LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
Let us start with the good news. How Buildings Learn (BBC2) is the sort of unpretentious but thought-provoking series which reminds you why public service channels should exist. It advances an argument, but it does so with elegance and a certain amount of crowd- pleasing flair. It is also a series which will have some architects chewing up their laminated oak flooring in rage. As it happens, architect-baiting is not a sport I enjoy, even though it now enjoys royal approval. But there are pertinent questions posed here and, what's more, they are questions which cut across the entrenched positions of the existing debate. Stewart Brand, the presenter, is on the side of the users rather than the artist- creators - the people who move into the internationally garlanded, cutting- edge edifices and find themselves in a microwave oven with ill-fitting doors.

He began his first episode with a series of horror stories. Anyone who has ever resented those innumerable articles telling us how wonderful the French are when it comes to grand public monuments (I might as well plead guilty to collaboration) would have enjoyed this section - because the ornaments of Mitterand's regime are looking pretty sorry now, having been built fast for flash. The Bastille Opera is shrouded in netting because of the danger that its cladding might drop onto opera lovers' heads - so that it looks less like Marianne, the spirit of Gallic pride, and more Ena Sharples with a hangover. The Bibliotheque Nationale has had so many construction problems that it has had to cut its book-buying budget - disappointed readers will be able to study the wooden blinds instead, installed at considerable cost after it became clear that a vertical greenhouse was not the best place to store books. All fur coat and no knickers, as Ena herself might have put it. Such incidents, Brand suggested, were symptomatic of a culture that lauded exteriors and unveilings at the expense of interiors and a life of service. Brand cited Frank Lloyd Wright's dismissive response to complaints about his leaking roofs ("That's how you know it's a roof") as a perfect example of the arrogance of the genius architect, and proposed instead an evolutionary architecture, that would grow and change with its users.

If you were thinking by now that Stewart Brand is just an old hippy, you would have been right. He was the creator of the Whole Earth Catalogue, mail order for the earth closet and teepee brigade, and his own office is in a beached fishing boat in California. But even if you think that public splendour is worth a little bit of discomfort (St Paul's is neither a wonderfully adaptable nor a wonderfully efficient building, but it is still wonderful), and even if Brand's own position strikes you as a touchy- feely version of Corbusier's "machine for living" aesthetic, the arguments were intriguing.

And the bad news? Undercover Customs (ITV), an unquestioning hash of surveillance footage and reconstruction which contained some of the worst acting to be seen on a terrestrial channel since the heady days of Crossroads. It is presented by Trevor McDonald (who appears to have been studying Chris Morris's current affairs pastiches for tips on style), and it indulges to the full Customs and Excise's long addiction to public relations extravaganzas - all those headlining, news-bulletin filling "busts" which achieve little but protect funding and keep the street price of cocaine at a level where the rewards exceed the risks. At one point, a customs officer recalled the moment when their sting began to bite - they had been told by their Colombian targets that they could ship 12 tons of cocaine a year: "It's frightening how much we were offered," he said, but he failed to draw the obvious conclusion - that supply vastly exceeds Customs' ability to cut it off. The publicity material for this catchpenny series had the laughable audacity to refer to a substance called "journalistic credibility"; in 50 years' time, the juvenile nature of our public discourse about drugs will be a source of amused and horrified wonder - and adventure stories like this one will feature prominently on the charge sheet.

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