TV review

In common with all his colleagues he refused to talk of anything so mundane as a room - "space" is the word used, an abstract term that sets such grubby realities as eating and washing and slobbing out on the sofa at a safe distance
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Having been visited simultaneously by intestinal flu and a team of decorators my house currently looks like a cross between a Crimean war hospital (before Florence Nightingale) and a Manila slum (after a typhoon). I begin with this personal note only because I may not have been in a condition of strict scientific neutrality when I watched Modern Times' (BBC2) alluring programme about domestic minimalists - people for whom even a single item out of place constitutes a kind of psychological rape. Perhaps I was unusually susceptible to the beauty of empty space, but one of the strengths of Rebecca Frayn's film was the way it acknowledged the shimmer of attraction and repulsion that these interiors generate in most people - the fantasy of self-control they propose and the knowledge that it would be virtually impossible to live up to their demands.

She began with an estate agent's tour of a two-bedroomed flat on the market for pounds 900,000. The property included a corridor large enough to land a light aircraft in and a sensational view of the Thames but even so it was proving difficult to shift because it was about as cosy as an operating theatre. The owners were a likeable couple who had ruefully decided that babies were incompatible with monastic purity, but the architect, Claudio Silvestrin, was less sympathetic. Like many of the designers we heard from he had a chippily defensive attitude to his art, one which implied that the human occupants of a house were a vulgar but unavoidable necessity. In common with all his colleagues he refused to talk of anything so mundane as a room - "space" is the word used, an abstract term that sets such grubby realities as eating and washing and slobbing out on the sofa at a safe distance. And creepiest of all the architectural astronauts was Anouska Hempel - the designer and owner of a hotel that lacks not one of the usual minimalist facilities - cantilevered slabs of oak, horizontal fireplaces, seamless storage, flower displays drilled into regimental order.

Hempel said something at one point about her interiors generating "inner peace" but it looks as if her own psyche is as neurotically cluttered as a Victorian front parlour. She talked in a tense, gabbling monotone and had a curious tic of wrapping her coat tight around her, as if all that glacial white had left her chilled to the bon e. Nor could she rely on her own genial personality to raise the emotional temperature: "I wouldn't go into all those things and look at the wrinkles on the sofa", she said, stepping in front of the camera with an icy glare, "because this isn't a day in the life of my disasters, this is a day in the life of things I can do very well." A night at the Hempel can cost up to pounds 900 which suggests that its proprietor also appreciates the pure Zen geometry of a platinum American Express card.

But in all of these locations Frayn found genuine beauty alongside the pretension, either in the cloudy shadows of people moving behind acid- etched glass or the brilliance of a vase of flowers set against planes of white and grey. She was also capable of making beauty - as in a close up of twisted electrical cable that initially appeared to be a piece of modern sculpture - a clever footnote about the way these museum spaces amplify the visual grace of virtually anything. And though she let you see that the discipline could easily turn pathological (one tetchy architect talked of clients "abusing the rules") she didn't simply mock the aspiration to live a less complicated life.

One of the most attractive apartments was a roof-top home commissioned by a woman who had just left an unhappy relationship. Its luminous interior did look as if it would offer a balm to the soul - even if you couldn't finally decide whether it was because chaos had genuinely been held at bay or simply forced behind a perfectly finished cupboard door. Frayn allowed viewers to test the degree of their conversion with her final scene - in which the new owner of that riverside flat prepared to desecrate its hard-won purity with floral rugs and chintzy bric-a-brac. If you moaned at all then some part of you, however small, hankers after the beauty of nothing.

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