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Jonathan Manser: McCloud's show steers clear of sensationalist drivel

Private house, West Sussex by Wilkinson King Architects
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Grand Designs’ coverage of the RIBA House of the Year has avoided X-Factor-like sensationalism, says Jonathan Manser, son of Michael Manser who helped set up the original award

The RIBA House of the Year awards, presented by Kevin McCloud and currently being shown in a special series of Grand Designs on Channel 4 replaces or repackages what was previously the Manser Medal.

While the change of name – imposed by the RIBA rather than Channel 4 – may be of some personal sadness, the real issue is whether the programmes help to properly promote and publicise the work of the architects featured and avoid the sensationalist drivel of Grand Designs or The Great British Bake Off.

After the first episode the view seems to be so far so good.

The show demonstrates why houses are such good tools for explaining architecture

As the houses being featured are finished projects the obligatory disasters and delays underpinning the usual Grand Designs ‘cliffhanger’ are avoided, and we are getting straightforward descriptions of how the houses are designed and why; as well as interviews with both the clients and the architects. McCloud demonstrates, as we all knew, that he can articulate the essence of a house, how it sits in its context, and how the spaces within it relate one to another simply and economically, and as a result demonstrates why houses are such good tools for explaining architecture on television.

The ingredients for a house project; the client, the architect, the brief, the context, the design, the detail and the execution come together in a dish that is compact enough for its qualities and failings to be readily understood on the small screen. A house is a manageable bite-size chunk in a way that a grand banquet such as, say, a Stirling shortlisted project such as Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ NEO Bankside or MUMA’s Whitworth may not be.

These projects are unforgiving of mistakes

The size of these projects also explains the value and significance of the award. Often designed by young practices, the finished houses are too small for anything other than all their constituent ingredients to be fully revealed and examined, and for discordant flavours to be all too obvious. They are unforgiving of mistakes and therefore, when successful, reflect a degree of architectural endeavour, thought, commitment, and achievement which deserves recognition by those other than just their satisfied clients.

The fact that the latter may often, but not always, be affluent and demonstrating it by spending money on the property, does not make it any easier to deliver a building of architectural sophistication and resolve.

The beauty of the house awards is that regardless of size, cost or location the results of architectural efforts are recognised, and these programmes are helping to do just that.


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