Jonathan Glancey interviews Norman Foster for the Guardian: Norman Foster at 75: Norman's conquests As the great British architect Norman Foster turns 75, he talks to Jonathan Glancey about flying cars, his new underground city – and how he beat bowel cancer
'The other day," says Norman Foster, "I was counting the number of aircraft I've flown: from sailplanes and a Spitfire to a Cessna Citation. By chance, it comes to 75." So Foster, who turned 75 this month, has decided to make models of all 75, to hang in his own personal museum, which he keeps at his Swiss home, an 18th-century chateau set in vineyards between Lausanne and Geneva.
These model aircraft will hover over his collection of some of the 20th-century's greatest machines, cherished for both their engineering brilliance and streamlined beauty; many of them look like winged or wheeled versions of Foster's most innovative buildings. "At the moment," says the architect, "I'm restoring a Citroën Sahara, designed to tackle north African dunes. I'm also thinking of getting a Bell 47 helicopter as a focal point. And I've had a model made of the Graf Zeppelin airship."
This last item puts me in mind of 30 St Mary Axe, aka the Gherkin, the Zeppelin-like London skyscraper that bears witness to Foster's passion for engineering marvels – a passion that began in childhood. Five years ago, I asked the architect if he had ever been a railway enthusiast. He replied by postcard, with a sketch of a Royal Scot class 4-6-0 thundering along, just as he would have seen it from his bedroom window, in the terraced house in Manchester where he grew up.
Foster has come a long way from those zinc-bath-in-front-of-the-fire days. The boy who left school at 16 to do his national service with the RAF is now – as his astronomical career shows, and as Deyan Sudjic writes in his new biography – "a phenomenon". But the lad from Levenshulme never forgot what he saw and learned as a working-class child brought up in an industrial Britain.
"There's a snobbery at work in architecture," says Foster, speaking at his riverside studio in Battersea, London. "The subject is too often treated as a fine art, delicately wrapped in mumbo-jumbo. In reality, it's an all-embracing discipline taking in science, art, maths, engineering, climate, nature, politics, economics. Every time I've flown an aircraft, or visited a steelworks, or watched a panel-beater at work, I've learned something new that can be applied to buildings. Disciplines connect, from locomotive engineering to the design of a bridge, or from a study of the way raptors and gliders soar. The most amazing lesson in aerodynamics I ever had was the day I climbed a thermal in a glider at the same time as an eagle. I witnessed, close up, effortlessness and lightness combined with strength, precision and determination. "