On opening day of Art Basel 2013 in Miami Beach, a striking man with a whisper of close-cropped white hair, sporting a smart cream-colored blazer, revealed an architectural plan that will double the gallery space at the Norton Museum of Art, add new indoor and outdoor amenities and reconfigure the West Palm Beach landmark to reflect its original 1941 design.
Norman Foster – founder of London-based Foster + Partners, the international architecture and design firm behind the plan – needed no introduction. With buildings to his credit on six continents, offices around the world and a plethora of awards (including the acme of architecture awards, the Pritzker Prize), Lord Foster, as he’s often addressed since being honored with a life peerage in the Queen’s Birthday Honors List of 1999, is one of the world’s most renowned architects.
“I do what I do for its own sake – hopefully to bring some light and joy to those who encounter and use the buildings,” Foster says.
From the Hearst Tower in New York, the Reichstag in Berlin and the Viaduc de Millau – said to be the world’s tallest bridge – to London’s striking 30 St Mary Axe, aka The Gerkin, Foster is behind some of the world’s most iconic buildings.
His firm, with its experience in working with museums, was the top choice for the Norton transformation. Foster + Partners had begun exploring the possibilities of a museum in a garden setting with the U.K.’s Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts and continued the adventure with work on the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. “With its symmetrical layout and circulation planned around a central courtyard, [the Norton] was conceived as a gallery in a park,” says Michael Wurzel, a partner at Foster + Partners and the lead architect on the West Palm Beach project, which will allow visitors to once again enjoy views of the Intracoastal Waterway.
“The quality of the Florida light, the wonderful lush landscape and tropical plants, the extraordinary evergreen hedges that tower above you, the relationship with the water and the warmth of the people – these qualities set Palm Beach apart from the rest of the world and make this a very special project to be involved in,” says Spencer de Grey, co-head of design at Foster + Partners. “We want to capitalize on these attributes to strengthen the Norton as a stimulating and dynamic cultural focus for the community.”
Three new double-height pavilions will house the education center, a 200-seat auditorium, event space, a museum shop and restaurant with garden seating. All will be unified under a metal roof canopy, which will offer shading and cast diffuse patterns of light in the courtyard below. Water will flow through a series of linear pools with fountains. A carved opening in the roof will allow the branches of a mature ficus tree to comfortably push through. “Our starting point has been to understand the local context. This has led us to discover the richness of Florida’s varieties of flora, as well as local architectural influences. The collection has also been an important influence,” says Wurzel. “Learning about the different works of art has been a fascinating process.”
The time Foster spends wandering through museum galleries, contemplating the treasures they house, isn’t all work related. Art plays an important role in his life. He visits museums, art galleries and artists’ studios wherever his travels take him. “Sometimes these visits are related to projects where I am trying to link a building owner to an artist. Other times they are for their own sake – to engage with the artists directly and to understand more about their works,” he says.
Foster is also an art collector. “The works that we acquire have a resonance with our interests and passions. They are by relatively unknown younger artists, as well as more established and familiar names.”
His tastes are definitely diverse. He appreciates art in its many forms, along with furniture of different ages and styles. A fascination with “the design of machines that move – aircraft, helicopters, cars, trucks, locomotives” has had a strong influence on his work (the Sainsbury Center, for example, has been described as hangar-like) and his life (he’s a licensed pilot). He is also an avid cross-country skier and a cycler. Of his spare time Foster says, “[It’s] spent sketching or reading several books at a time but the ultimate luxury is a family holiday.”
The opportunity to play a part in South Florida’s continuing growth fits well with the philosophy Foster has developed during his career. “Designing and building well is less about how much you spend and more about an attitude of mind. Let me rephrase that. Quality is an attitude of mind,” he says. “It is important to invest in infrastructure – public spaces and parks, mobility and communication. Private developments should give something back to the local community.”
The first phase of the Norton transformation is set to break ground in 2016 and to be completed sometime in 2018. “Florida, like anywhere else in the world that is privileged to enjoy an economic boom, should, I suggest, be investing in developments which will also benefit the generations still to come. In other words, it should be looking far into the future,” Foster says. “As a magnet for visitors, Florida should also encourage existing and new institutions for the arts.”