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'How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?' and 'John Portman: A Life of Building'

Blueprints for architectural success: Documentaries burnish two big names: Foster and Portman

Above: The interior of the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, one of Norman Foster’s designs. Below: John Portman at Atlanta’s Peachtree Center, most of which was originally his development. Above: The interior of the HSBC Building in Hong Kong, one of Norman Foster’s designs. Below: John Portman at Atlanta’s Peachtree Center, most of which was originally his development. (FIRST RUN FEATURES (ABOVE); FLIP CHALFANT/PORTMAN IMAGE ARCHIVE)
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / December 14, 2011
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‘How Much Does Your Building Weigh, Mr. Foster?’’ is ostensibly a documentary about an architect. Norman Foster is best known around these parts for the new Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, though the MFA goes unmentioned in the film.

Among Foster’s most famous credits are the renovations of the British Museum in London and the German Reichstag in Berlin, London’s Swiss Re Tower (popularly known as “the Gherkin,’’ for its pickle-shaped design), Hong Kong’s HSBC Building, and Beijing airport’s Terminal 3.

Don’t be fooled. The architecture is just a means to an end. That end is the documentary’s true subject, demonstrating how opposed form and content can be. The form in this case consists of the impressive skill with which the film has been made: handsomely shot, elegantly edited, and quite gorgeously narrated by architecture critic Deyan Sudjic (who also wrote the film). The content, which rather comically undercuts that form, is a treatment of Foster so reverential it verges on camp.

“Norman never stops drawing,’’ Sudjic intones. “He communicates in the most effective way through a sharp pencil and a beautiful block of paper. In his cars there are fresh notepads and freshly sharpened pencils, just in case something comes to him. He is always drawing. Drawing, drawing, drawing. It’s the way he thinks. It’s the way he argues points. You can see the buildings take shape.’’

Yes, you certainly can. You can also see (or at least imagine) the staff memo from the editor of the Onion asking, “How come we can’t get stuff this good?’’

It’s demonstrably untrue, by the way, that “Norman never stops drawing.’’ The documentary also shows him flying a glider, flying a helicopter, flying a jet (Foster does a lot of flying), as well as riding a bicycle, cross-country skiing, building a model boat with his young son, and wearing shirts so ghastly as to make one wonder about his aesthetic sense even if he had not designed the Gherkin.

Things could be worse. The documentary “John Portman: A Life of Building’’ shows its subject sculpting and painting. Like the Foster film, it starts a five-day run at the MFA today as part of the museum’s Architecture and Design on Film series.

Where the Foster documentary is hilariously hagiographic, this one is infomercial-like. The product it is promoting is Portman’s reputation. He is the developer-architect who added “atrium’’ to the lexicon of hotel chains with the soaring lobby of his Hyatt Regency Atlanta, built in 1967.

Portman’s most lasting achievement isn’t any one building. It’s the perfecting (maybe even the inventing) of a style. Call it High Corporate Baroque. Impersonal yet excessive, that style is anything but bland, even if in every other respect it is thoroughly commercial. Sleek behemoths like New York’s Marriott Marquis Hotel and Detroit’s Renaissance Center catch the eye even as they dull the imagination. (In fairness, there is a brief acknowledgment that the robotic splendor of the Marriott Marquis does not exactly contribute to the urban fabric of Times Square.) Not that eye or imagination is what matters most with architecture, or so both of these documentaries would seem to indicate, however unwittingly. It’s ego.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

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HOW MUCH DOES YOUR BUILDING WEIGH, MR. FOSTER?

Directed by: Carlos Carcas and Norberto López Amado

Written and narrated by:

Deyan Sudjic

At: Museum of Fine Arts,

today through Sunday

Running time: 79 minutes

Unrated

JOHN PORTMAN: A Life of Building

Directed by: Ben Loeterman

At: Museum of Fine Arts,

today through Sunday

Running time: 57 minutes

Unrated

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