How much does the building weigh? This question seems to haunt every project Lord Norman Foster designs. Challenged by Buckminster Fuller in the ‘70s, Foster began to seriously investigate weight, energy and performance to answer this difficult question. And his architecture shows it.
When you ask Foster to define his modus operandi, he isn’t able to break down the synthesis of all of the elements in his design process. When you ask him to choose form or function, he says the two are inseparable. Foster doesn’t play the architect’s favorite ideological game of simplifying the design process down to a golden rule. To him, a great building is based on plural consideration—structure, aesthetics, materials, daylighting, ecology, function and many more—and never the imposition of one at the detriment of another. The HSBC building in Hong Kong, Millau Viaduct in France, and Swiss Re Headquarters in London are just a few examples.
Norberto Lopez Amado and Carlos Carcas spent two years delving further into Foster’s character in How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? Foster’s wife, Elena Ochoa, produced the documentary, which gave the film crew both unprecedented access to Foster’s life and permission to adulate accordingly. The 78-minute documentary plays like a religious homage to Lord Foster. The time-lapse scenes and aerial cinematography of his major projects excite the inner architect in everyone. From Bono to Anish Kapoor, the roster of celebrities interviewed to testify to Foster’s eminence is further awe-inspiring. The personal revelations—from his poor upbringing, to his near-bankrupt design practice, to his cancer—fuel your empathy for persevering pioneers (read: Steve Jobs). But surprisingly, this film is not about idolatry.
How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? is about challenging you and the aspiring architect inside to provoke the status quo and think for yourself. Foster divulges his own idols and influences—Paul Rudolph, Buckminster Fuller, Frank Lloyd Wright—and how they thrust him into unfamiliar ideas and work ethics. Most importantly, find a hobby that teaches you more about architecture than architecture can. Fly airplanes and experience the rising and sinking air to understand climate and atmosphere. Take a pilgrimage across the country to familiarize yourself with the land. Compete in cross-country skiing marathons to train yourself to persist and become addicted to performing better. These are just some of the ways Foster remains sharp in his trade.
Also, never concede. After the design competition for the HSBC building in Hong Kong, Foster and his team stayed in the city to investigate how banking worked locally while the competitors left immediately. Foster and Fuller experimented on working prototypes of buildings the public has never seen. Foster’s latest project, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, is the most ambitious and risky development for the architect, developer, or anyone involved, but you can count on Foster to not succumb to pressures or conventions.
The documentary stands tall among other living architect biographies that have aimed to grow the accessibility of architecture, such as Sketches of Frank Gehry or I.M. Pei’s First Person Singular. But instead of resolving architectural problems or purporting to have all of the answers, Foster inspires us to incessantly ask the right questions and seek the best answers. And find even better answers next time, as he himself is still searching after forty years.
Text by Lynn Wang
Photography by Valentin Alvarez