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Arts Council gambles on a Changing Rooms approach

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Architecture Week kicks off this week, with the aim of drumming home the message that 'architecture begins at home'. But is this Changing Rooms-style approach really the right way to sell architectural services?

Claire Melhuish reports

Architecture is still a 'nascent art', according to the Arts Council's New Audiences - programme. So says Claire Pollock, who has been working this year to produce the third Architecture Week (June 20-29), to be organised in-house by the Arts Council, along with the RIBA. Pollock was also instrumental in setting up last year's ground-breaking Daily Mirror/MFI 'room makeover' competition, a focal point in the drive to open up new audiences to architecture.

But is the Arts Council making a mistake?

Arguably, the 'Changing Rooms' approach simply reinforces a false understanding of architecture as a quick fix - a cosmetic makeover that has more to do with fashion than deep cultural experience at the interface of space, materiality and social routines. In which case, the whole Architecture Week initiative could do more harm than good, dumbing down for the sake of 'new audiences', or mass appeal.

Last year, 40 per cent of people coming to Architecture Week events were architects or artists; in other words, people closely associated with the profession of architecture. This is a figure the Arts Council wants to see reduced and, presumably, so does the RIBA, in the hope that higher numbers of lay people might lead to increasing numbers of future clients for architectural services.

Hence there are a number of 'crossover' talks, such as Music and Architecture (composer Rebecca Saunders and Richard MacCormac at Tate Modern); Sense in the City (artist Rut Blees Luxemburg, author Toby Litt and Professor Richard Sennett); Effects of Healthcare Architecture and Art on Medical Outcomes (Richard Urich and Richard Burton at the Royal Society); and Homes of the Very, Very Rich and the Very, Very Famous (Sam Jacobs at the Building Centre). There are also various architectural walks and bus tours designed to encourage people to look up and notice the buildings that surround them - for, as the Arts Council puts it, architecture 'affects the way we feel each day'. But the Daily Mirror/MFI initiative will not be repeated. This year, the media outreach is following altogether 'safer' routes, with a 'handbagsized booklet', Bringing Architecture Home, available with the July issue of Elle Decoration; a talks series organised with the London Evening Standard's 'Homes and Property' section; and three specially commissioned programmes on BBC4.

BBC Radio 3 also launches its new, year-long focus on architecture.

Claire Pollock agrees that the collaboration with Elle Deco has been an 'easier option' than working with the Mirror, but she stresses that it has also opened doors to the glossy magazines which could lead to new ventures in future with other areas of the market such as lads' mags - her own particular interest. She also says that the Mirror initiative gave other sectors of the media confidence that they could work with the Arts Council, and that this has been of great value.

As for the Mirror competition itself, featured on the property pages and headlined 'Is this a dream home or an ugly box - say how you want to live', it attracted 1,749 entries in total, of which the highest number was from the 50-60 age range, and 44 per cent were female, compared with 16 per cent male (the rest did not specify). This suggested a greater female interest in the 'makeover' idea compared, perhaps, with a more masculine predilection towards the DIY approach. Among these entries, 37 per cent, interestingly, listed space and light as the most important consideration in a new home, but 58 per cent chose home-style magazines as their main inspiration when redecorating or redesigning their home, from a list on which architects didn't even feature.

Asked which picture they preferred from a choice of Howarth Tompkins' Coin Street Flats, Sean Griffith's imitation wood house, and Sarah Wigglesworth's straw house, some 39 per cent chose the first, 31 per cent the second, and 19 per cent the third, suggesting a general desire to avoid the overtly individual, or obviously 'architect-designed'.

Finally, the greatest concentrations of answers came from London, Liverpool and Manchester.

The winning entry came from a couple living in Redbridge, Essex, who were treated to the installation of a new MFI kitchen designed by architect James Soane, of Project Orange.

Soane, who specialises in a 'crossover' architecture/DIY/interiors approach, and who worked on the Bringing Architecture Home booklet this year, says the greatest shock for his 'client' was the sheer extent and complexity of the operation, very unlike the impression generated by Changing Rooms.

As an architect, he defines his role as to 'pacify, guide and inspire', but in this case there was a cultural gulf when it came to the question of taste.

By contrast, the Bringing Architecture Home booklet represents, if you like, a step back from the hands-on approach, and the messy, dirty, frontline of the taste wars. It is a 'very practical' guide to hiring an architect, aimed at an audience in a broadly comparable taste market - while also trying 'to sneak in wider issues about architecture', according to Claire Pollock. But it continues the emphasis on the idea that architecture begins at home, whoever and wherever you are.

Architecture Week's 'fantastically successful' Architect in the House initiatives have already demonstrated the appeal of any focus on personal living space, and Pollock firmly believes Architecture Week should continue building on that, and encourage people to extend their awareness of what a difference design can make at home to the environment around them - schools, hospitals, and localities as a whole.

In that sense, there should be value, as Pollock suggests, in the mass market approach, even if it has to operate within the language of the makeover to start with. She believes that last year's Mirror coverage did achieve greater awareness of the impact of design quality and housing choices, of the impact of individual housing choice on the wider environment, and greater interest in and knowledge of contemporary architecture, among an audience who would normally dismiss 'architecture' as 'the territory of big businesses and state buildings', and irrelevant to their own lives.

But, as the New Audiences programme has suggested, there is surprisingly little knowledge about the market for architecture. This is what makes it a 'nascent art' compared with other mainstream art forms such as theatre or music, where audience research is well established and can prove useful to programmers.

However the 'audience' for architecture is a little more complicated than that. Architecture is really not an 'art' like others, but an inescapable part of our everyday lives. Although initiatives such as Architecture Week can generate some insights into the public response to architecture, the only way to generate real information in this area is by conducting focused sociological research 'in the field'.

The Arts Council feels it is 'quite wellplaced to do that research', according to Pollock, and has initiated a series of focus groups around the new housing development designed by Red or Dead fashion house founder Wayne Hemingway for Wimpey, revealing that most people are 'aware that Wimpey houses are not what they totally want'. But there is scope for much more of this type of research, while ventures such as Architecture Week are most valuable, perhaps, as a channel of engagement with the media.

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