Essay: Architecture on TV | icon 053 | November 2007

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Sam Jacob

I find myself in the roof of an old barn full of dust, old furniture, boxes of paper and broken toys – apparently the detritus of a messy divorce. There is a camera pointing at me, and I’m supposed to be saying something “architectural” – ideally something environmentally friendly. But right now, my mind is completely blank. “Hmm, let’s try that again,” says Tim, the producer, from behind the camera. So I clamber back up a shaky ladder, stumble to my mark and mumble something unconvincing about recycled materials.

I’m not here to kick-start a TV career, but rather in some kind of research capacity for this essay. I’ve come disguised as a confident and relaxed alpha-male in a pinstripe suit teamed with a black T-shirt. I try to break out of my usual cynical personality and make a pathetic attempt at enthusiasm. But here, in this melancholy attic, my “personality” has wilted. “Thanks,” Tim says, unconvincingly, as the next hapless architect arrives to screen test.

Within this broken-down barn, a production company hopes to manufacture another hybrid property show. It’s a pilot for a kind of Grand Designs extreme. “It’s all about ‘jeopardy’,” the producer tells me. I suppose this term describes the way a sensation of drama can be manufactured out of the will-they-won’t-they scenario of renovation. It’s a race of budgets against time. This is the fuel that powers these shows, burned up to sustain viewers’ engagement.

Yet, despite featuring buildings, architects and design, these are not shows about architecture. As soon as a camera points at a building, it’s almost as if architecture vanishes and turns into something else. Brick, stone, glass and steel become subsumed by narrative. Architecture’s detached esoterica sinks into the frothy immediacy of storytelling, never to be heard of again.

I should define what I mean by “architecture” here: the whole cultural, historical, social and technical canon from the Lion Gate at Mycenae, all the way through civilisation to Morris, Corb, Gropius and then Koolhaas, Hadid et al. Massive scholarship, huge argument, incredible technical expertise. Serious stuff indeed.
Buildings work on TV with a narrative. They are presented in relation to separate issues: history, engineering problem-solving, archaeology and so on. Rarely do these separate views touch – and it’s when they touch that architecture happens.

Narrative arc and characterisation suffocate the non-linear attributes of architecture. But buildings have no beginning and no end, and we can’t empathise with them without picturesque imaginings of human presence. Think of architecture’s role in cinema or literature, where buildings function as insights into protagonists’ interior lives – Miss Havisham’s Satis House in Great Expectations, the sewers of Vienna in the Third Man or Norman Bates’ home in Psycho.

TV property shows, however, have none of the luxury of novelists or film directors to explore the psychological relationship of architecture to the human condition. Instead, compressed in time and under pressure to gather ratings, it’s a broad and quick portrait of a scenario.

Might the medium itself help transform standard processes and allow us to work in different ways? Instead, the camera reinforces traditional roles. The narrative demand influences the protagonists’ behaviour. Thus, architects become more like architects than they usually would. And that is a bad thing.

Architecture shows draw on preconception as a means of cutting down on the scenario-establishing legwork. This gives us the foppish designer, the cheeky builder, the anal architect, the clients attempting to make themselves a better life. You might wonder where all the sitcoms have gone. Well, they’re right here. Property allows us a voyeurism into others’ deep-seated desires. The shows combine elements of newspaper problem pages, psychoanalysis and a dash of astrology. Cajoled by the presenters with winks, hints and nudges, viewers become analysts and silent agony aunts.

Changing Rooms, the show that made property and design a prime-time stalwart, turned this into a simple, much-copied formula. Recently, however, a new breed of show has been brewing. This summer, on my sofa, I thought I must have been hallucinating. Linda Barker – the face of electronics store Currys and sofa retailer DFS – was discussing urban planning on prime-time TV. What’s going on?

Previously, the only outward connection to the “real world” formed by architecture shows was through endorsements – at one point it was almost impossible to buy anything in Homebase without the championing of one Changing Rooms presenter or another.

Now, presenter-designers are attempting to endorse products on an urban scale. Kevin McCloud, whose fronting of Grand Designs catapulted him to the top of the architectural TV tree, spawned first a magazine, whose cover almost always features him, and now a development company with the aim of building communities. Of course, the process is being filmed for a possible tie-in show. Pseudo-philosophers thought that they too could have a piece of the action: Alain de Botton wrote a book with an accompanying TV show (made by his own production company) and then sought developer partners.

Both McCloud and de Botton trade on the word “happiness”, talking about architecture as a function of human emotion – one that is almost impossible to quantify and evades engagement with debate. It’s a fascinating idea – whether either succeed or not – with shades of Disney’s town-planning project Celebration, the extension of a brand value into urbanism. There are also connections one could make to the 19th-century town-planning experiments of Bournville and Port Sunlight, both tied to the visions of social pioneers. And it is worth remembering that Ebenezer Howard – the man behind the Garden Cities movement and considered by many to be the godfather of modern urban planning – was a journalist.

Of course those from outside the profession can make vital contributions. But Howard was responding to the serious problems at the heart of the industrialised city, not just a mild sense of malaise.

The assembled critics simply lack the experience and language to talk about architecture. It’s at moments like this that one realises English culture, despite its recent posturing, is a literary culture.

The effect is an inability to differentiate between the everyday vernaculars of domestic living and architecture as a grand cultural act – the mother of the arts, as some would have it. The same lack of distinction would be impossible in literary culture, or even in fine art. All those Grand Designs houses are the architectural equivalent of vanity publishing or your local watercolour society’s paintings. That they are accorded the status of design is a profound misunderstanding. As for Kevin McCloud’s gig as the Stirling Prize frontman, it’s like Pam Ayres presenting the Booker Prize coverage or Rolf Harris anchoring the Turner Prize.

The inability to distinguish lifestyle from great cultural endeavour isn’t limited to TV. It’s a condition that affects all media to some extent. It’s perhaps a symptom of a more general crisis in architectural culture – there is a great big hole in the middle of it, an absence of a critical voice. One might argue that this crisis is a function of the massive worldwide building boom. There is an unprecedented scale of global construction, whose public face is a handful of increasingly famous architects. The architectural media are simply exhausted with keeping up and have little breath left for comment. These superstar architects have become their own critics – setting the architectural agenda through their own writing, or through sheer presence of personality, success and scale.

And if the print-based media find it hard, staffed with at least a few people who have some kind of architectural or art historical background, it’s no wonder that TV struggles to create any kind of critical distance.

There are two examples of architecture on TV that I think bear scrutiny. One deals with the communication of an architectural idea, and the other with TV as a tool that might help make architecture. Both explore a kind of populism that breaks down professional borders and reaches out to new audiences, and both are from the 1970s.

Firstly, Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, a BBC documentary from 1972. It stars the eponymous critic, celebrated for his role in the Independent Group, his promotion of Brutalism, then Archigram and later High Tech as well as his ever-present interest in consumer culture and Americana as valid forms of design activity. Sure, the show’s script is stilted, under-rehearsed and awkward in parts, and the camerawork is atrocious.

But then again, all TV from the early Seventies seems incredibly slow to our modern, channel-hopping, fast-forward eyes. But there is an ambition to talk about an idea, and at the time, a fairly controversial idea: that LA urbanism is important.

The introduction sees Banham crossing a road with a jazz fanfare. In a sub-Alan Whicker voice, he introduces himself: “That’s me, I’m Reyner Banham, professor of the history of architecture at University College London.” And this opening scene establishes the methodology of the programme, flipping between academia and entertaining gimmick. We see a huge billboard with the programme title in bubble script. Banham gets into a car equipped with a sci-fi invention, the “Baede-Kar” – a bad pun on the 19th-century travel guides. The car guides Banham, who plays a tourist version of himself, around various LA sites. It’s a device that’s both entertainingly lightweight and establishes a serious point about this city’s relationship to the car and the freeway.

The programme flips between personal narrative – his Norwich childhood, his school, the picture house where he first saw LA as the backdrop to silent films, him on a podium lecturing at the University of Southern California, hanging out with artists in warehouses, ordering a sundae in a convertible at a drive-in with American painter Ed Ruscha (RB: “So Ed, what should a visitor to LA see?” ER: “Gas stations.”) – and bits of urban history, with a comparative study of London and LA developments. There are shots of ordinary Angelino houses, and a strange montage of Banham cut together with footage from a detective drama complete with suspense-laden background music. Then there are muscle freaks in Venice beach and a guy who lives in a van with a piano in the back.

The show is part Lewis Mumford, part Louis Theroux. As a blueprint for how TV can deal with a complex, abstract, urban idea, it’s remarkable: it is provocative to the profession by arguing that motorways are architectural, academic in its comparative study and argument, comedic in its gimmicky presentation, and contains enough human interest to keep it engaging. It shows that there is more to architecture than “jeopardy” and it is aware of more than one audience, benefiting from reaching out to these different viewers. Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles also inverts the current progression of TV show to product. Here, the show grows out of Banham’s book Los Angeles: The Architecture of the Four Ecologies. The economics of a TV-tie-in publication might now preclude the idea of a TV show working backwards from an existing body of research. But there is nothing wrong with repackaging and reissuing –

My second example is another experiment in populism, this time addressing the role of TV as an active tool in the design process. It came about as an accidental experiment in architectural engagement and consultation.

In 1975, architecture practice Charles Moore Associates (now named Centerbrook) was asked to pitch for the job of replanning the Great Miami riverfront in Dayton, Ohio. A previous plan had fallen flat because local groups had not been consulted. As Centerbrook partner Mark Simon says: “We jumped on the opportunity since we had little or no work.”
In an attempt to distinguish its office from bigger, more established, apparently “better qualified” firms such as SOM, Centerbrook played up the community aspect of its proposal by offering to open a project office in a downtown shop unit. The city was so impressed with this that it was made a prerequisite for all the other competing firms too. Scuppered by its own good thinking, Centerbrook had to raise the consultation stakes. “So the idea came to us to offer to do the job live on TV. We thought no other firm would consider such a harebrained approach, and we were indeed right,” says Centerbrook’s Chad Floyd.

They produced six shows, broadcast at prime time on Thursday nights. The show was hosted by a local TV personality, and viewers could call in with their ideas. The set up was a success – the community-approved plans were soon realised.

Galvanised by the apparent potential of TV as a tool for planning, the Centerbrook team produced 16 more prime-time shows in the late 1970s and early 80s. The next was at Roanoke in 1979, a project concerned with the regeneration of the downtown area. The shows used the full array of state-of-the-art production techniques: prerecorded video clips, live titling, dissolves, slide shows of still images and so on. Most significant was the telephone installation – a bank of six phones that allowed callers to talk to the architects live on air. The call-in number appeared regularly on screen in the manner of a charity telethon. The calls were answered by Centerbrook Design Workshop members, who either noted the public’s suggestions on sheets passed into the studio, or patched callers through live on air. Charles Moore sat at a drawing board sketching ideas as they were phoned in, an economic consultant discussed the feasibility of viewers’ ideas, and the city mayor lent civic authority.

Floyd writes that it was “controlled chaos, somewhere between Wide World of Sports and a Jerry Lewis telethon. The director played his cameras over the studio from telephone operator to architect to interview to videotape of downtown, to close-up of the architect’s fingers making a sketch, to runners bringing in sheet after sheet of new ideas. The result was pure excitement, a sense of something going on, of communication lines being opened.”

They produced four prime-time, hour-long live shows, each reflecting a phase of the design process for the project, about 30 days apart, reaching 90,000 people each night.

The process threw up some unexpected proposals – often resisted by the town’s great and good, but with such public support that it was difficult to resist. The plan became so popular that it was presented to the city not by the architects but by members of the public who had become involved through the design-a-thon. Funding for the public elements was approved through a referendum with an impressive margin.

Of course this mechanism was perhaps only possible in the US, where the broadcast system has local stations with a requirement for public affairs programming. Projects in Springfield, Massachusetts, and Watkins Glen, New York, followed. The process was only halted by the Reagan administration, which withdrew the funding vehicles that had been in place for public works projects.

Floyd writes, “The idea of using television as a real problem-solving format was a good one. It worked better than anyone could have imagined. People responded to it naturally and welcomed the opportunity to view architects as accessible leaders. The biggest obstacle to widespread use of television in design is the straight-laced image architects seem to have of themselves. For its part, the public is hungry for substantive television.”

He argues that “TV has become the midwife of a new kind of urban design, one that permits the architect to shed his unfortunate mantle of ‘detached professional’ and assume the centre ring of urban affairs. Enfranchising citizens by means of TV has seemed to me a proper way to design in a democracy.”

Centerbrook’s efforts make our property shows seem staid, tame and terribly precious.

We might be building more, and more quickly, than ever before, but we know less about why we are building than ever. It’s not for progress, like post-war reconstructionists. We are not building for spiritual reasons, like medieval cathedral builders, or for death, like Egyptian pharaohs. We are not building for unreconstructed ego, like Manhattan in the 1920s. The complexity of motivations and the financing of construction make cause and effect hard to perceive. This complexity means it’s difficult to squash it into the limitations of the format that TV demands. But as Banham and Centerbrook show, there are certainly means of creatively engaging with the medium.

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