Film Capsule: How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?


“Sometimes I think I see things [other people] don’t.”

So says Norman Foster, whose iconic structures have redefined the very boundaries of modern architecture. Foster, who is now in his mid-70s, helped spearhead the Post-Formalist movement back in the early 80s and 90s, and he continues to be a guiding force today. Much like Ieoh Ming Pei and Vincent Scully before him, Foster views free-standing structures as a progressive reflection of the time and space they inhabit – cultural totems that are much more indicative of where a civilization is headed, than where it has been. 

Foster’s approach calls for absolute economy in terms of design – using 20% less steel (more than 80% of it recycled), and mining the globe for the most efficient materials possible. His buildings are green and sustainable, making unprecedented use of natural light and space; replacing rectangular surfaces with (more eco-friendly) triangulated grids. While the result is often breath-taking (e.g., The Millau Viaduct, Swiss Re Headquarters, London City Hall, etc.), it also provides a staggering return on investment.

The transformative moment for Foster, both as an architect and a champion of innovative design, occurred more than three decades ago, when systems theorist Buckminster Fuller asked him, “How much does your building weigh, Mr. Foster?” The question, which was actually meant as more of a challenge, led Foster to realize that – more often than not – there was a disproportionate amount of weight and resources dedicated to developing the least utilitarian aspects of a building or structure.

That, as they say, changed everything.

If you’re a fan of architecture (as a recent Georgetown study suggests the majority of us are not), How Much Does Your Building Weigh? provides a fascinating look at some of Foster’s towering achievements … not to mention insights from the visionary himself, who somehow manages to stay in remarkable physical condition, despite his recent health scares (You cannot help but notice the pristine condition of this man’s fingernails).

If – on the other hand – you tend to agree with (Canadian architect) Arthur Erickson’s contention that, “You have to see a building to comprehend it,” you might just as soon take a walk over to 57th and 8th, where you can enjoy an up-close look at Foster’s Hearst Tower, minus the Bono and popcorn.

(How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster? Opens 1/25 @ New York City’s IFC Center, with a national roll-out to follow)