When Sir Norman Foster, Britain's most celebrated architect, studied at Manchester University in the late Fifties, working as a bouncer to pay his way, he fell in love with that city's first modern building. Owen Williams's glass-skinned building for the Daily Express lit up like a beacon at night, when the presses rolled off millions of copies.
"It had a dramatic quality that gave me a real architectural charge. I could walk there and back - just - in my lunch hour." Years later, in 1975, Norman Foster was to adopt that glass membrane, smoky-black and at once both shiny and opaque, for the Willis Faber Dumas building in Ipswich. This, and his Hong Kong and Shanghai bank (1986), now Grade One listed, show his ability to free the facade from any visible support and give it a powerful shape, all harking back to the Mancunian building of 1939 that so impressed him as a young student.
Memories of Manchester have encouraged him to make one sentimental gesture in his punishing international schedule and agree to design the exhibition installation at the Design Museum for a show that pays homage to that period. Modern Britain 1929-39 is just a decade in the history of architecture - but what a tumultuous time. "Britain was a staging post for the emigres from Europe. There was a social manifesto too, centring on inequality, heightened and dramatised by the social upheaval in Europe. The Thirties became a very tense and productive time here." The Thirties marked the time when any fixed expectations of architecture disappeared, along with the traditional props of the construction industry. Cement flowed, spans of glass lengthened, and the pillars and posts of the stonemason's craft were replaced by reinforced steel joists. Etchell's translation into English of le Corbusier's Vers une Architecture, in 1927, was received with tremendous enthusiasm in Britain, where white-painted blocks of flats, with swing doors and elevators as well as window walls, introduced a new way of open-plan living. So did the cantilever - the penguin pool at London Zoo has scarcely a ripple in its glacial form. Some of these buildings have disappeared and, as the Twentieth Century Society points out, those that do survive, like the De La Warr pavilion at Bexhill on Sea, are often under threat. But the period's influence on the generation of post-war British architects has been spread around the world. In between finishing the Reichstag in Berlin and designing a new home for London's mayor, you would think Norman Foster would be too busy to bother with an exhibition which only lasts six months. Not at all. No job, it seems, is too small if it captures Norman's interest. He rattles off a list of small-ish jobs (under pounds 3m) for the Spastics Association and Mental Health that have kept his 500-strong practice busy. "It's a good shot in the arm to have immediacy, to create the instant environment that will be dismantled. Consider that Stansted airport took us 10 years, Bilbao Metro seven, Nimes arts centre also seven, and Duxford air museum, 11 years." Inky black rectangles, amid Norman's distinctive loose freehand instructions, have just been faxed to Italy, showing a tray he designed for Alessi, the Italian stainless-steel-with-style manufacturers. …