Norman Foster: 5 VITAL Lessons For Architects

Norman Foster is one of the most accomplished architects of our time, he has risen from humble upbringings to become one of the most influential & wealthiest designers of our time. His practice – Foster + Partners is responsible for numerous iconic projects including Gherkin tower in London, HSBC Tower in Hong Kong, Apple HQ and many other famous projects.

So in today’s video I’ll break down some practical lessons from Norman Foster’s career journey, in order to understanding why he got successful and most importantly to learn how we can implement his lessons in order to succeed in our own careers.

Although it may seem difficult to repeat his level of success, there are nevertheless some very specific things he’s done throughout his career that any of us can replicate in order to have:

  1. Better careers
  2. More interesting jobs
  3. & a higher pay!

Norman Foster is a British architect who grew up in a poor district of Manchester, he is the only child of a working class family. His dad was a machine painter and his mother was a baker. He has won Priztker price and has received multiple nominations, and he is the wealthiest architect with net worth estimated at 240 USD/ 170 GBP.

Here is my take on how he got to this level of success:

 

1. Absolute love for Architecture

 

In his childhood Foster was fascinated with different types of mechanical apparatus – locomotive engines, aircraft and planes. He also enjoyed making models, he’d spend his pocket money on the old school Trix and Meccano construction sets. And he developed his drawing skills during the childhood as well. He became an acute observer of his surrounding with understanding of the urban fabric and individual buildings.

These early curiosity and interests encouraged Foster to pursue architecture, and his interest in technology had likely lead him to eventually developing the high tech architecture style. I think Foster’s example shows that he is one of those rare people who had developed a very deep love with their craft to the point of obsession and who discovered this passion early on and managed to sustain for a very long period of time.

Architecture career (or any other professional endeavour) is not an easy path, and it requires a tremendous time and energy investment to become good at it. Having a deep love and fascination with the subject matter makes this journey easier. Because having love or an interest in what you do, means you won’t quit when things inevitably get difficult, and you will be able to navigate through the rough patches.

For instance, Foster had to push hard through the uni by working night shifts to sustain himself as he was ineligible for student loan. He then worked hard on his university projects to get a scholarship to study in Yale. And after graduation it took another 10 years to make a big break on winning the HSBC headquarters project in Hong Kong. None of this would be possible if he disliked what he was doing even slightly!

I think the big lesson for all of us is that the love for any type craft can be found during early ages, probably somewhere between early childhood up to the teenage years. When for most of us are in this period of the greatest freedom, creativity and curiosity that we will ever have. Where we are completely unobstructed in following our interests and free from judgments of others.

So I think, taking some time and reflecting on these early interest might reignite the spark of that early interest in architecture, art or design and give an energy boost to push harder in our careers. Or it might reveal that maybe architecture is not quite right for us, and this realisation could provide an opportunity for a course correction.

In either case introspection into early childhood years can give us some clue as to whether the path we chose is right or not. And in the case of Foster he had some good early indicators.

 

2. Vision & Communication Skills

 

When Foster was in his 20’s Britain’s architectural landscape was dominated by the Victorian past, modernism was picking up in Europe and USA but it was no well adopted in Britain and it would take many years before modern architecture would eventually become mainstream.

So in this type of environment, pushing past the status quo would have required a good amount of persuasion and communication skills. Many of these skills Foster honed whilst at Yale, which at the time had a very tough studio culture. It was a sort of a pressure cooker, where ideas had to be defended aggressively against the opposition of peers and tutors.

To survive at Yale a research driven approach was crucial, the proposals would only be produced after the problems and context where throughly understood and a Vision for the project can be envisaged. This was not by the way the case in many other schools of architecture at the time who took more traditional “do things by the book” approach.

In later years Foster used his capability of develop visions for real projects from a research based thinking. Unlike many architecture practices at the time, Foster would ask loads of questions before offering any solutions to the clients. This meant that Foster was able to offer a specific solution to the particular client’s needs.

For example, his very first commission was for a cargo shipping company, who wanted to install some showers for their workforce. Foster arrange a meeting and arrived an hour early to explore the site, which then during the client meeting allowed him to point out to a plot location that the client had’t thought. (there were no Google maps at the time! He had to think quick on his feet)

As the conversation went on, Foster begun to raise questions – not just about the building, but about how the entire business operation worked. For instance, the shipping company had plans to raise the welfare conditions for his staff, and Foster also learned that the company was operating a holiday cruise service on the same vessel as the cargo deliveries to Canary Islands.

What was initially envisaged as only a few showers, turned out into a vision of having a welfare centre to host workers and a passenger terminal. Foster’s listening, communication and persuasion skills lead to a strong idea for the project and the eventual design solution. If it wasn’t for deep understanding of client’s need, the whole thing might have turned out completely different and certainly less impressive.

So the lesson here is a simple question: When we engage in a creative activity, what is the level of research we need to do in order to have enough conviction in our proposal to be able to sound convincing and persuade others that out idea is the best there is.

 

3. Identifying Opportunities

 

One of the most overlooked things when choosing creative direction in architecture or in any other design or art discipline is the existing level of competition and saturation in any given field. The problem with creative fields is that all art is the type of art that has been done before by others. So, in order to get noticed it is more productive to try and become known for something that is rarely done.

Foster realised this early on when he determined to take on the position of the most accomplished factories designer in Britain. Most other typologies at the time had plenty of specialist architects. In Foster Autobiography by Deyan Sudjic, Foster said that: “The only territory that was not take over was the industrial architecture, perhaps because it was not posh enough, or not intellectual enough, or because architect’s did not want to make their hands dirty”. This is how Foster became known as a pioneer of an industrial architecture, by doing projects that no-one else wanted to take on.

The lesson here is that it’s much easier to build a name for oneself by avoiding the competition with the established players in the field, and focusing instead on the the opportunities in the areas that are less popular or desirable. Foster did this with the industrial architecture, he narrowed down to this single field and eventually after gaining some reputation, he was able to expand into further sectors like: aviation, educational, science and many other fields. But if it wasn’t for that initial recognition, the further growth would not be possible.

So what are the fields that you can go into that other architect’s overlook or do not find appealing? How can you do things differently either by being a better listener, working faster than everyone else, being more articulate or more technically advanced. The basic question is – how to make on-self stand out from the competition to avoid competing with others!

 

4. Network

 

Next point is networking, and it may sound boring and cliche, but it it a highly effective strategy that is overlooked – and it is another strategy that Foster and all other famous architects used to their advantage. For example, Foster met Buckminster Fuller at The Institute of Contemporary Arts in London in 1971 who later became his mentor. He met Richard Rodgers whilst studying in Yale.

Foster became highly influenced by Fullers environmental considerations long before it became fashionable to do so, whilst Richard Rogers became his business partner during the early stage of Foster’s career. He managed to make hundreds of other meaningful connections and contacts that helped to lift off his career.

Unfortunately, networking strategy is mostly ignored by architects because it takes effort and the return on the time investment is unknown. Sometimes networking is even considered unnecessary or even frowned upon by architects, as most contacts are other architects in the industry.

However, getting to know other people in the industry in and around is one of the most highly effective ways to improves one’s career. It allows to:

  • Get a job without CV
  • Meet influential people in the industry
  • Land great clients, meet new friends
  • and many more unexpected opportunities.

Yes networking does take loads of effort. And the immediate benefits of attending events, going to exhibitions, talks and meet ups are not very clear. However the power of serendipity when you get to know a lot of people is undeniable, it might just be that one of these contacts will turn out to be life changing, and that’s the time when the reward becomes apparent but it does require putting oneself out there!

 

5. Long term investment

 

Last point might sound obvious from Foster’s journey, but I think it’s important to iterate it anyway. It takes a really long time to become an established architect. This is because buildings take really long time to design and then build, and it’s hard to convince client’s that you are a trusted pair of hands in the first place. For example Fosters entered the 1979 International competition for design of “the best bank’s headquarters in the world” 10 years after establishing the practice at the age of 44! They won the competitions and suddenly found themselves with the budget of $600 mil (almost 2 billion in todays money!) – at the time the most expensive building in the world. After this commissions started to roll off.

By architecture standards 44 is an impressive age to land such a huge project. But, when compared to other disciplines, these sort of success stories happen much sooner.

So the question we all can ask to ourselves, which kid of related back to the very first point I made, is that- do we see architecture as something we’d like to do for the next 10, 20, 30 years? If the answer is no, then it’s time to look into alternative fields, if the answer is yes then it’s about playing the game of architecture in the way that will make you successful, by having the love for the craft, having vision, identifying opportunities and networking.

 

Conclusion

 

I hope lessons covered in this video will help you to navigate the challenges that architecture career presents, both personally and professionally. It is a unique set of circumstances and personal traits that allowed Foster to reach his accomplishments, and there is certainly much more that could have been covered. However, I do think that all of us can use these lessons to advance our careers and most importantly get to work on the projects that we really want to do!

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