Norman Foster: A reputation built to last

A film about Norman Foster has made its debut in Berlin. The architect makes for a gripping subject, says Geoffrey Macnab

'The Fountainhead?" Norman Foster suggests, before I have finished the question. The celebrated architect has been at the Berlin International Film Festival this week for the screening of How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster?, an impressive new documentary about his life and career. I have just asked him about the representation of architects in film and literature.

The Fountainhead, a thoroughly preposterous 1943 novel by Ayn Rand which was made into an even more preposterous film by King Vidor, sets the template for fictional depictions of architects. Rand created Howard Roark, a Frank Lloyd Wright-like visionary with a touch of the Nietzschean superman. As played by Gary Cooper in the 1949 film, he is a rugged loner, a cowboy with cultural capital, ready to destroy buildings that his clients tamper with.

Lord Foster is keen to distance himself from Rand's superhero. The architect behind some of the most celebrated public buildings in the world, he is at the helm of Foster + Partners, a huge company which has worked from "the scale of an airport down to the detail of a door handle" in 150 cities, in more than 50 countries. He says his clients hold the whip hand.

"The architect really has no power. That is the truth," Foster says. "The architect is answerable to many different interests and has a responsibility to the client who pays for the building... there are a lot of fantasies about the architect."

Despite Foster's remarks, the new documentary suggests that he has at least a little of Gary Cooper in him. The film opens with Foster taking part in a ski marathon. We also see him competing in bike races. We hear about how he overcame cancer and about the gambles he has taken to build up his business. How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr Foster? has been screening in Berlin while the festival has showcased a restored version of Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927). The movies complement each other. Lang studied architecture, briefly, and the futuristic city he dreamed up in Metropolis is uncannily similar to a project Foster + Partners is working on in Abu Dhabi. The Masdar Development is a carbon-neutral city with driverless trains and elevated walkways.

"Films like Metropolis are an architectural experience," Foster says. "They truly are both inspirational and prophetic." He talks of the way Lang's movie "anticipated the megacities of today".

"Film is an extraordinary medium," Foster says, pointing out that buildings can work in the same way as movies. "Memorable buildings, like the Chrysler Building or Empire State Building, have all happened in periods of depression. They brought glamour, they brought experiences to the ordinary life of many people."

You do not need to be immersed in the world of architecture and design to enjoy the new documentary. Its makers, Norberto Lopez and Carlos Carcas, who worked with crews all over the world, use music, constantly moving cameras and voiceover to bring Foster's world to life. Deyan Sudjic, the author of the authorised biography of Foster, wrote the commentary and narrates the film.

This is hardly a critical study. At times, it is close to hagiography. However, as the cameras glide and swoop through some of Foster's most famous constructions, the effect is eerily beautiful. Few movie sets come close to matching the mystery and grandeur of these buildings.

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Arts and Entertainment

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power