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April 2, 2024

Interview: Lord Norman Foster and Architecture Sarasota

The visionary architect is this year’s recipient of the second annual Philip Hanson Hiss Award

Courtesy Architecture Sarasota. Photography by Kelsey Long/Olive Grey Photography

When ruminating on the great architectural masterpieces of the world, individuals can be quick to gravitate toward larger metropolitan areas—New York or Tokyo, Paris, Mexico City, Shanghai or Dubai. And yet, so many architectural movements were born elsewhere before being integrated into the global language that informs our built environment. In fact, “you could argue, I suppose, that the impact of a building in a smaller city is more powerful than in a larger city which offers, inevitably, more choice,” Lord Norman Foster tells COOL HUNTING from the ballroom of the Art Ovation Hotel in Sarasota, Florida. “The power of an intervention in a smaller city, “he adds, “has the potential for greater influence.”

Courtesy Architecture Sarasota. Photography by Kelsey Long/Olive Grey Photography

Lord Foster was in Sarasota to receive the 2024 Philip Hanson Hiss Award, an accolade bestowed upon an individual championing innovation in architecture and design. The annual honor was born from Architecture Sarasota, an organization stewarding the legacy of the Sarasota School of Architecture and committed to education and advocacy around the city’s innumerable architectural treasures. For anyone unfamiliar with Sarasota’s esteemed architectural history, Lord Foster’s presence acts as a testament—and Architecture Sarasota’s new Moderns That Matter: The Sarasota 100 exhibition at McCulloch Pavilion reveals the breadth and depth.

Courtesy Architecture Sarasota. Photography by Kelsey Long/Olive Grey Photography

Lord Foster, the founder and executive chairman of Foster + Partners, won the 21st Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1999. His immense, influential body of work includes Apple Park in Cupertino, California, NYC’s Hearst Tower, The Gherkin in London, as well as the Beijing Capital Airport and many more. Right now, he’s developing the masterplan for the Mayo Clinic, as well as the global headquarters for JPMorgan Chase, and steering the mission for his own Norman Foster Foundation. In addition to all of that, he’s the elected advocate for cities at the United Nations’ Forum of Mayors.

Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella House, photo by Nicholas Ferris Photography

Lord Foster’s personal connection to Sarasota predates all of this. Philip Hiss, the powerhouse developer for whom the award was named, transformed the Floridian city into a vision for the future by commissioning architect Paul Rudolph for projects like Umbrella House in 1953. Hiss—and Rudolph—intended to demonstrate how people could be living in post-war America, and their creations were radical and garnered attention for their experimental nature.

Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell’s Revere Quality House, photo courtesy of Wayne Eastep

“I came to Yale in 1961,” Lord Foster tells us. “I had a Henry Fellowship which I could have taken at either Yale or Harvard. Paul Rudolph was the dean of the architecture program. He was the reason that I chose Yale. In many ways, Rudolph was a product of Walter Gropius and Harvard. Arguably, I indirectly got the Bauhaus from Rudolph, whose work I was very much aware of in Sarasota. I hadn’t been to the States before going to Yale, but Rudolph’s work was published. It was the best decision I ever made, to go to Yale and have the privilege of Rudolph being a teacher and mentor.”

Carl Abbot’s Butterfield House opposite Paul Rudolph’s Cocoon House, photo by Leonardo Lunardi

In addition to Rudolph’s work, the fabric of Sarasota features contributions from “a very close friend, Carl Abbot, who was a classmate in that year,” Lord Foster adds. “We’ve traveled together and we’ve kept in contact since then.” Lord Foster continues to find inspiration in the works of Rudolph, his collaborator Ralph Twitchell, as well as other leading modern architects in the ’50s—like Victor Lundy and Gene Leedy. Abbot’s work includes the contemporary masterpiece Butterfield House, which is oriented toward one of Rudolph’s iconic additions, Cocoon House. They’re separated by a picturesque bayou.

Courtesy Architecture Sarasota. Photography by Kelsey Long/Olive Grey Photography

Prior to an engaging lecture of reflection and experiences on cities and architecture, Lord Foster painted a picture of a climate-sensitive future for us. “If we look at population growth between now and 2050, it’s a predicted two billion,” he says. “That means that somehow, mostly in Africa, Asia, and maybe Latin America, we will be making 18 Miami metro areas every year between now and then. What kind of model of a city should we be prescribing or advocating for? Essentially compact, fairly high-density, walkable, pedestrian-friendly and neighborhood-oriented. These are the opposite of sprawling car-born cities. They consume less energy. They’re more sustainable. That would be your ideal model.”

Lord Foster says such cities should teem with nature. “It must be green, not just in terms of sustainability, but in terms of parks and green spaces,” he says. “You would be, ideally, in walking distance to a store or school, or there must be good connectivity thanks to high-quality public transportation. Cars would still be around but assuming by then energy production is not fossil fuels but clean. The picture of this city is walkable, friendly, safe and green.”

Courtesy Architecture Sarasota. Photography by Kelsey Long/Olive Grey Photography

When we enquired about Lord Foster’s most meaningful project, he explained that it would be like tossing a coin—though he has an affinity for the Reichstag. “It is emblematic of a nation and a city,” he tells us. “It’s a green, clean energy manifesto with generous public space. It incorporates works of art. It’s representative of a new relationship between the public and the politicians.” As for his practice’s turning point, he looks to a center he helmed in the London Docklands. “It was an operation center for dock workers who, up to that point, had been underprivileged. It combined them with management. It had a very strong social agenda. It was the first project that opened the door to other projects,” he says. “It’s the power of architecture and design to transform the quality of every day life. That project had that power.”

Themes from our conversation flowed into Lord Foster’s keynote address. “Why cities?” he asked the sold-out crowd. “Cities are the future. More people are living in cities and will be living in cities. You could say that cities are our greatest invention. What is a city? The infrastructure of the connections, public spaces, parks, bridges, boulevards, plazas, metro systems. These determine what makes one city different from another. It defines whether a city is beautiful or ugly. It determines its identity. It’s the urban glue which binds together the many individual buildings.” Lord Foster’s insights arose from his role as an urbanist concerned with infrastructure, and as an architect concerned with the impact of individual buildings.

Courtesy Architecture Sarasota. Photography by Kelsey Long/Olive Grey Photography

In addition to his keynote, Lord Foster toured a handful of Sarasota’s most architecturally significant homes—four of which were opened to guests of the Philip Hanson Hiss Award ceremony. “When we first began talking about what would make the perfect venue for this year’s Hiss Award celebration, we knew we wanted to have a setting that would pay homage to our Sarasota School roots but also acknowledge the contemporary work that’s being done by those who have been inspired by our past,” Anne Essner, board president of Architecture Sarasota, explains. “Clearly the Revere Quality House, by Paul Rudolph and Ralph Twitchell, and its Companion House, by Guy Peterson, check all boxes.” To complement this duo, Architecture Sarasota opened Abbot’s neighboring Butterfield House and, with it, a vista of Rudolph’s Cocoon House. Together, they formed a quartet of architectural achievement.

Photo by Sean Harris

“Part of my work here is to ensure that young people have the opportunity to see modern architecture and to understand the importance of design and how it affects our lives,” concludes Marty Hylton, the president of Architecture Sarasota. With programs like the Moderns That Matter, international attention from pioneers like Lord Foster and an ingrained cultural richness to the city itself, Hylton, Essner and Architecture Sarasota will surely continue to inform and inspire.

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