Last Night's TV: The Secret Life of Buildings/Channel 4
One Man Walking/Channel 4
Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words/BBC4
Tuesday 16 August 2011
If the cover star of the current issue of the Radio Times happened to be watching the box last night, he doubtless enjoyed what he saw. The Secret Life of Buildings was right up Prince Charles's avenue, with the architectural critic Tom Dyckhoff skewering a variety of extravagant modern buildings for being soulless novelties rather than functional spaces. Top of his hate list, the building that he thinks made it acceptable for architects around the world to indulge their fantasies at the expense of what actually works, was Frank Gehry's famously outlandish Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. Dyckhoff thinks that "architects have forgotten the purpose of social buildings" and that "the Bilbao effect" has produced an epidemic of Guggenheim clones, turning this memory lapse practically into a credo.
To his credit he went to Los Angeles to confront Gehry himself with this charge, and unsurprisingly got short shrift, the illustrious architect insisting that "one pishy little building in Bilbao" was hardly going to change the world, although it was Dyckhoff's contention that it has done just that. A little disingenuously, he also took us to La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, "one of the most beautiful buildings on Earth", to show how a structure can combine grace, meaning, form and function. I love La Sainte-Chapelle too, and have often wished for a megaphone as the crowds of tourists tramp past it, not even aware it's there, as they head on to gawp at Notre Dame, but to use it as a measure of comparison is rather like suggesting that modern composers simply aren't in the same league as Beethoven. The greater challenge would be to explain why some modern buildings are every bit as worthy as La Sainte-Chapelle.
Still, Dyckhoff stuck resolutely to his task, enthusiastically dissing Zaha Hadid's Chanel Art Pavilion (although not in front of the formidable Hadid herself) and Rem Koolhaas's Casa da Música in Porto. The former was commissioned by the designer Karl Lagerfeld, who played perfectly into Dyckhoff's hands by opining during a busy reception that he was sorry there were so many people there, as "it looks better with nobody". As for the frankly weird Casa da Música, Dyckhoff found a psychiatrist specialising in the effects on human beings of their environments to declare it "psychotic", a building that seems playful but in fact kindles anxiety in those using it.
This was the crux of Dyckhoff's argument. He deliberately targeted buildings designed for leisure purposes, to show us how adult play spaces are so often dysfunctional. His example closer to home was Wembley Stadium, reconstructed at eye-watering expense and yet with the needs of the ordinary football fan relegated below the demands of the so-called prawn-sandwich brigade. Amen to that, though I write as one who would be delighted to find a simple prawn sandwich at Wembley, rather than the £18.50 seafood platter.
Anyway, for all the flaws in Dyckhoff's case, hats off to Channel 4 for giving him a soapbox. And hats off even further for One Man Walking, the latest outing in the Street Summer series that, of course, was commissioned before violence erupted on our summer streets, though in a way last night's short film about the dance form krump was remarkably timely. I'm still not sure what krump is, but I enjoyed the troupe's version of a mugging, of agitation in a cashpoint queue, and of a young Asian man putting the wind up people at a bus stop by putting down his rucksack and then walking away. We don't need reminders right now of how edgy our streets are, but it was nice to see that edginess can be represented by art; I get a sense that Channel 4 has re-embraced its founding remit to "foster the new and experimental". There were times during the Big Brother years when it seemed to have disappeared down the Horseferry Road plughole.
Lord Reith, who gave the BBC its remit to inform, educate and entertain, popped up in Great Thinkers: In Their Own Words, looking disconcertingly like Private Frazer from Dad's Army. The last programme in this engrossing series was subtitled "The Culture Wars", a reference to the democratisation of culture following the foundation of the BBC in 1922, and the hostility that provoked, notably from the king of intellectual snobbery F R Leavis, who considered the cultural life of the working classes to be "nothing but emptiness that has to be filled with drink, sex, eating, background music and what the papers and the telly supply". His ghost must be suitably outraged that it is now the despised telly keeping his memory alive.
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