Norman Foster Virtualisation


This weekend I visited the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Norwich, designed by Norman Foster. Having been to the Bundestag in Berlin and Stansted Airport, I’m getting familiar with Foster’s designs: he likes shells, cladding, whiteness, air. The emphasis often falls on the liberating sense of space whilst inside the building, but rarely can you inhabit Foster’s designs without a crush of tourists or passengers.

Our visit to the SCVA was different: it’s on the edge of town, and at the time of visting was between exhibitions. It was also a Sunday, with intermittently decent weather but very poor transport links. All in all, this was a recipe for a very quiet visit - at points we were the only visitors to the main exhibition area (the rest utilising the restaurant at the end of the building). I had a very uncanny feeling whilst walking around the silent building: the light was so diffuse and the building so clean and well-kept that at times I was completely struck by the feeling that I was one of those blurred figures skating through an architectural visualisation, enhancing but not overpowering the building with my aimless perfunctoriness.

I’ve had this feeling a few times recently, whilst driving past a new development on a sunny day - a clear, still sky, a scattering of demographically perfect people,
a few well-placed saplings and an optimum viewing distance/angle and suddenly I’m a virtual being, a render camera with all the cares of a sunny bunch of pixels.

Despite the pleasure of feeling that everything is clean and clear and people are relaxed and happy, I can’t help but detect something strange about this phenomena - the integration of the visualisation and the reality says something about the spaces. Take a look at Foster’s British Museum atrium project here. I just can’t tell whether some of the images are visualisations or photographs. If real life starts to mimic the visualisation, where does that leave us?

I understand how the visualisation relates to the final building - if it’s good, it predicts it. Perhaps though, if it’s really good, it prescribes it. Many of Foster’s projects are successful because of his reputation for helping cities create the buildings that define them - inevitably this has lead to a growing canon of revered, idealised spaces that are well maintained and treated with care. Nevertheless, when a building doesn’t change, age, discolour or settle after it comes into being I tend to distrust it slightly. Probably because it so seductively reduces me to a model: a moderate, modernist, modest model.

If I were in arch.viz (as it’s known) I’d be putting goths and transsexuals and criminals in my images. And I’d get fired and become an artist.