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From headquarters to heartquarters: how can architecture create with a greater social conscience?

Updated: Jul 23, 2023


Could buildings indeed be boldly generous in nurturing people's flux, whether by choice or due to limitations of choice, and how can design support a greater variety of people in their needs, contexts, and aspirations?

'Norman Foster' | Exhibition, Centre Pompidou, Paris

A city up for many challenges, Lisbon has, so far, shown generosity and resilience despite becoming a speculation bubble. In August, the capital city welcomes the Pope and the Youth Festival, with over one million people expected. The city is well-trained to host a wide range of people from different backgrounds, intentions, needs, and dreams. Locals have so far welcomed waves of tourists as well as people who have settled to evade taxes, conflicts, insecurity, populist politics, and aspired to a better quality of life.

Cities' intersection splits between those igniting change and those turning into fortresses, controlling, or rejecting changes. Within this divergence of routes, a new architecture era begins. Eventually, and hopefully, gathering more people around the table, with open hearts and minds.

There is a crucial need for new neighborhoods, for modular and participatory architecture that probes a greater variety of communities at the core of each project. "À table" [an invitation to the table in French] is what Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh has chosen for her pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery in London. A table is togetherness made design, "to think about how we could reinstate and re-establish our relationship with nature and the Earth."

Pavilion À Table by Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh, Serpentine Gallery, London

Ask Lina Ghotmeh, 'What is architecture?' and she answers with another question: 'Architecture is the capacity of asking: What is architecture?'

Isn't it where we should be starting? Also, asking where architecture is going? Where is it missing? Where is architecture suffocatingly hyper-acting? And the taboo question, when will it seize to focus on the greatest corporate powers and other bastions of wealth to spend more time among all strata of society, with the same quality of listening and consideration?

The star system in architecture, luxury real estate, luxury goods, and within the pockets of radical wealth will only and always serve a tiny few. Whereas many more people have needs, means, and aspirations for new types of housing, new housing configurations, and newly designed lifestyles facilitating work in living spaces.

These unmet demands are backed by data. Evidence that the city is changing, traversed by this 21st-century shaped by movement, can be read in graphs. In its daily newsletter this week, @qz highlights two sets of data:

'The big solo. Nearly a third of all US households are made up of single people.' Never in the history of the US have so many Americans returned from work to an empty home, cooked dinners for one, watched Netflix by themselves, and slept in the very middle of their queen-sized beds.' From the 60s to 2022, the number passed from 13% to 29%. What does that mean for the US economy?'

On another recurrent theme: the empty offices, @qz sums a new report by McKinsey Global institute that "predicts a 26% drop in office property values from 2019 to 2030, which is in the ballpark of $800 billion when adjusted for inflation. The consulting company says the plunge could actually be as steep as 42%."


The number of adults living alone in Portugal is on the rise. In the space of a decade, the number of households made up of just one single adult rose from 17.2 percent to 22.1 percent. Courtesy of Jason Briscoe / Unsplash


Work from everywhere, including home, and more people living solo by choice, call for sketches that think architecture, design, and financial models around these needs, anew.


There is more. Worldwide, 108.4 million people were forcibly displaced as a result of persecution, conflict, violence, human rights violations, and events seriously disturbing public order, and need to be considered in further architectural projects. This number is four times the population of Shanghai [27 million]. (Source: UNHCR, 2022).

What will the city be for them? So, why not all together dream and draft our big ideas and small increments to be made in the cities we live in?

Imagine if temporary housing facilities could be conceived and placed safely on construction sites that often take years to be completed. It could help people left without a home for a temporary period, to be offered dignified shelters.

Since recent years, developers are increasingly pressed to commission cultural programs for the community to consolidate around a new piece of land and architecture. Could this include pre-delivery projects that could offer support to people in need?

Now imagine if men could be granted a designed device, easy to carry, that helps them avoid peeing against walls in the stretch of a fun nightlife. This device would also help people having to sleep rough under arcades, tunnels, bridges, to have a portable device that keeps the places they use safer, and acknowledges their condition.


From the Earth to the Moon. These questions arise while experiencing 'Norman Foster,' an exhibition on the British architect, currently at the Pompidou Center in Paris, until the 7th of August.



'Norman Foster' | Exhibition, Centre Pompidou, Paris


With a focus on sustainability, the exhibition – the largest ever devoted to a living architect, stretches over 2,200 square meters and six decades with 130 projects selected from the plethoric work produced by the British Master of Urban Planning.

Foster + Partners has indeed a presence in 70 countries. The architect has collected over 300 awards to his name. His staff of 1,800 counts some of the world's leading high-tech engineers. And with consistency in growth, insatiable curiosity, and endless innovation, the man at the bow of the ship simply calls this an 'obsession with building.' At 88, Norman Foster is unstoppable. In the pipeline, the JPMorgan-Chase's Headquarters, an erectile tower 425m tall to occupy 270 Park Avenue in upper East Manhattan, New York. A terminal concept for the future eVTOL aircraft infrastructure network in Dubai. A new central station in Stockholm. The King Salman International Airport project in Saudi Arabia aiming to serve 185 million travelers in 2050. And more… No time for champagne on Foster's watch but perhaps a glass of Château Margaux, a winery he designed in Bordeaux, South of France.

2022 | Foster + Partners Wins Competition for King Salman International Airport in Saudi Arabia. Courtesy of Foster + Partners

JPMorgan-Chase's Headquarters, 270 Park Avenue. Rendering © DBOX for Foster + Partners

In a review, Le Monde brushes Foster's exhibition as of "a demiurge who never gave up on his childhood dreams," with "overtones of self-portraiture, for a good reason: Foster himself came up with the idea. The desire apparently came to him, according to Migayrou, after discovering the exhibition that the Centre Pompidou devoted to the work of Tadao Ando in 2018." The budget has been kept secret.

This giant display might be of blatant self-serving propaganda – a recurrent practice in the world of megacorps prompt to hijack cultural institutions with massive perks… Still, the installation serves as a reflective rear mirror of sixty years of architecture.

Relentlessly yours. From drawings to prototypes, from projects covering the Earth and the Moon with its Martian habitats, the exhibition is a flashback into the past century's mechanical, technological, artistic, and network-driven era obsessed with speed, growth, competition, connectivity, and distinctive branding.

As an ensemble, the work embodies and re-phrases, literally and in oblique, what the preoccupations in architecture were since the 1960s. On Pompidou's sixth floor, the overall body of work holds visual stamina within the backdrop of a 360-degree view over Paris.

Nature and Urbanity


Even if architecture was eventually focused on sustainability in cities and beyond, it was essentially in the context of important commissions by mostly corporate brands such as IBM, HSBC, Bromberg, Apple, and JP Morgan-Chase and other tech, insurance, banking enterprises with financial breath to commission such buildings. With similar needs and budget, the public sector needed national flagships serving as powerful representations of politics, justice, knowledge, and the arts.


Foster's brilliance in worshipping the childlike pilot in himself, paired with his visionary holistic approach that sees no borders between the parts, has led him to sort and facilitate a plethora of projects around network and mobility, urban interaction, interconnected organization, organization, acceleration in commuting, retention of river flow, and more. Airports, viaducts, dams, bridges, fast train and metro stations—the links between things—are where he often seats today. The list of his projects is vertiginous.




Foster often speaks about 'light and lightness', which have always been key to architecture, he says, from cathedrals to past-century steel-and-glass office infrastructures. The 'cathedrals' of the 20th century were these headquarters, airports, and cultural flagships, where means of production, distribution, and display worshipped the spirit of capitalism, its technological prowess, its efficient timing, its exponential growth. A faith that helped shape the very shapeless globalization.

But that is not where we will corner Norman Foster, adamant to celebrate human and technological mastery, to ease urban flow, ignite mobility, and think efficiency and free circulation of ideas in the workplace.


Skin and Bones

The concept is inspired by the minimal elegance stripped out of the decorum of the seminal design work of German-born American architect Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, "whose rectilinear forms epitomized the International Style and exemplified his famous principle: Less is More."

Foster is part of the Superstardom of Architects, and the Emirates in the Middle East hold in their palm to serve gigantic cultural ambitions as a strategy for success and an alternative development to the obsolescence of petrol. His uniquely holistic approach to a construction ensemble, from its entrails to the dwellers passing alongside or underneath, to the natural elements affecting and enriching it, perfectly sets him to fearlessly design chunks of desert into emerging and functioning cities.


Foster believes that "postmodernism is where fashion and style subverted design." Problem-solving was lost. When designing buildings, he favors structures over aesthetics, substance over form, hides the cables and heavy stuff, for buildings' open spaces thinly covered by transparent roofs to let enter natural light, for an 'uplifting spirit.' His holistic vision has him often describe a building through its breathing quality as if a living organism.

Could we look at these vaults of corporate power as if joyful cetaceans in the ocean-city hosting in their giant bellies their VIP castaways while still enticing free circulation around them to everyone else?

To Foster's credit, the holistic approach is what pretty much any discipline in relation to its correlated disciplines and the elements impacting it should have been. It is true for fields such as anthropology, sociology, philosophy, psychology, journalism, human-focused technology, and certainly neuroscience.

But for disciplines in human sciences, social sciences, and technology affecting human knowledge to come together and merge in concern, we must once more battle the vaults. Particularly those that go as far as selling our secrets. Read on the topic, the WIRED Guide to Your Personal Data (and Who Is Using It) Time to counter-act


Thus, the quality of listening, Foster claims as one of his finest qualities to respond to what people need with the most accurate while surprising response in such consistent length of time, is undeniably forcing respect. But the quality of listening might fail in one place, in the individual capacity to counteract and overcome the status quo.

Walk around London, New York, or Shanghai with that mindset and scrutinize how architecture has too often corseted human flow and locked up knowledge, monetizing it rather than sharing it or the urban space democratically. Forster’s Gherkin has turned the perimeter of Liverpool Station into a shoulder-to-shoulder competition for brands and architects, to end up forming a building cluster that leaves no sky to the dwellers.

We must observe cities through its missing architecture as well as its suffocating architecture, and whom it essentially serves.

Things are changing. Focuses are changing. Architecture evolves, and its greater varieties of viewpoints must evolve.

When Steve Jobs called Foster saying: “Hello Norman, can you help?” “How soon can you come?” Norman went to Cupertino two weeks later, and what was meant to be an hour meeting turned into a whole day brainstorming that ended over pizza with the family. How indeed could anyone conceive that Steve Jobs would confide Apple’s nerve center to someone without becoming personal?

Apple’s circle, which shape came way later in the collaboration, is described by Foster as ‘skin’ with all its related systems sheltered underneath. The skin-roof with its ‘eyelashes’ is what each person at Apple shares as one roof, for creativity not to be held back.



Perhaps we should see the Apple circle as a metaphor for what a city in the 21st century could become. A great variety of people allowed under one same roof, with the ‘heavy stuff’ hidden underneath, and sheer care for human interaction to flow. As such and alike in festivals, people themselves will, in constant motion, draw ephemeral shapes of trembling architecture in togetherness.

Mies van der Rohe, who served as the director of Bauhaus, once told a graduating class of designers: “You have to build up the world you want to live in.”

In 2017, Norman Foster seeds his legacy with the launch of the Norman Foster Foundation in Madrid. At this year’s Architecture Biennale, he presents the following project. A pleasurable and precise speaker, Foster presents the project, giving the sense to the viewer that it’s now up to the younger generations to slide into the cockpit and script out the future, and the world they want to live in.





2023 Architecture Biennale, Essential Homes: Finding Solutions Through Sustainable Means. Norman Foster Foundation & Holcim explore the refugee crisis with a housing prototype. Interview: Watch here.

From headquarters to ‘heartquarters’: to shelter and celebrate the pulse of every human's heartbeats, architecture never was in a better place to counteract.

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