Considering how much time we spend living, working, and entertaining ourselves in buildings, most of us (myself included) don't give them very much thought. And even when we do take the time to appreciate a building, even ones that are historical landmarks, their size and feeling of solidity often make them feel that they've always been there or were made through some sort of impersonal logic, which keeps us from asking questions like, "Who designed this building?," "How did they come up with it?" and "What were they trying to achieve?" One of these building builders is a Brit named Norman Foster, who is widely considered one of the world's greatest architects. His firm, Foster + Partners, is responsible for some of the world's most emblematic new structures, and the unfortunately titled documentary How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? provides an introduction to the man and his work. Watch the trailer for How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? below.
Even if you're like me and had never heard of Foster, you've probably seen photos of some of his most famous creations, like the Swiss Re building in London (affectionately known as "The Gherkin" since it bears some resemblance to a pickle) or the striking Millau Viaduct bridge, which briefly held the distinction of being the world's tallest. The film takes you on a tour of Foster's greatest hits, which are beautifully photographed from the inside and out to give you a sense of how the structures interact with sunlight, the sky, and the surrounding environment.
The film takes you through Foster's life in architecture, including his early interest in buildings, the scholarship that brought him to Yale, and the struggles and successes that came from starting his own architecture firm. Along the way, friends, artists, colleagues, and architecture critics chime in to affirm Foster's talents, the quality of his designs, and his steadfast integrity. Foster is followed as he travels the globe to plan, check on, and discuss his firm's many projects, and is interviewed extensively to get his thoughts on design, his influences, and his hobbies, like flying planes and cross-country skiing, even after suffering a heart attack.
You don't need to know anything about architecture to appreciate Foster's creations, especially with the cinematic way they're shot, although -- and I've never said this before -- How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? is the very rare film that would've benefitted greatly from being filmed in 3D. I talked with Pina director Wim Wenders about how certain documentaries would be uniquely suited to 3D, and the added dimension would've given audiences watching Mr. Foster a much better feeling of his buildings' interior and exterior spaces and how they relate to their surroundings.
The biggest problem with Mr. Foster is how universally Foster and his work are praised, which often makes it feel like you're watching an artfully made promotional piece from Foster + Partners' PR department. While you hear a lot from artists and experts, you hear nothing from those critical of his work -- and with designs as distinct and unconventional as Foster's, there are surely many. The film attests that great design can improve our lives, but we never hear this confirmed or denied by the regular people who work in Foster's buildings or look at them every day, or how working in a Foster building is different from being in any other one. And while Foster is always pushing himself to be better and is clearly passionate about his work, it's only later in the film that we see some real fire from him as he describes a carbon-neutral project in Abu Dhabi and why the biggest challenge facing all architects is whether we'll be able to create green buildings and sustainable communities before the planet is walloped by global warming.
Despite its truly horrible title and one-sided take on its subject, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? does affirm something that all fans of great design believe and that the film's narrator states early on -- useful things can also be beautiful. In a world filled with big boxes, tract houses, blocky office buildings, and poorly made products, it's a vital thing to remember.
'How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?' opens February 17 at the Laemmle Music Hall 3 in Los Angeles.