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Norman Foster: To infinity and beyond? "You bet!"

Architect Norman Foster on going into space: "You bet! ... These are thrills still to come!"
Architect Norman Foster on going into space: "You bet! ... These are thrills still to come!"
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Foster believes it was his childhood love of aviation which influenced his airport designs
  • Beijing airport was built in four years from start to completion
  • Foster is hoping to be first in the queue for a space flight with Virgin Galactic

London (CNN) -- At times, it can seem that British architect Norman Foster is responsible for a landmark on every corner of the globe.

The glass dome of Berlin's Reichstag building, Hong Kong International Airport and the 30 St Mary Axe building -- or the "Gherkin" as it's affectionately known by Londoners -- even Richard Branson's new Virgin Galactic Spaceport in New Mexico.

All were conceived and designed by Norman Foster's multi-award-winning firm Foster + Partners. And it's here at his company's London headquarters that CNN meets the 75-year-old architect to discuss his love of aviation and designing some of the most popular airports in the world.

"I love flying, I love aircraft and you could say I've had a love affair with flight since I was a child," says Foster. "I travel a huge amount. I use airports and as a pilot I've flown in and out of airports thousands of times so really I have a fairly broad perspective."

There are those airports which make you feel better and there are those airports that when you go there your heart sinks
--Norman Foster

Foster's life-long fascination with flying is evident from his earliest childhood drawings of aircrafts. Before training to become an architect in his twenties, Foster did National Service in the RAF and still pilots helicopters and private jets today.

His double perspective as both a pilot and passenger influenced his approach to designing a long list of airports including London Stansted, Hong Kong International Airport and Beijing Airport.

"As a designer I know that everything we've done -- everything I've done -- is to try to transform that experience to bring it back to what it was in the golden age of flight," says Foster. "To make it something that is a celebration, to make it a friendly, uplifting experience and in that sense to go back in time."

London Stansted was Foster's first airport commission and opened in 1991. Characterized by its oblong glass building and light-enhancing roof, he says they took the conventional airport terminal and turned it upside down.

"If you went in a terminal before that you would see great metal pipes, duct work, you would never see a glimpse of the sky, no glimpse of nature and sun," Foster explains.

"But if you turn that upside down and put everything that was heating and cooling below ground -- which makes a lot of sense -- then you free the roof up and it becomes a series of umbrellas that gently filter the light."

Foster's designs emphasis natural light and this not only makes his airports a more pleasant space for passengers but reduces the use of energy-hungry electric lighting. He believes they paved the way for a new generation of green airports.

"(With that building,) we really did reinvent the design of what a terminal could be," he says. "And that has been an extraordinary influence on not just airports that we've done since but on airports that everyone else has done since."

Foster + Partners took what they learnt from Stansted to Hong Kong and built the country's international airport between 1992 and 1998. It's consistently voted one of the most popular airports in the world. Foster attributes this to putting passenger experience at the center of his designs.

To momentarily see the horizon and the biggest possible perspective -- these are thrills still to come!
--Norman Foster
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"There are those airports which make you feel better and there are those airports that when you go there your heart sinks, you can't wait to get out of there," he says. "They both function as airports but it's the things that you can't measure that make them different."

Beijing was Foster's next milestone airport. At 1.3 million square meters, it is not only the largest airport in the world but it was built from start to competition in just four years. To put this in perspective, London Heathrow's Terminal 5 spent four years just at the public inquiry stage.

So what's next for Foster? Space. Or, to be more precise, New Mexico desert.

Foster + Partners won an international competition to build the space terminal for Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. And it's nearly ready for liftoff.

The New Mexico Spaceport Authority Building is due to be completed in September 2012 and the first space tourism flight will ascend 70,000 feet into space the following year.

Foster doesn't hesitate to answer, "You bet!" when asked if he'll be first in the queue for a galactic flight.

"I love the experience of flight and taking it to that extra dimension into space, to be high enough in the atmosphere -- or above it -- to momentarily see the horizon and the biggest possible perspective -- these are thrills still to come!"

CNN's Lidz-Ama Appiah contributed to this report.

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