Unusually successful in synchronizing the ethos and oeuvre of its protagonist, British architect Norman Foster, with its own visual strategies and rhythms, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? is the rare documentary that lionizes an accomplished figure without tipping into hagiography. Though its first shots frame the septuagenarian Foster in heroic terms—a hardy skier competing in a cross-country marathon despite, we later learn, recent bouts with cancer and cardiac ills—and the narration written and spoken by design critic Deyan Sudjic plummily and chummily refers to him as “Norman,” the film achieves true intimacy by letting the man’s descriptions of his goals and motives form a contrapuntal relationship with a cinematic dance around his works. Directors Carlos Carcas and Norberto López Amado include a few too many skies with time-lapsed scudding clouds, but their panning, rotating images of domes, glass edifices, and bridge cables erected by Foster and Partners, harmoniously linked to Joan Valent’s sinuous score, compose a greater biography of this world-class builder than his educational, professional, and personal details.
Sudjic’s early note that Foster’s architectural style and coolly elegant personality can be similarly “hard to read” sounds worryingly like a disclaimer, but the imposing, beautiful structures on display—France’s Millau Viaduct, the history-conscious restoration of the Reichstag, London’s glass “gherkin” of the Swiss Re insurance firm—have a brash, efficient beauty that complement their creator’s concerns with urban ecology, and his certainty that being a licensed pilot, cyclist, and skier inform how he seeks to incorporate his projects into the natural world. From his self-starter’s entry into the profession from a lowly assistant manager’s job, to his studies at Yale and development of “a romantic vision of America” at the start of his decades of globe-hopping work, Foster seems in a steady state of measuring his life anew, considering questions as revelatory as the titular one (from collaborator Buckminster Fuller) whenever they arise. Carcas and López’s portrait may not stir unanimous enthusiasm for Foster’s work in audiences (his diagrid Hearst Tower in New York squats awkwardly on its 1928 landmark base, to my eyes), but it ultimately makes the argument that he’s “the Mozart of modernism” seem one worth having.