Saturday, 29 January 2011


20/1/11, Freud's (screening room)

A lovingly-filmed hagiography by two Spanish documentarists of the great architect Lord (Norman) Foster, narrated by Deyan Sudjic who tells me it was produced by Foster's wife.

The visuals were spectacular, though accompanied by an exceptionally intrusive and irritating music score. The Millau Viaduct is stupendous; the Hong-Kong and Shanghai Bank building staggering; the Willis Faber building brilliant; the Sainsbury Centre at Norwich ground-breaking; the Stansted terminal a complete rethinking of the airport terminal, etc etc. And Foster himself is a man of quite awesome drive. I knew he'd been ill, but I didn't realise he'd had both cancer and a heart attack, that at one stage he was given just three months to live and that within six months of being pronounced cured he was taking part in a gruelling cross-country skiing marathon (the doctors said he'd never do it -- but we saw him, and bloody hard work it looked too).

Perhaps that's why his practice, which started small and produced a handful of utterly original buildings is now one of the world's biggest, producing not just the Gherkin and the Great Court at the British Museum but mediocre stuff like London's City Hall or the ITN/ITV HQ in Gray's Inn Road, and succumbing to sheer gigantism in some of the buildings it designs, like the terminal at Beijing airport, which the film claims is the world's biggest building. Did something get losty along the way? You could argue that late Foster is less innovative than early Foster, though some of the later designs (Millau, the Reichstag, the Sage Gateshead) are as unusual and original as anything he did earlier, and the film featured a stumpy skyscraper in New York built for Hearst which is certainly striking.

He's also designing an eco-city called Masdar in one of the Gulf states which is breathtakingly ambitious.

Not an especially good film, then, and Foster himself is not an especially sympathetic character, but there's no questioning his achievement, especially given his humble origins in working class Manchester to which the film showed him returning.

The title refers to a question one of his heroes, Buckminster Fuller, asked him when Foster gave him a guided tour of the Sainsbury Centre. Foster of course couldn't tell him. But typically went away later and worked it out.

Freud's screened the film in the wrong aspect ratio, which didn't help.

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