Thu, Jun 08, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Norman Foster sings to New York

After several projects in the Big Apple failed to get off the ground, Britain's leading architect is now on an American roll

By Robin Pogrebin  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

Norman Foster, Britian's most famous and prolific architect, designed Greater London Authority's home in 2001.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Norman Foster had reason to be pessimistic about getting anything built in New York. His "kissing towers" design for ground zero had been rejected in favor of Daniel Libeskind's master plan, despite having been voted the public's favorite in 2003. The same year he was on the verge of presenting his ideas for an overhaul of Avery Fisher Hall, home of the New York Philharmonic, when the orchestra decided to leave Lincoln Center for Carnegie Hall. (The move ultimately fell through, but it set back the Avery Fisher design process.)

Two years before that, Hearst Corp's board had scheduled a meeting for Sept. 12, 2001, to approve his design for a new tower at Eighth Avenue and 57th Street in Manhattan.

Naturally, the meeting was put off. Given Hearst's conservative reputation and the financial uncertainty resulting from the Sept. 11 attacks, Foster was ready for anything.

"You become really quite philosophical," he said over coffee at the Carlyle Hotel during a recent visit to New York from Britain. "It's in the nature of projects. It's in the nature of being an architect. Some projects roll out."

The 46-story Hearst Tower, built atop the company's 1928 headquarters, ultimately did roll out, and employees have begun moving in. Finally, Foster has wrapped up his first project in New York.

"We came from the outside," Foster said of his firm, Foster & Partners. "We had a certain sense of conviction about what we should be doing, but the reality was that we hadn't worked here."

Adding to Foster's hurdles, the original six-story Hearst Building has city landmark status, and building his steel-and-glass tower, with its distinctive "diagrid" design, involved negotiations with the city's Landmarks Preservation Commission.

At 71, Foster is hardly new to such challenges. He rebuilt the Reichstag as a new German Parliament in Berlin and designed a contemporary great court for the venerated British Museum. He linked St. Paul's Cathedral to the Tate Modern with the Millennium Bridge, a slender steel footbridge across the Thames. And he has repeatedly had to defend his glass enclosure of the courtyard in the Smithsonian Institution's Old Patent Office Building in Washington. Preservationists argued that Foster's courtyard would spoil the 1868 building, which is a National Historic Landmark.

But Foster also had reason to approach the Hearst tower with confidence. Knighted in 1990 and honored in 1999 with the Pritzker Architecture Prize -- his profession's most prestigious award -- Foster is considered by many to be the most prominent architect in Britain.

He is an increasingly strong presence in the US as well, with a role in a US$5 billion, 2.4-hectare development in the heart of Las Vegas and a commission for Tower 2 at 200 Greenwich Street, one of the office buildings planned by the developer Larry Silverstein for the World Trade Center site in Lower Manhattan. Foster is also designing a proposed Globe Theater on the site of Castle Williams on Governors Island, although that project will vie with many others.

This architect was warned that he could be in for a rough ride in his project for Hearst, a media company that publishes magazines like Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping and Esquire. "I was told what was possible and not possible in New York," he said.

Foster thought of the historic cast-concrete exterior of the Hearst Building as the facade of a town square. "You would have a big plaza, and that would be part of the sense of the arrival, part of the identity of the building," he said. In preserving just the old building's shell, Foster expected to be accused of facade-ism.

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