I have to admit going in that I expected this documentary to not be for everyone, but thought that I’d like it because my father was an architect, and it’s about a world-famous architect. At the end, though, I’d recommend it to anyone who happens to live in or work in anything that has been built by humans – so, everyone – because it turns out to really illuminate the uneasy alliance between people and the planet at the turn of the twenty-first century. If you take for granted the four walls, floor and ceiling that surround you when you work, live, or play, then you should stop it, and this documentary will help you stop doing that.
Admittedly, the title is somewhat of a misquote, because the question is asked by no less a luminary than Buckminster Fuller – and if you don’t know who he was, go google it and be amazed. He asked our titular architect, Norman Foster, “How much does your building weigh, Norman?” and the answer was in the vicinity of about ten million pounds. When Norman, aka Mr. Foster, realized that most of that weight wasn’t even visible to the public, it led to a revolution in his design aesthetic, but, as we learn in this short but moving film, his design aesthetic has always been nothing less than amazing.
Of course, you have to strap in and take your time to get to that point. The first third of the documentary is, frankly, dull – of the “Poor little Manchester boy drawing sketches in his bedroom in hopes of being the next big thing” variety. However, once we get past that and start to see beautifully photographed archi-porn views of some of his more successful designs, the whole thing takes off. If you’ve never heard of Norman Foster, you’d still kill to live or work in one of his buildings, and it’s in the second third of this documentary that the whole thing takes off with amazing cinematography by Valentin Alvarez and minimalist music from Joan Valent, projecting us into these incredible creations. Whether it’s residential, commercial, industrial, or government, Mr. Foster combines nature with humanity, turning Bauhaus inside out. Even the lowliest of cube-drones would find excitement coming to work in one of his crowning works, the Hong Kong HSBC building, where inside is outside.
At the very end, we’re presented with a Foster work in progess, Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, a planned community meant to have a minimal carbon footprint while creating the ultimate in living space, and his solutions to functioning in a desert seem so simple and elegant that it’s hard to reject them. At the same time, the documentary brings the subtle point home: Foster’s business almost failed, despite its success, as long as he stuck to European rules. While his breakthrough airport design in the UK was languishing, his design in China was up and running for seven years before they’d even broken ground in England.
The obvious point – we really need to do more with less – is not belabored before we reach our coda, and a final, touching point about Mr. Foster himself. Sadly, something lacking through the entire piece otherwise. Still, while I went into this film thinking it would only be interesting to architecture geeks, I felt otherwise by the end. In a very subtle way, it provides a necessary education – on what it takes to make a building, what it takes to make a good one, and why sustainability is not just a buzzword, but a requirement if we’re going to make it out of the twenty first century in one piece.