of sustainable transport solutions is more crucial than ever before. The architect lamented the likely loss of the commission to design a new airport in London’s Thames estuary but also highlighted a great environmental success in the shape of his much-lauded Millau Viaduct in southern France.

Here are seven of the most startling and insightful quotes from Foster’s fascinating interview…

On density and urbanism:

“If you take the carbon footprint of London, that’s one seventh of that of Atlanta, so there’s a relationship between density and emissions. The whole climate change issue, which many would argue is about the survival of the species, comes down to urbanism.”

Droneport, Rwanda

On energy consumption in the United States:

“When I was in Harvard recently, I said that each of us in this room, the energy that we consume in one year would equal the energy consumed by two Japanese, 13 Chinese, 31 Indians and 370 Ethiopians.”

Millau Viaduct, Millau, France

On his Millau Viaduct in southern France:

“Millau cut out five-hour traffic jams, which meant that the saving in CO2 from the 10% of traffic that is heavy good vehicles had an effect equivalent to a forest of 40,000 trees.”

Proposed Thames Hub Airport, London, United Kingdom; via Foster + Partners

On the likely rejection of his proposal for a new airport in London, United Kingdom:

“The reality of a hub airport is that you can never ever do that at Heathrow. If you do that at Heathrow now you can absolutely guarantee that we will still be pedaling furiously to stand still.”

Beijing Airport, Beijing, China

On our collective attitude regarding sustainability:

“Do you eat meat? You’re probably going to have your hamburger in spite of the fact that you’re going to make a much greater impact than any travel. [Air travel] compares well statistically with the amount of methane produced by cows and the amount of energy and water needed to produce a hamburger.”

Queen Alia International Airport, Amman, Jordan

On the future of air travel:

“The reality is that all society is embedded in mobility. You’re going to take that flight. You’d be better to take the flight out of an airport that is driven by tidal power and which uses natural light, and which anticipates the day when air travel will be more sustainable.”

Jeddah Transport Network, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

On the role of architects in the design of global infrastructure:

“I have no power as an architect, none whatsoever. I can’t even go on to a building site and tell people what to do.” [Advocacy, he says, is the only power an architect ever has.]

To check out more of Foster’s current and future projects, check out the architect’s extensive firm profile, here.

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