How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?


In this country, British modernist “starchitect” Norman Foster is perhaps best known for the Hearst building in New York, with its huge atrium set within the old masonry shell and a faceted new glass tower rising above. A working-class Manchester lad, Foster trained at Yale and became a brand name by the late ’60s—aided in part by association with his futurist mentor, Buckminster Fuller (who posed this doc’s titular question). Now in his mid seventies, Foster runs a large international firm that—detractors will tell you, though not in this movie—has been chasing the mega-project money from China to Dubai to Kazakhstan. “They are thinking big,” he says of such emerging economies, and big is certainly what Foster does best. Aerial shots of France’s famous Millau Viaduct, with its needle-topped spires and delicate lattice of support cables, draw gasps, and there is much to praise in Hong Kong’s HSBC tower and Foster’s other structures that place the exoskeleton on the outside. Inside are, yes, still more atria—the kind of soaring enclosures that suggest both cathedral and shopping mall. “How do you give glamour to an office building?” Foster asks rhetorically. Well, so far as the owners are concerned, you hire a starchitect, which makes the building easier to lease. But absent here among those who praise Foster (including Bono, Richard Serra, and critic Paul Goldberger), are the voices of any of the poor office workers who actually labor within. By the time this fawning doc gets to Foster’s CG-animated rendering for a $15 billion planned city in Abu Dhabi (a movie within the movie), you realize it’s essentially an infomercial for the company he unsuccessfully tried to sell before the 2008 crash. But even in our current recession, Foster is still thinking big—most recently pitching a $77 billion transportation hub north of London. If the Brits don’t buy it, the Chinese will.