Film for the future
Mike Lerner and Waldemar Januszczak's ZCZ company, producer of this year's Stirling Prize coverage on Channel 4, is spearheading architecture's television revolution
Two decades ago it would have been hard to imagine that a bumptious young art graduate and the trumpeter on Culture Club's first album - the one that includes Do You Really Want to Hurt Me - would together eventually become leading popularisers of architecture.
Yet Mike Lerner (the ex-trumpeter) and Waldemar Januszczak run a small television company, ZCZ, which has recently produced not only the Stirling Prize award programme Building of the Year, but also Will Alsop's polemic Supercities UK, both for Channel 4.
Watched by more people than read architectural magazines and newspaper sections, these programmes are crucial gatekeepers to the profession and its output.
There is a slight problem, however. As Lerner puts it: 'The word 'architecture' still frightens a lot of people in the world of TV.
They like the idea but they'd rather it were called something else.'
Despite broadcasters' uneasiness, these are good times for architectural television. Lerner says: 'About five years ago, television suddenly woke up and decided that it loved architecture, and that it wanted it.'As well as ZCZ's own programmes, the romance is manifested in output like Dreamspaces, recently on BBC3, Grand Designs, Restoration and last year Charlie Luxton's Not All Houses Are Square.
For Januszczak, the sea change in opinion became evident when he was first asked to present the award's programme three years ago and Channel 4's director of programmes declared his intention to 'own architecture'. By this he meant that the station would be defined, in part, by its architectural output.
'Before then, no one would have been bothered to try, ' says Janusczcak.
One reason for television executives' growing interest is that the public is turning on.
The Stirling Prize programme garnered almost two million viewers, which is comparable to other Sunday night arts programmes.
According to Janusczcak, this is all evidence of the victory of Modernism: 'Britain in general has discovered the new and learnt to like it.'As a consequence, architecture, along with modern art and design, has found new audiences.
In parallel to this, a new generation of architects has been both more receptive to television and more telegenic.
A more prosaic reason for the rise in architectural television is the British public's near-obsession with their own property.While Janusczcak reckons that what he pejoratively called 'interior design' programmes such as Changing Rooms, Home Front and Property Ladder have little to do with architecture, they do create an environment in which viewers are more receptive. As Lerner puts it: 'There is a move from DIY to do it with an architect'.
The new interest is the culmination of a long journey of public taste. In the 1980s Janusczcak was briefly the architecture critic of the Guardian, and he remembers the debates then about whether or not modern architecture was good, and the ruminations of Prince Charles: 'At the time you would have thought that the forces of reaction were stacked against us. Neither Rogers nor Foster were even able to build very much in the capital.' For Janusczcak, a defining point in the story came with the opening, in 1997, of Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao:
'That was the building that changed things the most; that banged home the idea that a building can make a place. That is power.'
The Stirling Prize programme provides a rare opportunity for television audiences to sit back and admire. 'We have a duty to the buildings, ' says Lerner. 'It is a good format because it does not dent the ideas as it's just a simple way to look at the best buildings. And it's surprisingly rewarding to concentrate on a structure in the same way you look at a painting.'
For all that, it is not always easy to make good television out of buildings. Still photographers can choose a few choice, majestic angles, but television necessarily requires the camera to wander around and outside a space.
In some cases, like last year's Stirling Prize nominee, the Dance Space Studio in Edinburgh, the exterior views were almost entirely eclipsed by the pre-existing cityscape.
This year's Stirling Prize presented particular difficulties. The shelter on Tiree defied being captured on television and the venue for the awards, explore@Bristol, designed by twotime winner Wilkinson Eyre, had such a low ceiling that it was difficult to light and film. At the same time, a council-erected awning prevented good shots of the exterior. The building demonstrates, according to Janusczcak, the lack of ambition of some architects: 'A society of newsagents would be embarrassed to have had their annual dinner dance there.'
Likewise, finding the right presenter to front programmes is a tricky task in a climate obsessed by youth and good looks. Although Lerner admits Will Alsop had 'neither of those, he does communicate well'. It is, perhaps, a testament to how far architectural television has come that a polemic by Alsop found space on the schedules.
In three half-hour sections, Alsop toured Britain sketching out his plan for three 'supercities', urban ribbons stretching along motorways and the south coast. The idea was that these conurbations should become new localities unified by distinct brands - Coast to Coast, Diagonal and Wave. Allowing Alsop to doodle a new landscape on his windscreen, promote his latest projects and rail against his pet hates - such as Grimshaw's Millennium Point in Birmingham - it was, according to Lerner, difficult to maintain its committed tone while not making it too intense or unwatchable. Part travelogue, part highbrow essay, it also included one of the most bizarre lines on television this year: an optimistic prediction that architects and planners will 'make sure that everyone smiles and has a deep sense of joy when they go to bed every night'.
Should they not do that, Januszczak has another plan. 'People who put up bad buildings should be put in jail, ' he said. 'They are that damaging.' Until that happens, the viewing public will have to be satisfied not with the public trial, but with the prize giving, which Januszczak and Lerner hope to televise again next year.