Thursday, January 26, 2012

Modernist from Manchester: How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?

As a child in World War II era Britain, Norman Foster was often terrified by German bombers. As a world renowned architect, he designed the reconstructed Reichstag for the reunified Germany. The significance is not lost on the self-made architect, whose career and work are surveyed in Norberto López Amado & Carlos Carcas’s How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster (trailer here), now playing in New York at the IFC Center.

A man comfortable with his success, Norman Foster is an appealing figure in many respects. The son of working class parents, the young Foster literally lived on the wrong side of Manchester’s tracks. A RAF veteran, his first architectural job was as part of a firm’s general office support staff. Recognizing his talent, a partner gave him a shot with something more design-oriented. It worked out well.

An enthusiast for America and American architecture, Foster would study at Yale before opening his own firms. Once out on his own, he would design some incredibly striking buildings, bridges, and airports, including the Reichstag, the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, the American Air Museum in Cambridgeshire, the London Millennial Bridge, the Great Court of the British Museum, the Millau Viaduct in southern France, and the Hearst Tower, his only building here in New York. Each is spectacularly shot in Weigh from dramatic vantage points that really make them come alive for viewers.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Foster was a longtime friend of Buckminster Fuller and readily admits the controversial geodesic designer’s influence on his work. In fact, the film’s title comes from a question Fuller once asked Foster. Yet, one can see the Fuller effect in the geometric shapes and materials Foster favors.

As thoughtful and well-spoken as Foster certainly is, his buildings are the real stars of the film. Arguably, a bit much is made of his passion for aviation and the late lecture on sustainability gets a tad repetitive. Still, there are some highly relevant lessons to be learned from Foster’s experiences. According to one partner, the firm won the Beijing International Airport competition a year and a half after losing a London airport assignment, but their terminal was operational seven years before the London project they lost out on. Perhaps this implies something about comparative competitiveness?

Thanks to the loving attention of the co-directors and cinematographer Valentin Álvarez, Foster’s building look truly dazzling throughout the film. Weigh also sounds quite appealing, featuring softly swelling light classical themes composed by Joan Valent and some occasional jazz selections arranged by bassist Toni Cuenca and performed by his combo. An attractive showcase for Foster’s work, Weigh is definitely recommended beyond the armchair architects and design students who will automatically seek it out. It is now showing at the IFC Center in the West Village.