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Norman Foster on the Big Screen

Filmmakers Norberto López-Amado and Carlos Carcas release their documentary on the British architect.

Norman Foster

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There’s a new architecture documentary of Norman Foster out, adding the British architect to the movie-star ranks of Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, and Louis Kahn. From the looks of it, though, it’s closer to The Third and the Seventh–beautiful, sure, with slow, majestic panning shots, but oh so deadly serious. Is that a problem?

Norman Foster

Directed by Norberto López-Amado and Carlos Carcas, How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? is the first feature-length film produced by the art consultants at Art Commissioners. Watch the clips on the filmmakers’ Web site (scroll down). It’s soundtracked like a tear-jerker with swelling orchestras and ambiguous choral vocals. When architects appear (it’s mostly their buildings), there’s a lot of somber nodding and meaningful hand gestures. In one clip, over a crescendo of thrumming strings and a slow pan around and up the Gherkin, we hear London Design Museum director Deyan Sudjic wax poetic about Foster’s humble upbringings and the transformative power of good buildings:

“Architecture can make your life feel better. On a small scale, it transformed his adolescent bedroom in the suburbs of Manchester. Later, it could take him away from that narrow world, could make almost anything possible.”

Avatar-like production values (and a similarly heavy-handed narrative) might make architecture feel more powerful to movie-goers, but it won’t necessarily make it more accessible, or make more girls ask their parents for Architect Barbie. In fact, it’s ironic that the film takes as its title a Buckminster Fuller quote (not meant for Foster directly), criticizing over-the-top, pompous architecture. For us to take them more seriously, it seems, architects need a sense of humor.

Take Ila Beka and Louise Lemoine’s Koolhaas Houselife. It’s a straight documentary about the architect’s house for Lemoine’s father, but it’s also a tongue-in-cheek send-up of the difference between how architects think of their work and how regular people actually live in it. (Curious? It’s showing at Storefront for Art and Architecture through the end of the month.)

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Or even better: the BBC’s New Town, a short-lived but hilarious show about Purves and Pekkala, a Gilbert-and-George-ian architect couple in Edinburgh. The all-black flat they live in, their matching Corbusier glasses, their attitude: it’s all perfect.

Of course, without films like How Much Does Your Building Weigh–so serious it’s almost satire–New Town wouldn’t be as funny as it is. But one thing’s for sure: If Purves and Pekkala made a movie, it’d look a lot like this–and they wouldn’t be joking.

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