Two in a million
Alan Higgs and Kit Lowe continue architecture's grand march into the public's consciousness with BBC2's The Million Pound Property Experiment
Architectural TV is currently big business.
The fickle viewing habits of the British public have been stayed, momentarily at least, by an outpouring of property makeover shows, the most recent of which creates tantalising TV fodder by combining hard cash, luxury homes and the tantrum and tiara antics of a pair of flapping Scotsmen. The Million Pound Property Experiment follows a simple formula: a bunch of BBC executives purchase a rundown property in a desirable area, add some major renovation and open up to the highest bidder. Each property is more ambitious and expensive than the last, and the eventual aim is to sell the final house in the series for over £1 million, with all proceeds going to charity.
Contrary to the Changing Rooms school of design, the venture required more than a garish slash of paint, parquet and a few planks of MDF. About May of this year, London-based practice Alan Higgs Architects got a call from RIBA Client Services with an invitation to pitch for a residential project and partake in 'the biggest property experiment in television history'. Higgs' pitch secured the partnership and, within weeks, Alan Higgs and project manager Kit Lowe were being shown round a dingy three-storey house in Belgravia with a £780,000 price tag.
With a derelict bathroom in the loft, isolated kitchen in the basement and no access to the overgrown garden, Higgs was both excited and bewildered by the property's potential. 'I remember thinking this could be our worst job ever, true professional suicide. There was huge pressure to make it worth a million and only 12 weeks to do it in.'
But with 70 residential commissions completed in seven years across London and Australia, including several luxury courtyard and beach houses, as well as a penchant for dealing with 'demanding' clients, the practice quickly established control. Higgs firmly believes that 'residential work is great preparation. Good residential architects are virtually equipped to deal with any requirements'. Even if those requirements include prima donna presenters and television cameras in your face 24/7? Higgs admits that the absence of privacy was 'a pain' because 'there was a definite sense they were waiting for us to mess something up because obviously that would have made very good TV'.
Ratings wars decree that the modern 'goldfish bowl' documentary viewer must indeed have good TV, ideally peppered with blow-ups, fall-downs and the odd scrap between client and designer. 'We wanted to portray a good relationship between architect and client, ' comments a diplomatic Lowe. 'For us this was an actual professional job and we wanted to do it properly.'
Conscious of claims that the influx of 'interior design' programmes has devalued good architectural design, Higgs Associates was keen to use the experiment as an effective PR opportunity for architecture. 'The profession does so much good, 'Higgs advocates, 'we believe in adding value through design. We hope people will see the value of what we do.' And what is that value?
'Enhancement and improvement, ' Higgs replies, without missing a beat.
Both architects have clearly defined notions of what their responsibilities to their clients and to architecture entail.
Defining themselves as a young and dynamic UK practice (average age not quite 30), but with a largely Australian workload, both were trained in old-fashioned offices and taught to think first and foremost about the freedom of space, a theory that Lowe muses brings a 'distinctly Antipodean' characteristic to their work. At the Belgravia house, all three floors have been opened up to give light and fluidity to the space. Sliding partitions separate the hallway and living room and the bedrooms from their en suite bathrooms. The generous kitchen and dining area is encased under a delicate glass atrium, which filters in natural light and backs out onto the garden. In creating the best optimal space, it's impeccable and all very carefully controlled, reflecting Higgs' whole demeanour.
Asked if the house is a Higgs Architecture signature piece, Higgs is frank: 'It's not exactly an architectural statement. It's more about modest things that turn a house into an elegant, refined living space.'
There is nothing ambiguous or enigmatic in this thinking. The big gestures might stand, but for Higgs the greatest measure of good architecture is the innate ability to feel what works, even in a confined space.
Get that bit right and maximising value simply follows suit.
If the Changing Rooms genre can create a nation of property-obsessed budding interior designers, can The Million Pound Property Experiment make architecture just as accessible? Higgs looks sceptical: 'Not enough is made of the role of architects.
Architects think, they have a plan and a vision.' But is there a risk of reinforcing public opinion that architectural services are a luxury usually accompanied by vast expenditure? Higgs does not agree, and is adamant that 'compared to the value of property, architects' fees are small'.
Exactly how small, who can say, but the property sold for an impressive £1.25 million, leaving everybody involved very relieved (and the presenters in a flapping frenzy). For a practice that has kept a low profile (a product of 'not enough hours in the day' rather than inclination), being thrust so hastily in front of the most intrusive of media must have been quite a coup.
'I feel very fortunate, ' says Higgs graciously. 'We've had very good luck.' 'Not good luck, ' quips Lowe, 'but good management.'
Higgs concedes: 'It's about taking advantage of your luck then.'