Once past the initial irritation of wondering why someone with vertigo would make a TV series in which he scales some of the tallest buildings in Britain, unless as a self-publicity stunt, and how much it must have cost to have set up the climbing apparatus and consultancy involved, one couldn't help feeling that the first episode of Kevin McCloud's Don't Look Down was worth watching - and not only for the thrill factor.
Few architecture programmes on TV succeed in capturing the sheer physical quality of buildings as well as this bizarrely conceived visit to the Forth Bridge. It may be due to the raw, essentialised quality of the bridge itself, an extraordinary, tough, angular structure aptly described by Kevin McCloud as a 'steel brontosaurus, ' and 'too important to be on a picture postcard.' One certainly wouldn't apply such terms to the engineering 'wonders' of the contemporary world, by architect-engineers such as Santiago Calatrava or Norman Foster, for curvaceous elegance and lightness have become the dominant criteria in the design of the new transport infrastructure. But, as McCloud pointed out, compared with its 'elegant' neighbouring road bridge, the Forth Bridge has 'a certain stately beauty, ' and a powerful presence.
The programme format allows for an intense focus on the materiality of architectural form and structure, experienced in close detail as it is negotiated in hair-raising circumstances by the human body.As McCloud shins his way up the hefty steel structure of this weather-beaten and, in places, slimy edifice - adjusting his safety harness as he goes and talking cheerily to camera all the while - one has a convincing sensation of the bridge as 'phenomenon, ' experienced through the body and all its senses.
This is a contrast to the many architectural programmes which never go much further than purveying images of buildings as an aesthetic visual experience.
McCloud describes his experience of climbing the bridge as one of being 'inside a jungle of heavy metal'.
Once there, he seems to have become part of a self-contained world with its own time-cycle, spatial dynamic, and structural hierarchy. The railway line carried by the bridge one-and-a-half miles across the Firth of Forth, is a zone of speed, warmth, and human life, compared to the remote and lonely spheres above and below it, yet the entire structure has been a site of continuous human activity almost since it was built, constantly in the process of being repainted and repaired. As McCloud reveals through his conversations with locals, the bridge does constitute a world apart for those involved in its life history, from the man who used to open his Christmas presents there every year as a child, to the woman who looks down on the bridge from her cottage confronting the force which claimed the lives of her husband and son.
Kevin McCloud's series Don't Look Down continues with programmes on Salisbury Cathedral, Jodrell Bank Telescope, the Lloyd's Building, Trellick Tower and Liverpool Anglican Cathedral on BBC 2 on Thursdays at 8pm
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