Movie Review - 'How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?' Renowned British architect Norman Foster, known for grand modernist structures in international locales, gets the star treatment in a new documentary. Critic Mark Jenkins says a character as controversial as Foster deserves a less reverent look.
NPR logo 'Mr. Foster': A Man And His Buildings



'Mr. Foster': A Man And His Buildings

British architect Norman Foster and his firm Foster and Partners designed the curved glass skyscraper 30 St Mary Axe, known informally as the Gherkin, that overlooks east London. Oli Scarff/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
Oli Scarff/Getty Images

How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?

  • Director: Carlos Carcas and Norberto Lopez Amado
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Running Time: 79 minutes

Not rated; no violence or sexual content

The title of the new documentary about British architect Norman Foster comes from a question posed by one of his American mentors, Buckminster Fuller. How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? shows the designer's answer: structures that are airier, both in appearance and fact.

The movie, directed by Carlos Carcas and Norberto Lopez Amado from a script by Devan Sudjic, attempts to emulate Foster's buildings; it uses aerial photography and impressionistic glimpses to present a lofty, gliding viewpoint. But the documentary's approach to Foster himself is anything but subtle. Whether contemplating his own sensibility or challenging himself in cross-country ski marathons, the 76-year-old architect appears here as a man who stands heavy upon the planet.

Sudjic, who narrates, is the director of London's Design Museum and the author of a 2010 study of Foster. He treats the architect as a hero, and speaks only to others who share that view. We're told that Foster is "the Mozart of modernism," and a pure artist untainted by ideology. No less an overachiever than Bono — Foster was to design the since-scrapped U2 Tower in Dublin — extols the architect's work ethic.

In this file photo, Foster attends the inauguration of the Millau Viaduct in 2004. Patrick Kovarik/AP hide caption

toggle caption
Patrick Kovarik/AP

Fair enough. A kid from lower-class Manchester, Foster now runs one of the world's largest architecture firms — 1,400 employees "before the credit crunch" — and designs some of the world's largest buildings. Smitten with American industrial structures, he studied at Yale and now devises factory-like nonfactory buildings for sites around the globe. He flies, he skis, and in his spare time he fights off diseases that would kill a lesser man. Or at least that's how this film reverently portrays him.

The virtues of Foster's buildings are well displayed here. They're sleek, graceful and aerodynamic. They employ streamlining and geometric forms both for strength and to appear (somewhat) less large and intrusive than they really are. They also use recycled materials and modern technologies to decrease energy costs.

Carcas and Lopez Amado take cues from Foster's personal style. He dresses mostly in gray, black and white; they frame him aurally with monochromatic piano plinks and austere violin quavers. To Sudjic, every little thing the architect does is magic: He doesn't sketch on napkins or envelopes but on "a beautiful block of paper."

Foster is known for adding glass cupolas or canopies to existing buildings: Berlin's Reichstag, London's British Museum, Washington's National Portrait Gallery. Primarily, though, he's a modernist mega-architect, which means he's most interested in museums, airports and similar grand, stand-alone edifices. Foster is not particularly concerned with integrating new structures into existing urban contexts, as he demonstrated in London with the jarring 30 St Mary Axe (aka "the Erotic Gherkin").

The Millau Viaduct, designed by Foster and Michel Virlogeux, stands in southern France as the tallest bridge in the world. Dogwoof hide caption

toggle caption

Like many master planners, Foster seems quite comfortable with less-than-democratic regimes. His biggest project was the Beijing airport's new international terminal; the unbuilt scheme he likes to tout is a "carbon neutral" city for 50,000 residents in Abu Dhabi.

The documentary sidesteps controversies small and large. Foster's Millennium Bridge in London, intentionally designed to sway as people crossed it, made pedestrians queasy; it was quickly closed so it could be stabilized, then reopened. More recently, Foster resigned from the House of Lords so he could maintain his official residence in Switzerland — and not pay British taxes.

Such details suggest that there's plenty of material for a lively, profound documentary about Norman Foster. But How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? is, by design, lightweight.