Monday28 July 2014

Does architecture need television?

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Yes, says Charles Knevitt, the profession is in desperate need of more formats to make it accessible; but Rob Gregory feels the best building design has nothing to do with mass media

Stirling Prize winners 2011

Stirling Prize 2011: Evelyn Grace Academy principal Peter Walker (left) with Lars Teichmann and Patrik Schumacher of Zaha Hadid Architects.


Charles Knevitt
Architectural commentator, curator and writer

Frank Lloyd Wright famously dismissed television as “chewing gum for the eyes”. He was right — up to a point. It tends to oversimplify and trivialise.

But in my experience, the medium has three great strengths: it is powerful, intrusive and reaches a mass market untouched by any other channel. Architecture needs its exposure to inform, explain, entertain and open people’s eyes.

Back in 1984, the RIBA celebrated its 150th anniversary with a Festival of Architecture. Thames News broadcast every weekday evening to millions of Londoners, and ran a competition
(that I devised) for viewers to vote for the “best” and “worst” examples of post-war architecture. More than 5,000 took part.

The “best” was RMJM’s Hillingdon Civic Centre, the three “worst” were all social housing projects, including Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower and the Smithsons’ Robin Hood Gardens.
Soon after Prince Charles kick-started a public debate with his “monstrous carbuncles” speech, Channel Four commissioned my six-part series Space on Earth. Screened at 6.30pm on a Monday evening, it reached an even greater audience than Thames News.

This was not an arts programme, but adult education. The tie-in book sold 8,000 copies in a few months, many times the normal print-run for books on architecture.

Times change. Arts budgets across channels have been slashed by 40% as culture has suffered at the expense of sport and royal events.

But architecture needs television more than ever before. We need new formats to make it even more accessible. And we need them now.


Rob Gregory
Member, RIBA Awards group

Does architecture need television? No. If you think so, try constructing an argument that could convince Vitruvius or any pre-1920s architect that television has raised standards.

I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise. However, as it stands, architecture needs television in the same way that architects needed the role models portrayed in Three Men and a Baby andIndecent Proposal, or in the same way that British gastronomy relies on Come Dine with Me and Masterchef. Oh, if only: Gregg Wallace, in a hard hat: “Building doesn’t get tougher than this.”

Quality and integrity must prevail. Patronising through dumbing down achieves little. I’d turn this motion on its head: television needs better architecture.

To achieve this producers must engage the very best industry practitioners and critics. Programmes like Grand Designs have played their part, but only by whetting the nation’s appetites. Was the Manser and Stephen Lawrence award-winning practice Alison Brooks Architects inspired by the Home Show

Did Witherford Watson Mann’s excellent work at Astley come from a eureka moment during Restoration Home? Unlikely. But wouldn’t it be great to see work of this quality on the TV?

A barrier is that architects are too precious about how their work is presented. In magazines, even with rave reviews, the “wrong” photograph will have been selected or the critic will have drawn an “inappropriate” analogy, leaving the architect feeling short-changed, misrepresented and misunderstood.

If you are proud of your work, loosen your grip on how it is read, and expose it to as broad an audience as possible. Reclaim the airwaves.

And remember that TV producers need you more than you need them.


Readers' comments (1)

  • if it was to discuss the real issues of british housing, and expose the poor quality of the new mass schools, mass homes by buildings looking to cut corners. Express the difference and discuss the differences to a good dseigned home over a not so good design. Provide a realisitic example between client and architect and look into different planning issues that need to be addressed. Explain and disscuss the role of the planner and the subjective view points....

    if these areas would ever be discussed on tv, maybe the public would stop buying such poor housing and developers would require architects to develop good schemes rather than the most cost effective!

    not sure i want Charles Knevitt to do any more shows.... otherwise his little response on here would never end!

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