Only a handful of architects get to be celebrities. Danny Forster has gone them one better. He’s a celebrity architecture student.
About a year ago, Forster’s girlfriend spotted an ad on craigslist calling for people who were excited by design and construction to try out for host of “Extreme Engineering” on the Discovery Channel. It sounded like fun, so Forster, a master of architecture candidate at the Graduate School of Design (GSD), recorded a three-minute audition video and sent it in. A few interviews and screen tests later, he had the job.
“Extreme Engineering” first went on the air in the spring of 2003, giving viewers a look at megaprojects around the world, from Hong Kong’s new airport built on an artificial island in the South China Sea to Boston’s Big Dig. But for the 2006 season, the show’s producers wanted to add a human element, a tour guide who was personable, enthusiastic, and could explain design and engineering concepts in straightforward terms. Forster, who had done stand-up comedy and worked in real estate before coming to the GSD, fit the bill.
Forster’s first assignment was a new stadium built for the Arizona Cardinals football team. The 63,000-seat stadium features a retractable roof and a natural turf field that rolls out on tracks so the grass can get the full benefit of the Arizona sun between games. When Forster arrived, teams of masons, ironworkers, carpenters, electricians, and other specialists were working furiously to get the stadium ready for the 2006 season. It was up to Forster to enter this monumental hive and persuade the worker bees to explain their jobs on camera.
“There was no preparation. Everything was improvised. Mostly I would just walk up to people and say, ‘What are you doing? Can I try it?’ Then most of the time I would fail at whatever task it was, which adds comic value and also shows how incredibly skilled these workers are.”
While doing the show, Forster learned to keep his explanations short and simple, a skill he thinks will serve him well in presenting architectural projects.
“It was a total dose of reality. In the beginning, I’d deliver this long explanation about something, and the producer would say, you know, we’re going to cut this to about eight seconds.”
In the show on the Cardinals stadium, which aired in April as a pilot, Forster watches as workers ignite a mini-volcano to fuse the steel rails carrying the moveable field, he gets stuck high above the ground in the gondola of a cherry picker, and he takes a vertiginous stroll across the stadium’s thin fabric roof. One of the show’s running jokes centers on Forster’s fear of heights. When the workers coax him into ascending the stadium’s 240-foot roof, Forster gazes out over the desert landscape nervously but with a visible sense of triumph.
But while Forster may have come in for his share of good-natured ribbing, he feels no animosity for the skilled workers who poked fun at his ineptitude.
“One of the best things about spending time at a construction site is that you get to meet so many incredible people. I’m still in contact with a lot of these guys,” he said.
In his first season as host of the show, Forster visited a tunnel in Malaysia, a skyscraper in Madrid, Spain, an oil rig on Sakhalin Island off the coast of Siberia, a dry dock in Newport News, Va., where the U.S. Navy’s biggest aircraft carrier, the George H.W. Bush, is being built, and the city of New Orleans where the Army Corps of Engineers is working to repair the levee system. “Extreme Engineering with Danny Forster” had its official premiere May 31.
Forster took the fall 2005 term off to do the show, but returned in the spring to finish his thesis project and receive his degree. He plans to do more shows if the Discovery Channel renews his contract, but he has no intention of leaving architecture to pursue a career as a TV personality.
“I love doing the show, but I didn’t sweat for four years not to be an architect.”
Forster’s thesis combines ideas from his study of design with insights derived from his experience in real estate. The residential building he has designed is intended specifically for recent college graduates working for an “incubator” company that provides personnel and technical services for start-up firms.
Conceived as “a vertical corporate campus,” the building will save tenants money by having their rent deducted from their pre-tax income, thus giving them the ability to purchase their own homes sooner. But while they are living in the building, they will, Forster said, enjoy an almost utopian equality, thanks to a point value matrix system he has devised.
Each positive feature traditionally hyped in real estate ads – roominess, high ceilings, number of bathrooms, courtyards, views, etc. – has been assigned a numerical value. Forster has designed the building so that the numbers come out even. If you have a great view, you pay for it with a stingier floor plan. An apartment with more space might look out on the parking lot.
“The goal was to make something where there are no undesirable units, and hopefully in the end everyone is pleased,” he said.
Forster’s thesis has been nominated for the James Templeton Kelley Prize, offered by the Boston Society of Architects for the best final design projects submitted by a candidate for the M.Arch. degree.