Our editor-at-large contemplates some pearls of wisdom gathered while filming the new series of Grand Designs – and drops a few names, too.
Frank Gehry, who designed the Guggenheim Bilbao, Spain, thought that a building should be timeless
Two or three years of work go into each series ofGrand Designs and as the new programme heads towards our screens this autumn (hope you enjoy it by the way), I’ve been reflecting on what went well and what didn’t. Gazing at the fragments of script and fluff left in my television junk box I was surprised to find a few pieces-to-camera among the flotsam that seemed, well, alright. Pieces-to-camera are odd things; concentrated scraps of ideas addressed to you and dropped into films as major punctuation points, little moments of empathy with the viewer – although commercial breaks do more to divide the film up into chapters.
So I wondered if I dare repeat a couple of them here for your general edification and entertainment. I mean, it’s all very well enjoying the moment as these carefully crafted broadcast pearls just flit across your living room and skim off the rim of your claret glass while narrowly missing your ears. But here and now, for once, I want to take advantage of a captive reader’s attention and ram home an idea or two while you’re off your guard.
Actually, the first one started life in a column on these pages 10 years ago, but you probably never read it and I’d forgotten I’d written it, so here goes:
Imagine you’re building a new house and you take your dream to an architect. It is his or her job to take that loose bag of ingredients, that half-written recipe, whip light and air into it, spoon it into different, enticing shapes and then gently bake it into an exquisite, lighter-than-air syllabub. That’s what you pay them for. Not that you’ll ever notice because an architect will deliver so much more value for money in your design (storage, clever circulation, beauty, imagination) it’s as though their services come entirely for free. What’s it to be then? In my left hand, a lemon and a box of eggs. In my right, a delicious concoction of sweetness to transport the soul. I know which I’d choose.’
Kevin will be exploring Murphy House by architect Richard Murphy, in the RIBAHouse of the Year programme in November
I stand by those words and so do my producers because they agreed to broadcast them. It’s a pretty concise pieceto- camera. If you time yourself reading that paragraph out loud you’ll discover it takes around 30 seconds. Television producers have kittens at the idea of boring their customers, which is why I’m time-limited in my delivery to around half a minute. Directors are very kind but ultimately ruthless when they ask me if I can ‘make a piece clearer’ or give it ‘more energy’ when really they mean just make it shorter. To be fair, it’s harder to write 30-second piece than one that lasts a minute because, like a fine consommé, if you reduce the contents down too much they become thick, opaque and indigestible. Better to trip lightly across the conversational clouds of simile and metaphor, throwing in the odd food analogy. Like syllabub and consommé.
It’s therefore quite remarkable that my House of the Year producer, Emma, allowed me to deliver the following piece in its entirety. In fact, that’s only happened three times in 20 years of telly-making:
‘So what makes a great building? The Vitruvian principles, espoused by Palladio and every architect since, are those of firmness, commodity and delight. John Ruskin added that architecture should also speak of its time and of its place just as the sixteenth-century traveller John Leland thought it should be built “in tyme of mynde”. A house built now should speak of the people that use it and commissioned it. All of which doesn’t necessarily contradict Frank Gehry’s view that a building should yearn for timelessness.
‘There’s no doubt, too, that the logic of the layout, the clarity of how you and I can get round a building and use it well and ergonomically, matters. Clarity matters because our lives are relatively chaotic and one thing architecture does well is create order from chaos. And clarity and order give human beings a good deal of pleasure.
Bennetts Associates’ house in Cumbria is also on the House of the Year longlist
‘A great building ought also to be well built and crafted. It ought to hum with the positive energy and commitment it took to build it and even – as the architect Charles Moore once said – repay that energy over time with interest.
‘And in the twenty-first century, a great building ought also to use the resources needed to make it and run it frugally, so that future generations will enjoy the same opportunities to build. Architecture should be sustainable and responsible.
‘Oh – and in case you thought buildings should be all mealy-mouthed, logical and responsible, we should not forget beauty, wit and the imagination.
‘Interestingly, from this great list, one that needs to beharmoniously integrated into a built edifice, I find myselfreturning again and again to the core that is Vitruvius’s definition.’
This piece is a bit name-droppy and gains its cred from the number of A-lister quotes I could garner. Clearly, quoting lots of other people is a way to boost my own reputation. I’ll think on that as I assemble more of these script grenades and ready them for publication. Or maybe not. Maybe two is absolutely plenty for now. I’m currently writing around 60 pieces-to-camera for the House of the Year 2016 programme, which follows swiftly on the heels of Grand Designs, in November. Enjoy what you’ve got here. I’m not sure the world is ready for many more.
Also in the running for House of the Year is Sustainable Covert House by architects DSDHA
Credit: Keith Hunter; Peter Landers; Brian Ormerod; Christo er Rudquist; Elsa Exposito