Norman Foster’s The Tulip: a surface level backlash?

Norman Foster is one of a handful of contemporary architects whose names resonate with mainstream audiences. Notwithstanding his work abroad, The British architect is mostly known for his work in London. In a city that has now become a playground for the expression of his craft, his previous works like the Gherkin or London’s City Hall gained major acclaim from the critics and the public alike. With such successes, it is unsurprising that the 83-year-old ‘starchitect’ and his group still have plenty of ideas for London. However, their new proposal sparked a somewhat unusual reaction from the public. The new project in question — The Tulip. Sitting right beside The Gherkin, it was conceived as an observation tower in the form of a 300-meter tall cotton bud: Its stem made of concrete and the soft cotton peak a 12-storey glass bubble. The bubble will contain bars, educational facilities, and sky bridges. The initial responses to the project were quite clear: people are either confused, mocking it or flat out hating it. Foster couldn’t even count on his Instagram fans to support his project. It was made quite clear that most people who saw the renders don’t want it to be built, and that should be frustrating for Norman Foster, but mostly for London and its inhabitants. Let me explain: [br]

What can we learn from the critics? The Guardian calls it a “pointless aerial capsule,” and draws parallels between Norman Foster and Boris Johnson and their will to “turn the capital into a theme park of vanity projects”. And indeed, the project could be quickly summed up like this when looked at on a surface level. It is conceived as an attraction, which doesn’t necessarily mean it is a bad thing for a city, especially one such as London, who will need to reconsider its place in a larger globalised world after Brexit. One might doubt that an observation tower is really needed for London. Well, let’s think about it. [br]

Worldwide, observation towers have always been a great source of income for cities. The Intelligencer reminds us that “In New York, the observation decks of the Empire State Building, Rockefeller Centre and One World Trade Centre together sell $270 millions worth of tickets per year.” All of this without taking into account food or merchandise, which could add multiple tens of millions of dollars. As such, in a world in which people travel increasingly more, one can easily understand how the observation deck business is so profitable and will continue to be. The building is an investment for London, a city that quite surprisingly lacks observation decks. Indeed, the existing ones consist for now of the Shard’s, whose sky deck’s distance from the city centre offers good panoramas but make it inconvenient for most tourists to go to, and the new Sky Garden, whose position on top of the despised and award-winning (for 2015’s Ugliest Building in the UK awarded by Building Design Magazine) Walkie-Talkie, could repeal anyone from even wanting to get close to it. What about the London Eye? Anyone who has been in it will tell you that the structure (which came out of Norman Foster’s firm) is often overcrowded, and even if it is successful in bringing you a peaceful spectacle, it is still a “ride” as it pushes you in and out of a capsule. A capsule in which the different activities one might do are quite limited, even non-existent. Therefore, a new observation deck would reduce the congestion of the London Eye and provide another view from inside the city, and could even calm down the London Eye’s fans after the inevitable dismantling of the ‘temporary’ attraction in the middle of London’s historical South Bank. [br]

 Even more important is the fact that London is growing vertically and people who criticise The Tulip seem to forget it. London has become a city where skyscrapers appear at an exponential rate, trying more or less successfully to not disrupt what the city represents for inhabitants and tourists. Its skyline, as seen in the recent CGIs commissioned by the City of London Corporation, is meant to change drastically by 2026 thanks to the new 13 skyscrapers planned to appear, most of them aggregated around the most iconic existing skyscrapers – such as The Gherkin. Therefore, Norman Foster’s approach is quite radical. The Gherkin doesn’t include a sky deck for tourists, why not create one so that it hovers above the city’s future skyscrapers? This concept is quite innovative for the mainstream audience and even for Norman Foster’s most dedicated fans, as one can see from his Instagram post’s comments: “Pretty sure this… ‘thing’ wouldn’t have been made the cut in a SydMead-designed Sci-fi movie.”. Most observation decks are kept out of the cities, so this idea is much more interesting and uncommon than just erecting one on London’s edges. And maybe it will be the start of a new trend in European cities: a hovering pod over the city, that helps enjoying it without damaging it. [br]

This approach creates a new way of thinking about form for this specific function. Norman Foster’s approach creates debates, and it is the first thing one notices while scrolling through his Instagram comments. Indeed, while it is supposed to represent a majestic tulip, a flower with a strong symbolic meaning in the UK, its form appears to be quite unclear and generates an easy source of online jest: “Does it vibrate? “, “Pardon my French, Sir! But it looks more like a solidified Sperm than a tulip”, “Dick or sperm? I’ve had it with male architects and their need to spread their stuff”, “if built it will forever be known as ‘the cock tower’”. Most people think its phallic form is something to be reconsidered, but they seem to forget the already exhaustive list of buildings which forms have been ridiculed for this exact reason, and that it was never an argument to stop their developments. The design of The Tulip is quite innovative in its idea of making the pod “float” over the city thanks to the concrete stand. A stand that wouldn’t be clearly visible from far away as the city will soon be packed with skyscrapers around its construction site. [br]

However, not all comments about its form are there for cheap laughs. Indeed, one interesting commenter to consider is Peter Cook, who told Dezeen that The Tulip is “Not spooky enough”. Even if nearly all of Norman Foster projects that firstly scared the public ended up winning universal acclaim from mainstream audiences, the point raised by Cook tells us a lot about the way other architects think about this project. Notorious for his experimental architecture concepts, Peter Cook probably regrets the use of “too common” materials such as concrete, steel and glass, and the very functional design of the building. A stand, a glass pod on its top, and three glass bubbles around which capsules rotate (the final point probably being the icing on the cake according to the architect, what makes the tower stands apart from any other observation decks.). The simple functional structure is regretted by Cook, and it is true that the tower is a prime example of the high-tech, functional architecture Norman Foster is known, and recruited, for. While Peter Cook doesn’t raise any specifics or doesn’t propose any ideas, it is true that Norman Foster could, without changing the concept nor the function, make slight arrangements to make the tower (especially the concrete stem) more fun and appealing to children, who will be using the building for visits and lessons. Maybe Norman Foster should assume the idea of the spire as an attraction to drive the design and generates the outside appearance of the fun and of the experience happening inside The Tulip. [br]

Indeed, what most of the critics avoid speaking about is the interior of the tower. The “classroom in the sky”, the aerial atrium with bars and restaurants, the rotating bubbles outside of the head of The Tulip are all daring ideas. As much as it is easy to mock its outside look, it is a whole other thing to consider, and one day experience, The Tulip’s inside spaces. The first renders of the atrium and the glass paths, which are reminiscent of the Reichstag expansion Foster’s firm created, are spectacular, and aptly reflects the spectacle that structure will offer. The mere fact that technology allows us to erect such a tower from the ground should be celebrated as it seems to become more and more of a banality, especially for Londoners, to see an increasing number of towers appearing in the capital city; Towers which they will probably never enter in their entire life. As such, the accessibility of this tower should be quite refreshing for them and maybe offer them a way out of this sad but real ‘banality’. The Tulip might not look like one, it’s daring high tech design and marvellous inside spaces will ensure its place amongst London’s iconic attractions and will surely offer breath-taking experiences the future of London. [br]

Render of The Tulip by DBOX for Foster + Partner