How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? finally made it to Netflix last week, so I popped a giant bowl of popcorn and settled in for eighty minutes of helicopters, net-zero cities, and ski marathons….
The film has had mixed reviews–fans of the firm have raved, but it’s also caught critical flak for its slightly fawning stance. Having spent seven years with the office–three of them actually on Albert Wharf, I won’t pretend to objectivity, but it did capture the office’s complexity.
The title alludes–of course–to Foster’s collaboration in the 1970s with Bucky Fuller, and the film rightly credits Foster with taking Bucky seriously when most of the profession thought of Fuller as a not-quite-harmless crank. There’s no question that a lot of Foster’s work has at least partially fulfilled Bucky’s promise that architecture could be a discipline of elegant problem-solving, where efficiency and beauty could meet and start to address issues on a global scale. But the film also touches on the fact that the Foster brand is a hard-earned marketing achievement, recognizable throughout the world and carefully managed.
Whatever side you take, the film has some genuinely interesting moments for historians of the recent past. Scenes where Foster goes back to his childhood home in working-class Manchester, where he began to do the extraordinary drawings that eventually won him a place in architecture school, are genuinely moving. And to see him walking around Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery, which housed the architecture studios while Foster was a grad student there, makes the connection between Kahn and “high tech” as well as anything. Interesting, too, to see him talk about Paul Rudolph, who ran the program while he was there. Foster mentions working on renderings for Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building, and as much as I think Kahn influenced Foster, there are even more direct lines that can be drawn between Rudolph’s light, orderly Sarasota work and Foster’s early light, orderly residential projects.
So it’s slightly hagiographic, but not lacking insight. For me, it was worth it for the Kahn moment–and for the chance to see a few former colleagues in suits–! Given the personal story, you could make a good architecture/biography double feature out of this and My Architect. And if you had a big enough bowl of popcorn, you could throw in My Father, The Genius, which remains my favorite architecture movie of all time, albeit with a far more heartbreaking denouement…