Danny Forster

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 April, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 April, 2009, 12:00am

A CAREER HIGH I've only ever half-cried on camera. On the first day of shooting [the Extreme Engineering television show for the Discovery Channel] we were on the Shanghai International Finance Centre [the second-tallest building in the world]. We got out of the elevator and the city sprawl looked like a mini-golf course below. In the 'spine' of the building, there was a 476 metre-deep hole wide enough to accommodate 97 elevator shafts. My cameraman, who is my litmus test for how 'bad' [heights are], went over to look, then turned to the side and threw up. I was ready to walk away.

Every architectural project has its 'aha!' moments that are breathtaking and my job is to find those and show them as well as highlighting the guys who have the Herculean job of building these structures.

A SIMPLE STONECUTTER Given the cacophony of the Hong Kong skyline - different shapes, very dense, lit-up buildings - Stonecutters Bridge stands out through its abstraction, its simplicity. This is the second-longest cable-stayed bridge in the world. The main span [from column to column] is 1,018 metres. The two towers are each 297 metres tall, which makes them the height of the Eiffel Tower. The top of each tower is constructed with a stainless-steel surface, giving it a beautiful reflection in sunlight. I was up there, installing a cable with four Nepalese bad-asses. The tower crane lifted the cable all the way up and the guys fed it into the tower. The longest cable is more than 800 metres long.

This [bridge] is unique; the two towers pierce an opening in the road deck, splitting it in two. When wind comes off the harbour, it is released under the bridge through that opening. If you look at the cross-section of the bridge decks, they are shaped like upside-down aeroplane wings - that is also about wind management.

LIKE A ROLLING STONE 'Meandering' is a good way to describe my path. I grew up in Tenafly, New Jersey, right outside of Manhattan. My interest in architecture began with Mrs Devito's class in high school. She explained the difference between the squatter Romanesque arches - which were located in a countryside full of marauders, so they had to both look and be strong - and elongated Gothic arches, which were located in city churches, where visitors needed to be so taken with the experience that they'd believe in God.

As an undergraduate [at Wesleyan University in Connecticut], I studied art history. [My choice of studies] was more because I didn't necessarily want to become a lawyer, which, because I spoke a lot, seemed to be the preordained path. When I graduated, I moved to New York and got completely screwed by real estate brokers. So I started an internet real estate business called Urban Filter; it helped young people find apartments in city. I also did some stand-up comedy, which, frankly, was kind of awkward.

A few years later, I got into Harvard architecture school, and it was the biggest mistake of my life in some ways. I tried not to get ensconced in all the competitive Ivy League madness, but I did. I forgot about Mrs Devito's lecture in high school; instead I was dealing with funny terminology, building designs that looked like blobs, things that had nothing to do with why I loved architecture in the first place - which is the public. When it came time to write my thesis, I had no ownership of my thoughts. So I was sitting there with a blank document, procrastinating.

My girlfriend at the time saw a listing on Craigslist that asked, 'Do you want to host a TV show about architecture?' I thought, 'Yes' but, more to the point, 'Did I want to continue to not work on my paper?'. 'Yes'.

We shot a video, burned a CD and sent it in. Two weeks later I got a call and left school. I eventually went back and finished my thesis. I'm proud of myself for figuring out how to do it my way.

GREEN AND CHEAP It would be nice if green architecture was a moral and ethical thing but I don't think you can make the case in business. When I talk to clients about green design, it's all about a cost-benefit analysis.

During a hiatus between TV shows in January 2007, I established the Danny Forster Design Studio. What we do is mindful but inexpensive green design, using a mixture of passive and active logic. Passive logic would be leveraging the direction of the sunrise: we'll put the bedroom on the east side of the building. Active logic would include radiant ceilings for winter - which provide electro-magnetic heating [top down] rather than through the floor and furniture; and in the summer, we would run cool water through ceilings for a more natural cooling system than air conditioning.