Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture.

Sir Norman Foster, we are looking forward to seeing the “Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture” exhibition in the iconic Guggenheim museum of Bilbao, which you co-curated. Those keywords open quite an epic panorama. How did you approach the exhibition?

If you try to sum up what characterizes our age, then it is a post-horse-drawn age that is one of motion, speed, movement, dynamic – and the automobile is the very epitome of that. Cars are perceived by some, including me, as being like sculptures or paintings. Indeed, many have been created by people who were trained as artists, some by architects, some by those that come from artistic families. If you consider how cars are designed in a studio: it’s still all about sculpting in clay just like in the studios of the Renaissance.

And there’s a cultural link to artists who have anticipated the streamlined forms of vehicles – whether that’s Constantin Brâncusi or Umberto Boccioni, or the beautiful curves of a Henry Moore sculpture. There is an aesthetic dimension to the automobile which has created a symbol for the 20th century, however, perhaps we are now reaching the end of that epoch. So it is time to celebrate the impact of the automobile. 

Photos: Filippo Bacci/Getty Images, picture-alliance/dpa/Arno Burgi

Berlin | Completed in 1999, the iconic “Reichstagskuppel” added modern architecture to the historic building of the German parliament.

Photo: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

Copenhagen | With the Copenhagen Towers, Norman Foster has made an important contribution to the city: the buildings were designed as a 22-storey office tower and low-rise building, connected by an atrium. The focus of the project was to create a progressive, creative workplace that meets the strictest environmental criteria.

The perception of cars.

It is fascinating how the perception of the car has changed during the last decades … 

You will discover that around the beginning of the 20th century, the car was a saviour. Cities were a deluge of horse manure, dead carcasses, disease and stench. The car beautified and cleaned the city but, over time, it became the villain to some. But, is it about to reinvent itself? Just remember: it was considered revolutionary when the “Moon Buggy”, the first vehicle on the Moon in 1971, drove with electric motors in its wheel hubs. However, in the exhibition we actually see a car from 1900 with the same concept.

Leap forward to the present day and we are now slowly beginning to prepare our cars for autonomous driving. But again, that isn’t a new idea. There are images of autonomous driving in the exhibition – a family playing a game on a round table in a vehicle which is speeding along the highway by itself in the early 1950s. 

Protagonist of the show.

So, the protagonist of the show is the automobile? 

Yes, the show is conceived architecturally so that, in one instance for example, you would move from a kind of Aladdin’s cave – many vehicles, lots of action and activity – into a space with just four vehicles and two sculptures on display. Nothing on the walls, just a big white cavern. That is just one of the experiences in the exhibition. Overall, we try to tell different narratives as you move through the galleries rather than following a simple chronology.

For the beginning of the exhibition, you chose to show three works from Andy Warhol’s “Cars” series from the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection. What is the story you wanted to tell with these pieces?

Sie sind Beispiele für die Art und Weise, in der diese außergewöhnlichen Maschinen durch die Augen verschiedener Künstler wahrgenommen werden. Ich wollte verschiedene Ansichten, Stimmen und Bilder zusammenbringen und sie auf unkonventionelle Weise mischen, denn normalerweise hängt man ein Gemälde nicht unbedingt neben eine Fotografie.

They are examples of the way in which these extraordinary machines are conveyed through the eyes of different artists. It’s bringing together different views, voices, imagery, and mixing them in a way which is perhaps not so conventional. For example, you would not normally mix a painting with a photograph. Yet, if it helps to make a point by relating to a nearby automobile in the gallery, then we allow ourselves to do that, which is perhaps even less conventional. So, we’re not really hidebound. We’re not restricted by a lot of the conventions of putting an exhibition together. And we use all the galleries itself a celebration of the architecture of Frank Gehry. We don’t divide them and we don’t create walls. And, in the final gallery, we bring in a younger generation and their point of view – giving students the last word. For that, the team at the Norman Foster Foundation invited 16 of the world’s leading design and engineering schools to present their visions of the mobility of the future.

What are your views on the future of mobility? 

I think that a lot of the traditional automobile companies are now responding to trends. The trend to mobility as a service, for example.

Photos: Filippo Bacci/Getty Images, picture-alliance/dpa/Arno Burg

Berlin | Foster emphasised the building’s importance as a democratic forum, its commitment to accessibility and an energetic environmental agenda. Besides the heavy shell, there is light and transparency.

Photo: Nigel Young/Foster + Partners

London | The Gherkin is an instantly recognisable addition to the city’s skyline. Forty-one storeys high, it provides 46,400 square metres net of office space along with a newly created piazza that enhances natural ventilation. 

Mobility of the future.

Younger generations are less attracted to ownership, more attracted to ride-sharing. I don’t think the auto­mobile as such is going to disappear. I think it is likely to evolve into something which is perhaps visually different to today’s automobiles. As cities become cleaner, quieter and more pedestrian friendly, there will be fewer vehicles all moving more continuously.

So, the peak rush hours that we have taken for granted might become a thing of the past. Then, we need to consider that some of the effects of the pandemic have not changed anything, but have merely accelerated and magnified trends that were already apparent. All of these dynamics mean that we will see that the worlds of internal combustion and electric propulsion are being bridged, whilst also moving towards autonomous driving. Some might say today: “Autonomous driving sounds boring,” but I think people in the future might look back and say: “I can’t believe it. People used to turn a corner by having a wheel in their hands, and they’d use their feet to control speed. And they used to crash into each other, and sometimes they’d be taken away in ambulances. They even had to insure themselves against the inherent risk of driving.”

Creative inspiration.

Since the pandemic began, we are talking  and thinking more about a virtual world. Does this inspire you creatively?

One of the student installations proposes two alternative scenarios for the future.

One is a world where we go everywhere faster – travelling at supersonic and hypersonic speeds. The other world is essentially a static one, where everything comes to us. The movement in that world brings us the things that we order and consume.

In that second, virtual world, we travel at whatever pace we want. Perhaps the reality will be a mix of the two. 

For the exhibition, you also requested the first motor car from Mercedes-Benz and a silkscreen painting from the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection that is showing the 300 SL, as well as just the spaceframe of the 300. You own one yourself – what attracts you to this car especially?

There’s a beautiful dialogue between the recreation of the first Benz motor wagon and the Warhols we talked about earlier. As for the 300 SL, it was an extraordinary breakthrough in terms of the spaceframe, with its lightweight steel tubes. We show a collection of photographs next to the spaceframe. It is telling the story of how the gullwing door was created for access, a design respone to the depths of the frame. 

Photo: Europa Press News/Getty Images

We spoke to Norman Foster via video call at his home in St. Moritz, Switzerland. At the age of 87, the architect co-curated the exhibition “Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture”. The exhibition was organized by the Norman Foster Foundation in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz. It explores the relevance of the automobile as it relates to the history of art and design in the past century. “Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture” will occupy the entire second floor of the Guggenheim Museum. From Andy Warhol to Richard Hamilton, the Mercedes-Benz Art Collection provided several pieces.

Beautiful objects.

It’s a beautiful object indeed. To some, it has the status of a sculpture. Even if we say that we won’t necessarily own cars in the future, they remain very attractive to many.

As an unashamed car freak, I sincerely hope that you are right about the car being attractive to a younger generation. When you go around this exhibition, you realise that there were so many original interpretations of what you could do with four wheels, an engine, and a chassis. Particularly in the 1950s, you had an incredible burst of creativity leading to many different kinds of very small vehicles. The exhibition leaves out the present and allows the students, in the final gallery, to make the leap into the future. In the present, it’s very difficult to distinguish one marque from another – perhaps this is because of international codes and standards related to health and safety. The optimistic hope is that there will be a rediscovery of the personality of the individual manufacturers. If I was to change professions and adopt the role of a car designer, then I think that I would be seeking to convince the board of a motor company that it would have a lot to gain if its vehicles didn’t look the same as its competitors. Now, although there are some differences between marques, the similarities are far greater than the differences.

What do you enjoy most when you take your 300 SL out for a drive? 

Well, I enjoy the slight frustration about the ventilation. But that’s a small price to pay for the pleasure of driving this beautiful and seasoned vehicle. So you just hope that you have enough open road so that, as you go through the gears, you really do get that power surge. As an automobile, it demands to be driven with a certain kind of respect. I think that one of the great things about the SL is that it came out of a racing background. It is a pleasure to own and drive. 

How are cars and buildings related?

A car has all the ingredients of architecture, except it’s mobile. It moves, it relocates, it traverses. But otherwise, it’s answering so many of the requirements of architecture. It’s fascinating to me that so many architects and designers and engineers have found inspiration in the automobile and its industry. Those of us in the world of design know that there is the potential to deliver high-quality housing made with industrialised production standards in the same way that the car comes together, but that is still to happen. The automobile could be an emblematic, inspirational model for a system of industrialised housing. 

The car enabled individual freedom. That also makes it a symbol for the 20th century … 

I think it’s fascinating in its contradictions. There is the liberty of the open road, to those who enjoy the adventure and the freedom. But the critic will cite the traffic jam and being stationary, locked in and motionless. They will say you’re socially alienated, you’re encapsulated in this box. I think that, in the future, you can have the best of all these opposing worlds. I think that mobility can evolve in such a way that it grants us individual freedom in an autonomous world. You can’t just take something away, whether it’s from an individual, a family, or society at large. If you’ve tried something really good, it’s here to stay.

Learn more about the fascinating scope of Norman Foster’s work, his initiatives and projects, and the exhibition “Motion. Autos, Art, Architecture” here.