Last Night's TV - The Secret Life of Buildings, Channel 4; My Life as a Turkey, BBC2
The case against unintelligent design
Tuesday 02 August 2011
Modern life, as a wise band once suggested when they named their second LP, is rubbish. But fear not, for I can report two potential antidotes to this malaise: good design and turkeys. The design first. Tom Dyckhoff, presenter of
The Secret Life of Buildings, is an amiable, enthusiastic chap in standard-issue media spectacles (thick, black rectangular frames – you know the sort). But, like the rest of us, he's not happy. Dyckhoff's lament runs as follows: contemporary architects – not to mention critics, politicians and the man in the street – have forgotten what buildings are for. We're so besotted with style and spectacle, with Gherkins and Shards and photoshoot-friendly superhomes, that we've neglected to think of the people who have to live and work inside them.
Take, for example, the so-called "Lost House" in King's Cross, a creation of the so-called "starchitect" David Adjaye. Its interior walls are entirely black and it has no windows. Natural light is supplied instead by three light wells, which reach from roof to floor like giant tropical fish tanks. The owner told Dyckhoff she was afraid to leave magazines lying around, for fear of disrupting the clean lines of the design. Which is no way to live, is it? At the other end of the scale, Dyckhoff found a family making the best of a provincial new-build not much bigger than a bed-sit. Modern British housing, he said, is depriving us of "light, space and good design".
It is nothing new to propose that architecture has a psychological effect on its inhabitants, but, in this first of three episodes, Dyckhoff offered scientific evidence to suggest that it has a physiological effect too. When, as an experiment, he blocked the large windows in his own flat, to reduce them to the UK's legal minimum size, he found that in just a week the lack of natural light had transformed him into a borderline diabetic. Forget the fast-food industry; are small windows responsible for the obesity crisis? (I can't see the sky from my desk, so I'm tempted to recommend the forthcoming "workplace" episode to my boss.)
Like every design critic, Dyckhoff idolises Northern Europe: the examples of great housing design to which he wishes British architects would aspire were an innovative mixed development in Copenhagen and the Rietveld Schröder House in Utrecht, built in 1924. He wound up in the new town of Almere, outside Amsterdam, where the local government has set aside more than 700 plots for people to design and build their own homes. Most cost no more than £145,000, all in. "Affordable, independent self-build," Dyckhoff argued, "is the way forward." No doubt, but Almere's residents did seem to have got a bit carried away with their wacky designs. I'm not convinced I'd want to live there, any more than I'd want to live in the Lost House.
Dyckhoff's programme was premised on the fact that most of us spend 85 per cent of our time inside. Not so Joe Hutto, a biologist who lived for 18 months alone in the Florida Everglades with a family of 13 endangered wild turkeys, which he raised from eggs to maturity. As the chicks' "mother", he was unable to leave their side at all – except for a few hours' sleep per night – until they flew the coop, as it were. My Life as a Turkey, a beautifully executed docudrama that Hutto narrated while an actor recreated his tale, tapped into a city-dweller's pastoral fantasies even more effectively than Springwatch with Kate Humble.
In his time with the turkeys, Hutto watched them develop differing personalities. He learned the meanings of more than 30 bird calls. He saw them play and fight and grieve. When snakes, hawks and unidentified diseases picked off a handful of his brood, it was devastating.
And yet, at times, it tipped from scientific observation into romanticised self-help lecture. Hutto said the birds had taught him to "live in the moment". And because they knew innately which bugs to eat and which predators to avoid, he declared them "heirs to tens of millions of years of accumulated wisdom". Humans, by contrast, were "born ignorant and helpless... empty vessels that must be filled with years of experience and study". Now I hope I'm not being biased towards my species here, but I ate turkey for Christmas dinner. Who was the helpless one then? Hutto is currently living with a herd of mule deer in the mountains of Wyoming. I wonder just how qualified he is to pronounce on the subject of people, seeing as he so rarely meets any.
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