Architecture on TV

Architecture is widely discussed in the arena of mass culture and that has implications for how we experience architecture.

It used to be that culture was defined as only the highest art forms – “the best of everything thought or said,” which was the poet Matthew Arnold’s definition. This was the dominant, traditional view of culture. The mass media and popular culture were portrayed as the enemies of high culture. But now culture is defined as the whole “way of life” with less hierarchical distinctions. Architecture is widely discussed in the arena of mass culture and that has implications for how we experience architecture.

Historical comparisons are revealing. In the eighteenth century for example, taste was formed by a very small number of individuals, people who had the time and money to take the Grand Tour of Italy and Greece, which was a form of cultural tourism. They visited Greek and Roman ruins and published books of drawings of them. Lord Burlington designed Chiswick House (1732), which was based on Italian Renaissance architecture. This was hugely influential.

In the Victorian age there were polemicists like Augustus Pugin or John Ruskin, who tried to influence taste by publishing architectural tracts and manifestos. They argued for one style or another and the resulting debate was known as the “Battle of the Styles”. Again, their knowledge depended on travel or deep study – but these opportunities were only open to a small group of people.  Today no single individual has that kind of influence. Now knowledge of architectural history pervades the culture. Education is much more pervasive, with more people going to university. So there has been a democratic leveling of knowledge. But more importantly, we now live in a more pluralist society; it’s saturated with images from different places, cultures and historical periods.

Postmodernist theory says that there has been an “information explosion” – due to television, the internet and so on – we are living in an era of pluralism or diversity. This has affected architecture. This is a quote from Charles Jencks, a leading postmodernist writer:

The “true and proper style” is . . . eclecticism, because only this can adequately encompass the pluralism that is our social and metaphysical reality.

A famous postmodernist building is the pumping station on the Isle of Dogs in London by John Outram. It’s highly eclectic, using different styles at once. It has Egyptian-style columns which are multicolored. This triangular pediment is drawn from Greek and Roman architecture. This feature in the center looks like a turbine or jet engine. It’s a quote from airplane design. So this building is a hybrid of different cultural references. It illustrates the idea that only a hybrid can be in tune with our diverse, pluralist culture.

Las Vegas is the archetypal postmodernist city; it has been celebrated by several postmodernist architects. Las Vegas has been described as a city made in the image of TV. It presents a range of iconic monuments from around the world, like the Eiffel Tower or the pyramids, but combines them into a hybrid, fictitious city. It’s almost like switching through television channels. Las Vegas is held to be representative of the current architectural scene: it’s diverse and eclectic and no one style predominates. In the same way, the presentation of architecture in the media encourages eclecticism and diversity. So in this context we have to ask who are the current arbiters of taste?

There is currently a process of democratization, represented by television, popular criticism etc. and that helps to collapse hierarchical distinctions. So the influence of academic and professional journals is declining. This can be seen as a threat to established architectural history because it allows interlopers with no training to pronounce on the subject. That’s why some academics are hostile towards Visual Culture: it threatens their position, their license to generate and control meaning. So the breakdown of boundaries is both promising, because it challenges the power of dominant groups, and threatening.

I would say that the process of valuing architecture is more democratic now. The impact of television is important. Television has given us unprecedented access to different styles, cultures and historical periods. There are more programmes about architecture now than ever before: not just documentaries, but a variety of formats. Something like Restoration is almost a game show, and there are programmes with a reality TV element. All of those property shows like House in the Sun and Location, Location, Location encourage interest in architecture and widen people’s frame of reference. But they encourage us to see architecture primarily as property, an investment to be bought and sold. Part of the interest in architecture is to do with the current obsession with property, which has been stimulated by rising house prices.

There have been a lot of programmes in the last few years, like the Stirling Prize programme, Building of the Year. There’s also Grand Designs and Restoration. A lot of these programmes are on Channel 4. The controller of Channel 4 stated that he wanted Channel 4 to “own architecture,” and in fact the Channel 4 building was designed by Richard Rogers, one of the most famous post-war British architects. So it sees itself as a patron of architecture too. These programmes have a much wider audience than architectural journals.  But architecture programmes are also aimed at specific audiences. Dan Cruickshank represents the old, connoisseurial architectural history. He’s from the tradition of upper class amateurs visiting ancient ruins. Then there’s Jonathon Meades, who’s very esoteric, self-consciously academic. He has very verbose descriptions of architecture – you could argue he’s quite pretentious.

Grand Designs

One of the programmes I want to look at in detail is Grand Designs on Channel 4. This is much more populist. It focuses on domestic architecture – private houses – so it overlaps with the ubiquitous property shows.  It’s presented by Kevin McCloud, who’s really in demand as a presenter. He’s also presented the Stirling Prize show for the last two years. He’s really become the face of architecture on television.

• It’s structured like a narrative. It establishes a clear idea of the design by using virtual models. The dvd has CGI walkthroughs as a special feature.

• Analysis of the site in terms of desirability, social status and conservation issues

• Circumvented the democratic process – he says the planning department “used their delegated powers to pass the design without referring it to the planning committee, who are elected councilors.”.

• McCloud distances himself from “academic treatises” and the “ivory towers of academia.” So it presents itself as populist, democratic.

• But the clients/architects are very affluent, middle class. He is head of architecture at Sheffield and has lectured on the house. It’s intended for a similar audience.

• Lifestyle adverts during the breaks – it’s presenting a way of life

• Approves of the house as being avant garde architecture, and preferable to “nasty little noddy houses.” Self-conscious, exclusive.

• It has an element of reality TV – makes the building process into a drama.

• Expects to inspire others to “self-build.” Channel 4 published a tie-in book called Your Dream House.

The portrayal of the people is central to the success of the programme. It focuses on the emotional journey that a building project entails. Reality TV has had an influence there. According to McCloud it has:

Anorak sequences for people who are really interested in buildings . . . but how do we get people interested in the building in the first place? The answer is that you get people to care about the protagonists.

So his goal is to get the public to understand more about architecture through the effective telling of a story. That’s why the end of the programme is frustrating when the building is left incomplete – it doesn’t resolve the narrative. There’s a clear formula: you start with a clear vision of what the final building will look like; introduce some unforeseen circumstances, financial risk and emotional problems to achieve some drama. He’s always on about the timescale, laboring the point of how long it takes to build a house.  It also has a philosophy. It’s committed to unconventional materials, sustainability. Kevin McCloud says he is against homogenisation; he insists that buildings be contextual products – site specific. He has an “ethical prerogative” to minimize the use of highly processed materials.


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Patrick Regoniel
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