August 12, 2015
Norman Foster, Erector Sets and the New Porcelanosa Flagship
Sir Norman Foster, the British Pritzker Prize winning architect, is famous the world over for his ingenious additions to the architectural vocabulary and starchitect-scale projects.
In 2012, Foster began reimagining 202 Fifth Avenue as the North American flagship of Porcelanosa, a global leader in the innovation, design, manufacturing and distribution of luxury tile, kitchen and bath products. Why? The ultimate impact of this project is constrained in two ways: the relatively small size of the structure and the limitations placed on exterior changes to the building by the Landmark’s Preservation Committee.
As with all of his projects, Foster will likely stun us with the results, and he may have had many reasons for taking this on. Could one of those reasons be something very personal?
In Architecture on the Carpet: The Curious Tale of Construction Toys and the Genesis of Modern Buildings, the authors Brenda and Robert Vale point out that Sir Norman Foster mentioned in his biography that Meccano erector sets were influential in his designs. In fact, in describing Foster’s architecture, critics often describe his architectural statements in terms of erector set structures. (For example, see The New Yorker, December 19, 2005 — “Triangulation” by Paul Goldberger and Fodor’s Barcelona, Random House, 2008, Page 22).
Meccano is a British erector set manufacturer that first envisioned the toy in 1898. A. C. Gilbert Company introduced its erector sets to the United States in 1911. The Gilbert erector set, housed in its bright red metal box became a “must-have” toy for boys through the first half of the 20th Century and well into the early 1960s.
Where was the major showroom for A. C. Gilbert Company? You guessed it: 202 Fifth Avenue, the building Sir Norman Foster is renovating for Porcelanosa.
Ironically, the building outside was designed by men who probably played with blocks, not Meccano erector sets, so it has a classic heaviness and formality, which cannot be changed because of Landmark’s protection. However, inside Foster promises a new interconnection of showroom space, floor-to-floor. This fluidity was probably inspired from an early age by the construction freedom Foster experienced in Meccano erector sets with their long metal strips, plates, angle girders, wheels, axles, gears and nuts and bolts.
Foster pointed up the crux of the Porcelanosa project in the Observer on January 17, 2013, “The main design challenge has been to work within the (Landmarks) protected shell to transform the interior. The design will create new visual connections vertically through the building and will introduce far greater variety of spaces, with a series of dynamic interlocking levels.”
Click image above to display gallery.
Fort Myers Florida Weekly, “Architecture on the Carpet,” Nancy Stetson, July 23, 2014.
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Wikipedia, Norman Foster (architect).
Observer, “A Million Little Tiles: Foster + Partners Design Understated Showroom on Madison Square Park,” Matt Chaban, January 17, 2013.