Jan 9, 201404:09 PMPoint of View

Q&A: Norman Foster on Niemeyer, Nature, and Cities

Q&A: Norman Foster on Niemeyer, Nature, and Cities

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Oscar Niemeyer and Lord Norman Foster in 2011. "He was in wonderful spirits—charming and, notwithstanding his 104 years, his youthful energy and creativity were inspirational."

Courtesy Foster + Partners

Last December, in the midst of a hectic schedule of events that have come to define ArtBasel/DesignMiami, I found myself attending a luncheon presentation of the plans for the Norton Museum of Art in Palm Beach, by Foster + Partners. While chatting with Lord Foster, I mentioned my Brazilian background and quickly the conversation turned to Oscar Niemeyer. Foster mentioned the talk he and Niemeyer had shortly before the Brazilian’s passing (coincidentally that same week in December marked the first anniversary of Niemeyer’s death). Curious to know more about the meeting and their chat, I asked Foster about that legendary encounter and some of the guiding ideas behind his design for the Norton. 


Paul Clemence:  How did the meeting with Oscar Niemeyer happen? What motivated the encounter?

Norman Foster: It came out of a conversation I had with Hans Ulrich Obrist in January 2011, during an annual salon that my wife Elena curates with him in Switzerland. I travelled to Brazil later that year and met Oscar in Rio on 21 May. There were so many reasons for the meeting, but Hans had a particular interest in bringing us together to discuss our experiences as designers of cities. In Oscar’s case, it was, of course, Brasilia; in mine, it was our work in Europe and the Far East, notably Masdar in Abu Dhabi. 

PC: How did you find Niemeyer? What were his spirits like at that advanced stage of his life?

NF: He was in wonderful spirits—charming and, notwithstanding his 104 years, his youthful energy and creativity were inspirational. His energy and good humor were boundless. We had an interesting discussion about architecture as invention and its capacity to surprise. And we talked also about life and the cosmos—as he said, “we are on board a fantastic ship!”  In the 1950s, I was inspired by his work which in the context of austerity in Britain was colorful, exuberant, and glamorous. This was before I started my architectural studies.

PC: As someone who was an early inspiration of yours, how did it feel to meet Niemeyer in person?

NF: The experience of meeting him was very special. Few of us get to meet our heroes and I am grateful to have had the chance to spend time with him whilst he was alive. I was touched by his warmth, his great passion for life and architecture.

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