How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster?

Reviewer: James van Maanen
Ratings (out of five): *** 1/2

Architects are more and more in the movies these days. Over the past few years, we've had the likes of Louis Kahn, Frank Gehry (and just why isn't the Gehry film, Sketches of Frank Gehry, listed on the IMDB or as part of the oeuvre of its director Sydney Pollack?) and Charles Eames getting their very own movie (though Chas had to share his with wife Ray). Now comes Sir Norman Foster, a knight of the British realm, whose name is new to me (clearly, I doesn't follow architecture, at least, not until a movie is made about that architect) but whose work, when you see it all together as you do here, is pretty damned impressive.

Filmmakers Norberto López Amado and Carlos Carcas have put together a relatively short but slick and quite enjoyable documentary, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster?, about the man, his history and work to date, which takes in an enormous array of projects -- office buildings to airports to bridges -- worldwide.

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Beginning with a group of skiers, Foster among them, the movie shows us why this odd skiing event takes on rather incredible meaning, once we have gotten to know the man and his mission for himself and his buildings. Mr. Foster is one of those rare British birds who have managed to escape their "class" and rise to the pinnacle of their field -- no lean feat for a lower-middle-class boy who loved everything "airplane" but managed to become one of the word's great architects rather than an airline pilot (though he does, now, pilot his own plane).

López Armado and Carcas connect some of the larger dots along Foster's route to stardom: how he came to apply for architecture school in Manchester, England, eventually ending up here in the U.S. at Yale University. But they spend even more time showing us his generally wonderful work, explaining with brevity and fine visuals, why it's so important. (The end credits give a helpful listing of each building shown -- under an even more helpful heading of the country in which each has been built.)

Along the way, we see and/or hear from an interesting array of other architects and personages -- the ubiquitous Bono, Buckminster Fuller (who is responsible for the film's somewhat bizarre title), Richard Rogers (Foster's former partner and no, not the late Broadway composer), Paul Goldberger (who has called Foster the "Mozart of modernism") and artist/sculptor Richard Serra, among them.

But mostly, it's the buildings, the bridges, the airports -- what they are, where they are, and how they came about -- that count. As befits Foster's work and career, the film seems more than a little international. (In these difficult financial times, "Building a global practice is the key to survival," the architect notes.) Certainly his largest and most spectacular edifice is the airport in China, but Great Britain's Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts or that HSBC bank in Hong Kong (in its time, the most expensive building in the world, and one that nearly bankrupted Foster's business) are pretty special, too.

From almost the first, Foster has been concerned with the environment, building the first British hi-tech office building, and using 20 per cent less steel -- most of it recycled steel, at that. These days the fellow is working on creating the first carbon neutral city in the world. A dream? Maybe. Certainly a wake-up call. And if anyone might do it, it's this guy.

The film has been written and narrated (the latter quite well, in a quiet, almost whispered voice, as though some important secrets will be revealed -- which perhaps they are) by Deyan Sudjic. In addition to its Spanish co-directors, there are some estimable members of the Spanish film and television community associated with its production: Joan Valent (composer), Imanol Uribe (associate producer, and a fine director in his own right) and Elena Ochoa (who these days doubles as Mrs. Foster). Like so many documentaries these days, this one, too, is a kind of love letter. But given its object, and the rather amazing work he’s done, you can perhaps forgive a little idolatry.

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Oddly, it's the Foster building closest to me that I find the least impressive (and only from an exterior, visual aspect): that very modern tower atop the old Hearst Building at Eight Avenue and 56th Street in Manhattan. I've only been in it once or twice and can't vouch for what it's like to work in, but visually, from the exterior view, it does not at all fit into its surrounding environment and so stands out like the proverbial sore thumb. The AOL-Time Warner building just a couple of blocks away, on the other hand, works better -- if only by virtue of being able to dwarf everything around it into design submission. However, as befits Foster's insistence on "green" architecture, the Hearst Tower is the first office building in NYC to receive a Gold LEED rating from the US Green Building Council, and so, environmentally speaking, it is way ahead of the game.

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?, yet another fine documentary from First Run Features, is now available on DVD also featuring a Director's Q&A and filmmaker biographies.

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