Several years ago, Foster + Partners, the London firm of British starchitect Norman Foster, won a commission to design a glittery boutique hotel on the Vegas strip. Construction of the Harmon Hotel got underway. Then suddenly in 2008, the jackhammers ground to a halt. Inspectors had discovered severe structural problems, the details of which roughly boil down to this: If a major earthquake hit Las Vegas, the hotel will tumble over like the last move in Jenga. A courtroom battle ensued. Now, rather than sink money into a retrofit, the owner wants to blow up the whole thing before it even opens. The bill has already climbed past $250 million. Say it with me now: Oof.
At the same time, Foster’s plowing ahead on two hugely important U.S. projects. One is Virgin’s Spaceport America, in New Mexico, the world’s first purpose-built commercial airport for launching people into the sub-orbital heavens. The other is a giant UFO of an office building for Apple in Cupertino. Foster + Partners also designed Two World Trade Center, an office tower sprouting up in the new World Trade Center complex. Here’s our concern: Something—whether the Harmon Hotel in Las Vegas or a wannabe Shakespearean theater in New York—often goes wrong when Norman Foster is designing in the United States.Let us consider the evidence. In 2009, Foster completed a whizbang performance venue for the Dallas Opera as part of an ambitious $354 arts complex that included architecture by REX and Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture. In July, the Dallas Opera (TDO) announced that it was canceling a production in its 2011-2012 repertoire owing to financial woes, which result, in part, from the size of the venue: There aren’t enough seats. According to the press release:
Whereas TDO could previously accommodate patrons for a popular opera in four performances, it now takes up to six, resulting in a longer and more expensive rehearsal and performance cycle, as well as increased costs for conductors, principal artists, chorus, technicians and stage crews, based on the number of performances and/or hours worked.
It was not Foster’s fault. A steering committee decided to erect an intimate theater, failing to realize how detrimental it’d be to the opera’s bottom line. That, combined with the premium of running a slick new opera house and, of course, the general residue of an economic slump—fewer patrons, dinkier donations—tugged viciously at TDO’s purse strings. In the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the opera ran a $6 million deficit. Onlookers fear more performance cancellations (or perhaps worse).
Other Foster + Partners projects simply never budged past the drawing board. The firm has had a project in the pipeline on New York City’s Governors Island since 2003: a stage for Shakespeare that vaguely resembles the original Globe Theater in London. “What started as a dream a few years ago has turned into a firm proposal,” the New York Sun reported back in 2007, “with a design by architect Lord Norman Foster… and a business plan.” (Fun fact: Foster has since resigned from the House of Lords apparently to avoid paying U.K. taxes on foreign income.) The Sun helpfully pointed out that the theater would need more than a business plan to progress with its scheme. How prophetic. Four years on, no word on when—or whether—it’ll be built.
Head some 3,000 miles west, to Seattle, and you’ve got a Foster + Partners design for a swank, LEED-Platinum tower that’s been on hold since the 2008 financial crisis. The developers insist that the building will still move forward: “There’s a fifty-fifty chance it’ll happen in the next 12 months, but given the state of the economy it could be longer than that," Brett Allen told us in a voicemail. Maybe a lot longer.
Just fallout from the slump? Perhaps. But even projects that finished up before Wall Street tanked have suffered lackluster fates. Take the 46-story Hearst Tower, which opened in midtown Manhattan in 2006. A big stack of manly steel trusses, it’s been broadly heralded as a feat of engineering. It has not been as broadly heralded as a feat of architecture, competing with the likes of the (hideous) Trump International Hotel & Tower and the (extra-hideous) MetLife Building for the title of ugliest building in New York. Robert Campbell, one of the best architecture critics alive, panned it, calling it “a cage” with none of the charm of the Gherkin (the Foster-designed stack of manly steel trusses that punctuates London’s skyline). Instead the Hearst “looks like a misplaced missile silo,” Campbell wrote in Architectural Record. “It’s as if the Pentagon, with its usual deftness of touch, had confused its maps and located this chunk of military hardware in Manhattan instead of Florida.” Ouch.
There have been success stories. The recently completed Sperone Westwater Gallery on Bowery in Manhattan shows how resourceful Foster can be in ultra-constrained, ultra-New York spaces. With just a 25-foot-wide footprint to work with, the firm cleverly transformed the main elevator into a mobile art gallery. And Campbell—yeah, that Campbell—praised Foster’s gentle extension to the MFA in Boston as “a triumph of intelligence and pragmatism.”The temptation is to lump Foster in with the many British exports before him—soccer, meat pies, Herman’s Hermits—that were doomed to fail on American soil. That’s not quite right, though. You could scour the project list of any architect, famous our not, and find a litany of tales like these—tales that the architect would describe, in all earnestness, as downright tragic. But maybe there’s something about Foster’s style that courts bad luck. A Foster building suggests aspiration and a masculine kind of glamour, one that projects an image of power no wildly artistic Frank Gehry or excruciatingly thoughtful Renzo Piano building can match. A theory: Foster appeals to clients who are more than willing to gamble—a replica of an Elizabethan theater? On an island in New York?—especially when money is loose. (All the projects mentioned above began before the recession.)
Which brings us back to Spaceport America, Apple Campus 2, and Two World Trade Center. The first two projects will be fine, if only because they’re backed by Richard Branson and Steve Jobs (the latter diminished but not out of the picture), two design-minded men with more money than God. If Spaceport America had badly installed rebar, you can guarantee Branson would pay to fix it. And anyway, they aren’t especially risky ventures. Apple is a private office, and the Spaceport will see plenty of business because rich people will always want to fly into outer space. Projects like these aren’t susceptible to the gyrations of the economy.
It’s Two World Trade Center that’s worrisome. One World Trade Center—the crown jewel of the new complex rising at Ground Zero—is enough of a risk, as the New York Times’s Joe Nocera pointed out recently. It’ll heap 2.6 million square feet of office space onto a city that doesn’t need it. Then to go and add another 1,270-foot-tall office tower right next door seems plain foolish. It’s that collision of two overreaching ambitions—architect’s and client’s—that got some of Foster’s other projects into trouble. Just look to the Harmon Hotel: When everyone swaggers, the buildings suffer.