Wednesday23 August 2017

The Secret Life of Buildings

Tom Dyckhoff
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Tom Dyckhoff explores how design can have measureable effects on our lives in Channel 4’s new series.

The Secret Life of Buildings
Channel 4, 8pm
Series starts Monday, August 1


Hospital architects take note: we can endure pain for longer if we are in beautiful surroundings.

Tom Dyckhoff establishes this for himself by plunging into ice cold water twice – first in a dank basement and then amid the Byzantine splendour of the Criterion restaurant in Piccadilly Circus.

The stunt is typical of this very accessible prime time Channel 4 TV series in which Dyckhoff repeatedly and enthusiastically offers himself up as lab rat.

He has the generous windows of his 1950s flat boarded up to recreate the light conditions of a typical contemporary shoebox and is then subjected to a string of tests and surveys – blood, urine, mood – while he remains holed up for seven days.

Clearly, not venturing outside for a week is unnatural but the experiment is nonetheless shocking, firstly just how dark his flat becomes, and then to see the results of the tests themselves. The depression and anxiety we might have been able to predict, but perhaps not the fact that his circadian rhythms are disrupted and his glucose levels shoot so high he becomes borderline diabetic.

The professor who conducts the tests remarks: “We are an extraordinary species and profoundly arrogant. We think we can do what we like when we like.”

Next Dyckhoff is hooked up to a EEG machine and eye tracker and taken into “the cave”, a lab in San Diego where the researchers recreate virtual rooms of varying dimensions. As the ceiling rises, he feels a “weight lifting”.

“What we are trying to do here is manipulate architectural designs so we can measure what architects have understood intuitively for millennia,” explains his chief tormentor, adding hopefully that their findings will mean design starts serving humans.

It’s not just labs; he meets residents and architects too, and goes visiting: Bjarke Ingels’ Eight House development in Copenhagen to see how spectacular design needn’t ignore residents; Rogers Stirk Harbour’s Maggie’s to see quality materials; Bateman’s Row to hear about the golden section from Soraya Khan; and a pokey developer home in Leicester to discover how the other three-quarters live.

From the playful surroundings of the Rietveld Shroder house in Utrecht he delivers his clarion call for the British public to find their voice and reject developers’ attempts to put them in “grey boxes”.

But of course this is easier said than done. Looking for answers, he drops in on a public consultation and then travels to a self-build quarter in Almere, near Amsterdam, though neither feels like the holy grail.

Developers are rightly the baddies in episode one, though architects get a ticking off for designing houses so alluring that we have become a nation of property porn addicts who overlook function.

Next week’s programme could be juicier since Dyckhoff will be challenging the likes of Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid to re-evaluate some of their buildings.

Yes it’s populist in a catch-your-breath kind of way, but Dyckhoff is to be applauded for getting a neglected and important subject in front of the general viewer.

Let’s hope it enrages them so much they march on Downing Street.


Inspired by the Channel 4 TV series The Secret Life of Buildings, bdonline.co.uk will be hosting a live debate and Q&A Tuesday August 2 from 1pm to 2pm featuring Tom Dyckhoff, Angela Brady, Robert Adam and Liz Peace. Click here to find out more.


Readers' comments (11)

  • www.poeticspaces.co.uk, may be of interest to some of you.
    Really looking forward to the prog tonight!

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  • zecks_marquise

    The program was great up to the maggies centre section, then it went off course to weakly substantiated rants. To imply that the dutch housing didn't use architects (and for that matter all the other design consultants) to design - at least in part - the houses was utterly false.

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  • The programme had a good heart. It tried to show the direct relationship between buildings and our wellbeing. However, the manner in which the arguments were set up are misleading. Of course if you lock yourself up in your flat for a week your stress level/blood sugar level etc are going to go up! Yes, light is extremely important to us but unless you are physically unable to go out from time to time (or in solitary confinement!), you will deteriorate!

    Also, Bjarke Ingles' development is something that can only work in certain cultures, not in the UK. We've had our tower blocks and large scale housing, but we are taking them down. Neighbourhoods should have a human scale to it. The idea of plonking multiple 'neighbourhoods' on one another to create a 'mega neighbourhood' just doesn't work. You become anonymous.

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  • Simon  Quinlank

    An essay shoe horned around the filming. The programme had no consistency or point. British housing crisis solved by self-build. I don't think so.

    Why is he dressed like Elvis Costello?

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  • It's Soraya Khan not Kahn :)

    Fascinating stuff!

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  • I really liked this programme - some very good points. As an interior designer I get very frustrated that some architects get so hung up on the externals they forget the the average person doesn't spend their time out side the building looking up at it in awe, but they actually spend their interactive time on the inside.

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  • the lighting issue was pretty annoying. using the simple guides that are out there, BS8206-2008 states daylight factors that we should adhire to, stating them in percentages not lumins which he used. second, its a very obvious trick to express how dark a room is by painting it black, so why not use black backed card with cut outs to really absorb any light that would pass in.

    having recently looked into this my self, i changed grey deep window frames with white, and had a factor increase of 0.1-0.4 on average (note the guide requires 2.0 for kitchen areas for norm referencing here). so when he used black backed card windows i felt very disapointed..... if your going to try to identify problems please please don't knowingly distort the outcomes by doing things like this... and if he didn;'t know what he was doing, shame on c4 for allowing this blatent bias.

    this of course is not detracting from the issue he was making, but he should have looked at the regulations we have in place and asked if they were suitable.

    we should also be very aware, large windows mean greater energy loss. smaller openings are infact a much more sustainable approach.

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  • I'm not convinced by this show...the thought of work spaces effecting the way we work certainly has merit...as an interior designer we appreciate clean spaces to work with and there are nasty base builds out there..but the office fitout is the responsibility of the interior designer. Often the architecture influences the interior such as Zaha's work, but more often than not it is the designer's job to create a dynamic work environment...its tough to say architects are not providing inspiring work environments.

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  • I can't believe Kamil Shah's comment that we are taking down tower blocks and large-scale housing!

    There are more of these now than ever! Tall housing blocks are going up all the time in hitherto low-rise areas. You can see it all over London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.

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  • I work on a lot of school and office projects. An awful base building is always a challenge that should be embraced. Clean lines and open spaces are definately not the answer to all cases. The answer to a sucessful solution is working out the crux of the END USERS requirements which may differ drastically from the clients and as an Interior Designer you work out a way to give them both what they want. This, for me, is what keeps it interesting!

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