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Why aren’t there more architects on TV?

George clarke filming 1
  • 12 Comments

The annual RIBA Stirling Prize coverage (8 October) remains one of the few occasions architects get to appear on television. So why is the profession largely absent from the small screen? Richard Waite reports 

The past decade has seen an explosion in the number of TV programmes about design, from the ubiquitous house makeover shows to the bigger bucks high-drama of Grand Designs and its formulaic copycats. At one point Channel 4 alone had 12 different property shows. Yet only a handful of qualified architects ever appear on television – often, it seems, as scapegoats when things go wrong or over budget.

A comparison with vets and the life or death work they do may not be entirely fair but it is telling. While there are 22,000 qualified veterinary surgeons registered in the UK – half the number of architects on the ARB register – there are at least three current TV series with the word ‘vet’ in the title and none with ‘architect’.

Outside of interior design and house-related programmes, it is rare the profession is invited  to be commentators on big issue programmes such as Newsnight and Question Time. Indeed the ever-popular Grand Designs, which has pulled in audiences of 4.5 million, is hosted by Kevin McCloud, a lighting designer and developer, not a qualified architect as many believe.

So, what is TV’s problem with architects and, equally, what is the profession’s problem with TV? We ask seven qualified architects, who have all appeared on the box, to shine a light on this difficult relationship.  

Piers Taylor

Piers taylor with with sara cox 2

Founder of Invisible Studio. Has appeared on: The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes; The House That 100k Built; Mastermind; Celebrity Eggheads

Why do architects appear on TV so rarely? 
Partly down to the huge cultural divide between architects and the rest of the world; we’ve marooned ourselves on an absurd little island of aesthetic supremacism dressed up as phony ethics where we can convince ourselves that what we do is important. Also, historically, the UK is a nation of cultural philistines, where to care about the built environment is elitist. We’re not invited on (interesting and topical) TV programmes because ultimately the UK cares little for architecture. 

What impression does the public have of architects from what it sees on TV? That we’re pretentious and idiotic preening dandies, removed from real life and that we have a parallel value system and language that means nothing to them. 


The UK is a nation of philistines. We’re not invited on TV because the UK cares little for architecture

Is there an architectural snobbishness that puts architects off being on the television?
Yes, and righty so. I prostituted myself shamelessly for the filthy lucre, and while all my experience of TV was unutterably awful and humiliating, it was moderately less bad than working on back extensions or working for clients with dubious ethics and ambitions. To put this in context: I once calculated that we lost £65,000 on a project like Westonbirt, which won a RIBA National Award and was shortlisted for the Stephen Lawrence. Something had to pay for that because, for the most part, architecture doesn’t pay. So, I’ve made decisions at times to fund practice in other ways, and I separate TV from architecture. The work I’ve done on TV isn’t architecture; it’s absurd primetime drivel. This allowed the practice to do architecture and not back extensions, private schools or commercial developments. 

In what way could more exposure on TV help the profession and wider industry? 
I’ve pitched numerous ‘architectural’ ideas to the BBC to do with urbanism, sustainability, housing and many other things. They’re just not interested in anything beyond lowbrow sensationalist rubbish concerning ‘property’ and, frankly, I’ve given up trying to do anything interesting on TV. Looking around at the state of the UK at the moment as we enter a new dark ages after several hundred years of enlightenment, maybe this isn’t surprising. I’m not sure the UK is remotely interested in anything that could be considered architecture. As a culture, maybe the UK is best left to its Love Island and Snog, Marry, Avoid

George Clarke

George clarke

Director of George Clarke + Partners and a founder of TV production company Amazing Productions. Has appeared on: Restoration Man; George Clarke’s Council House Scandal; George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces; Ugly House to Lovely House; Old House, New Home 

What impression does the public have of architects from what it sees on TV?  
Generally, I think, a vast majority of the public consider architects to be aloof, pretentious, costing a lot in fees and pushing up the price of a project. If I’m honest, architects talk in a language the public doesn’t understand. When architects say ‘juxtaposition’ nobody knows what that means.

To be on television you have to be entertaining. All TV programmes have a narrative and I’m not sure how good some architects are at storytelling. Often when I’m interviewing other architects I have to say: ‘Stop. Can you just say this in more simple terms? Spell it out A,B,C.’

When I first appeared on television, one of my former tutors said: What a shame. He would have made a really good architect 

Is there an architectural snobbishness that puts architects off being on the television?
The architectural profession looks down on television. What is covered is not regarded as ‘real design’. I remember when I first appeared on television, one of my former tutors said: ‘What a shame. He would have made a really good architect.’ Actually, perhaps there is a lack of mutual respect. Maybe they aren’t industries that are matched. 

Gabrielle Omar

Gabrielle omar

Director of Spot This Space and founder of Tea with an Architect  Has appeared on The Apprentice

What impression does the public have of architects from what it sees on TV?  I remember when I was on The Apprentice and before the show had even started I read articles about me saying ‘what do architects know about business?’ In fact one of the other candidates when referring to me on the show in episode 1 stated: ‘She’s an architect, all she knows is how to draw houses.’ So from the outset I had to combat everyone’s perception of not just me but my profession in the world of business. I had to prove there was more to us that just ‘drawing houses’. 

Is there an architectural snobbishness that puts architects off being on the television?
It isn’t a snobbery. I just think it doesn’t even cross the minds of most. Bear in mind we are a profession who take our work home. We get so completely entwined with our designs and the need for perfection that we can sometimes work ridiculous hours to please our clients. Sometimes the only free time you get is to go grab a bite to eat in order to energise for the next stage.  

The apprentice 2012   who s in the running

The apprentice 2012 who s in the running

Satwinder Samra

Satwinder samra

Director of collaborative practice at the University of Sheffield. Onscreen designer for CBBC’s The Dengineers  

What impression does the public have of architects from what it sees on TV? The public are fascinated by the built environment. Television offers an opportunity to further connect with this audience. Architects can come across as creative, visionary problem-solvers. Making the most of difficult sites and limited budgets can play out really well. Television is a great medium for conveying transformation.

The more negative aspects can be magnified: architects not understanding the client’s position and being unrealistic about budgets

Sometimes the more negative aspects can be magnified: architects not listening and understanding the client’s position, being too serious and sometimes being unrealistic about budgets. However, the responsibility to change this rests with us as a profession.

TV is an easy way to convey complex and intricate processes in a succinct and direct manner. There is always a human story and that’s often what people remember. Working on CBBC’s The Dengineers, I have become more adept at using the right words and simpler language.

Is there an architectural snobbishness that puts architects off being on the television? Yes, I think there is an intellectual snobbery in the profession. Architects often put themselves on a higher intellectual plane. Going on TV might undermine this self-image they have of themselves. I also sense that some are worried about what their fellow architects might think. 

Satwinder samra dengineers

Satwinder Samra and Tony Broomhead filming on CBBC’s The Dengineers

Source: Ben Hadley

Satwinder Samra and Tony Broomhead filming on CBBC’s The Dengineers

Harriet Harriss

Dean of Pratt Institute School of Architecture. Has appeared on BBC Breakfast TV, BBC London and Sky TV  

What impression does the public have of architects from what it sees on TV? There’s a seismic contradiction between how the public perceive architects on TV and how the profession would like to be portrayed. 

Firstly, some of the most popular architecture shows – such as Restoration and Grand Designs – are hosted by non-architects, which does little to suggest the expertise of a real architect is essential or valuable. This explains why you won’t see so many of us on the couch on Newsnight.

Secondly, the media continue to blame architects for some of the more problematic designs that emerged during the post-war housing boom, rather than the economic policies that failed to resource quality construction in the first place. 

In what way could more exposure on TV help the profession and wider industry? We seriously need to see more architects on TV in order to persuade the public of the transformative power of good design. Architecture at its best can support wellbeing and community cohesion, can integrate and sustain the natural environment and enrich our lives on a daily basis. 

Kunle Barker

Kunle barker

Managing director of Illustrious Homes. Has appeared on: Love Your Home & Garden; Renovate Don’t Relocate

Why do architects appear on TV so rarely? Because the full depth of architectural services is not appreciated by many outside the industry, architects are only normally asked to comment on the aesthetics of buildings and so their input is by extension seen as ephemeral. When more in-depth analysis or insight is needed on our buildings, homes and public spaces, commissioning editors tend to turn to surveyors, planners, even politicians, which in my opinion is a mistake because it is really only the architect that truly affects the construction process from start to finish. There are good examples of architects on TV: George Clarke’s Council House Scandal is a great show and demonstrates both the scope and wider benefit of good architecture. However, this show is driven by Clarke’s personality, which is perhaps more relatable than that of other architects – a lesson to learn perhaps for architects fostering wider ambitions. The quality of architecture is the greatest single influence on the success of any project, and this needs to be portrayed more on television. 

What impression does the public have of architects from what it sees on TV? TV’s representation of architects is very one dimensional, focusing almost entirely on the design aspect of the role. Rarely is the full scope of the architectural function explored in any depth. This is a shame. It acts to enforce the belief (wrongly) held by the general public that architects are only concerned with how things look, and architecture is simply about producing pretty pictures to serve the egos of both client and architect. Many programmes seem content to perpetuate this stereotype of architects, doing the industry a huge disservice. Architecture is about so much more, and as an industry there is a frustration in the way architects are portrayed.  

Kunle televsision

Kunle Barker (pictured right) with Alan Titchmarch and team on Love Your Home & Garden

Kunle Barker (pictured right) with Alan Titchmarch and team on Love Your Home & Garden

Katy Marks

Katy marks

Director of Citizens Design Bureau. Has appeared on 100k House: Tricks of the Trade

Why do architects appear on TV so rarely? We are seen as very expensive artists rather than experts. Architects, therefore, appear on cultural programmes rather than factual or current affairs programmes. There isn’t the same level of professional trust and respect.

What impression does the public have of architects from what it sees on TV? We’re portrayed as flamboyant divas, darling. We talk about light and shadow, ‘concepts’ and sightlines. We spend our clients’ money on crazy, uncompromising ideas which may look great but are always prohibitively expensive. This impression fuels the idea that ‘normal’ people wouldn’t consult an architect partly because we’re too expensive but also because we’re impractical and more interested in expressing our own artistic ambition than responding to a client’s needs. 

Is there an architectural snobbishness that puts architects off being on the television? Architects can definitely be snobbish but it goes both ways. Architects are right to be sceptical of the motives and methods of many TV shows, which are geared to maximising drama and jeopardy, soundbites and Instagram moments at the expense of portraying the reality of how architects work and the value they can bring.

In the TV programme I did, the poor guy whose house I was designing was tying himself in knots, trying to get the layout right. The programme format didn’t allow regular communication with me … designed so that I could arrive and shake my head and give viewers the ‘How could it all go so wrong?!’ moment. I had to persuade producers to let me help him change things (brought in a carpenter friend of mine) and put it right before a tight deadline and, behind the scenes, the TV company also helped a lot to pull it together so the client did end up happy- if slightly bewildered. Good TV… but of course fairly unrealistic portrayal of the profession.

These sort of home makeover projects have also been the cue for lots of phone calls to my office from potential clients trying to appoint me to design private houses with big ideas for totally unrealistic, tiny budgets. The programmes are also shown on repeat all over the world without my knowledge so sudden flurries of interest and being occasionally spotted in the street are a bizarre side effect.

In what way could more exposure on TV help the profession and wider industry? The type of exposure is important. At the moment, a lot of it is reality TV stuff, some of which can be really good, interesting and inspiring, but there’s huge potential for something much more powerful. Our civic environment and built city and townscapes need an equivalent exploration, celebration and championing that programmes like Planet Earth or Blue Planet do for the environment. Architects could and should be at the forefront of those public conversations.

  • 12 Comments

Readers' comments (12)

  • Architects are snobbish? I know and have worked with many and can honestly say I have only met a tiny Trump-sized handful like that (it has to be said mostly in London). We couldn't run our businesses successfully if we weren't approachable, practical and sympathetic to the needs of our clients.

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  • There seems to be a problem with the lack of architects and architecture on TV but when we do get there it is a good thing. As an architect I have been part of three primetime TV shows over the past ten years. The main reason I do it is to break down the barriers between architects and the public and make architecture and design more accessible and fun - without dumbing it down. People have a short attention span watching TV, but some architects have great communication skills and know how to speak in simple terms to engage and inform the public on good design.

    We have had fantastic feedback particularly from our recent TV show 
“Designing Ireland” which is a 4 part TV documentary that Dr Sandra O Connell and I both wrote and  presented for RTE, made by Newgrange Pictures, based on our ideas and format. It was broadcast on RTE several times over past 3 years and in Australia and New Zealand with a great response, giving a better understanding of Irish Architecture and design. We have been trying to get it on air in UK, but they are not interested - which is surprising. (@DesignEire)
     
    A few years ago I worked on "The Home Show" with George Clarke making a 6 part series and I was the architect seeking out international design style in Copenhagen, Marrakech, Venice, Paris, Bavaria and Palma. It was a popular TV series and fun to research and present.
     
    I also made the ITV x 62 part "Building the Dream" where at BMA we designed an eco home in Somerset, to be built in 14 weeks with 14 couples as the contestants. The last couple - not voted off - won the 500K home - the largest prize in TV at the time. This was a big risk for me working on a reality TV show as you never know how its going to work out. Luckily it went very well and was shown internationally for years. (https://bradymallalieu.com/project/whitam-friary/)
      
    TV is a great media for getting our message across about quality design in architecture interiors and urban design. I would like to see more public debates on architecture so we can listen to peoples views and also give people a better understanding on how we work, how we design and how they can help the process and be involved in their own neighbourhood town or city.
     
    There is a real opportunity for more architects on TV particularly in environmental awareness. We are working on this - but these days when TV channels are short of funding - we need to bring a sponsor with us to get it made.

    Angela Brady OBE PPRIBA bradymallalieu.com

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  • Bruce Buckland

    TV is the past.

    Podcasts and YouTube are the future! ;)

    https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCSDwzYqZ6iFhaocnKMiw5hQ

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  • I was on TV last night! Seemed to go reasonably well? https://www.channel4.com/programmes/grand-designs/on-demand/57385-001

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  • A terrific if depressing range of responses. Nice to hear from Gabrielle whose flat, unknown to me until the Apprentice, I walked past hundreds of time on the way to school. Piers punchily sums it up, even if he does appear to practise a little of the snobbery he decries ('no more back extensions' twice at least). Though clearly helpful for those interested in the built environment, Grand Designs does often marginalise the architects when they are used - it took my own informed layman's research to uncover the fact that not one, not two but three were involved in creating GD's 100th project, Leight and Graham's water tower in Lambeth:

    http://www.chrismrogers.net/#/blog-from-sept-2011/4555515884/Grand-Designs%E2%80%99-100th-project/3843856

    - even Mike didn't know. It wasn't always like this - 20 years ago the BBC alone showed One Foot in the Past, Restoration, Dreamspaces (fronted by Justine Frischmann of Pell Frischmann fame), Wall to Wall, and Buiding Sights.

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  • Clare Richards

    It’s revealing that Richard asks ‘why aren’t there more architects on TV?’, because it implies that the messenger is more important than the message. That says one thing about current TV (that content is driven by personalities not issues) and another about architects (that we’re insular and egocentric). The opinions quoted seem to confirm this.

    I’m an architect and former documentary filmmaker. I spend most of my time in addressing the purpose rather than the process of architecture. That’s what we need to put across because that’s what’s relevant to people. Is TV the means to do it? No. The shows that get bums on seats are entertainment formats and the content of news self-destructs in hours. You can reach the same numbers with a good TED talk or podcast series. But first you need something to say! So what have we got to say of value to people?

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  • Piers Taylor blames the philistine public but surely he epitomises the sort of architect he describes. The name alone. The RIBA should be held accountable, one of the most inept and ineffectual professional institutes around. Maybe because architects tend to serve the 5%, global corporations, tyrants or the affluent middle class, most people feel they are not relevant to their lives.

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  • There are loads of architects on telly. Why do we even want architects on the telly? If it's to do with how society values architects (and by extension what they earn) then architects would, as Louis Hellman says above, be better off attending to the failures of their professional body. If you think it will improve the quality of architecture then, you're in for a disappointment. Telly dumbs things down. That's its nature. Its not really a medium for intellectual subjects, and sorry, but architecture at its best is and should be an intellectual subject. You don't see many physicists, computer coders or philosophers on the telly either. When you do see an "intellectual" architecture programme (e.g. Jonathan Meades) you know the only other people watching it are other architects. No one under 30 watches telly anyway, do they?

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  • Architecture is dead! The RIBA is like an undertaker preparing the corpse for a funeral. We live in an age of PFI sheds with windows, with flammable cladding if you are unlucky. BoJo is about to build 40 more of them. Shat on by the Tories and shovelled up by Labour. If RADA-trained Jonathan Meades is an intellectual, then I am Schopenhauer!

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  • I loved Piers Taylor’s show, that was the only time I turned on the TV.
    I still don’t understand why most architects look down on sales, marketing and advertising.
    Their perception from the public is that they are overpriced, their service is unnecessary and they would just force their design ideas down the client’s throat just to get another award.
    When I did this video interview with Neil, an Australian architect, I made sure he addressed these issues, slowly educating the market about what a real architect brings to the table.
    https://www.babett.com.au/portfolio-marketing-videos
    (Fourth video in the list - if you’re interested.)

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