How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?
Directed by Norberto López Amado and Carlos Carcas
Flying machines—from bombers and commercial jets to helicopters and gliders—are the most frequently cited analogies for British architect Norman Foster's structures in this new documentary by Spanish duo Norberto López Amado and Carlos Carcas. This is occasionally in reference to the streamlined and elegant lines of certain Foster designs, like the featherweight Millau bridge in France or his winged airport terminal in Beijing. More often, though, it refers to his relentless technical innovation and his willingness to explore the opportunities afforded by new materials and practices. Present from the early days of his career, when the Manchester native returned to the UK from Yale to launch a new firm, this tendency became a defining characteristic after Foster's friend Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller posed the question that gives the film its title. Ever since Foster has remained hyper-aware of his building materials and mindful of whether a project should be built like a flying fortress or a kite.
Amado and Carcas take a chronological, biographical line through Foster's career, including accompanying him to his stout childhood home for his first visit there in 30 years, and to his sun-filled London office, where hundreds of employees mill about in the background. The filmmakers speak not only with other architects, but also wtih many artists—including Richard Serra and Anish Kapoor—about the defining characteristics of Foster's work. The master-builder himself speaks very candidly and intelligently about his life and career, and what's most remarkable about this documentary is how it highlights Foster's increasingly acute grasp of the social problems shaping his designs, as well as the stunning cinematography with which they're filmed.
From his earliest solo project, a shipyard facility that aimed to give longshoremen and their bosses the same amenities, to the under-construction, carbon-neutral, real life-sci-fi urban experiment Masdar City, via the renovation of the Reichstag, Foster's most significant projects combine an awareness of architecture's poetic eloquence, social functions and its technical boundaries. Amado and Carcas underline this tripartite talent even when it's applied to less-than-noble projects—like the Hong Kong headquarters of HSBC. Utopian or not, cinematographer Valentin Álvarez shoots well over a dozen of Foster's projects in beautiful gliding processions, ascendant crane shots and revelatory close-ups. Such footage does just as much as the architect's own words to demonstrate how thoughtfully each project is tailored to the needs of its daily users. As narrator Deyan Sudjic, director of London's Design Museum, says early on: "We'd forgotten that useful things could be this beautiful."
Opens January 25 at IFC