Let’s talk Grand Designs, the TV program rather than the work. The UK founder/presenter, Kevin McCloud, is doing a tour of Australia, which prompts me to think about architecture on TV.

Grand Designs has been extraordinarily successful, but it contains a wicked failure. Successes first. It got architectural design on TV for 200 programs over 20 years and has rated well all that time. Not many shows can boast that, let alone tackling the difficult area of ‘design’.

Filming architecture for TV is fraught for two reasons. Firstly, it is hard to convey ‘space’, the camera only sees the boundaries not the volume, the container not the contained. It misses the haptic and olfactory senses, and flattens the dimensions, though less than 2D photography. And secondly, it is difficult to hold the viewers’ attention, needing voice overs, music and graphics to aid attention.

Architecture on TV in the 80’s and 90’s was in documentaries: Architecture at the Crossroads on Granada in the UK; Pride of Place about Post Modernism presented by Robert A.M. Stern in the USA;

The Elegant Shed about post WWII architecture in NZ, presented by David Mitchell.

When GD started in 1999 it overcame many of the shortcomings of those ‘doco’s’ by being a pioneer and progenitor of reality TV. It made the focus personal, with an arc of drama that would draw viewers in. The singing shows (The Voice, X Factor and Australia's Got Talent) followed it, as did the cuisine-porn of MKR (My Kitchen Rules) and MasterChef.

Its success is down to two things: good shooting and a relatable presenter. The show is eminently watchable, good slow pans and steady camera work, and the drone shots are brilliant. And Kevin McCloud is personable, fluent and forthright, with an excellent TV presence. So much so that he has assumed a greater prominence than the projects being presented, but we are getting ahead of ourselves.

The show’s formula is to follow one home being built, usually by an upper middle-class couple on a suburban or regional site (but not always as some memorable editions diverge). The show starts with an interview with the owners, usually ambitious, self-absorbed, not to say ego driven. They will need all that in their desire to build a freestanding home for themselves, whilst being documented on a show that travels around the world.

Following a discussion of the brief, and a visit to the site, there is a computer graphic and explanation of the house design. But from that point on, less than five minutes in, it’s all about the struggle to build, and the program focuses on the construction process with very little reference to design. It’s more grand building than grand designs.

Much of the discussion on the show centres on materials, and to a lesser extent the construction techniques, as a substitution for design ideas. McCloud seems obsessed with materials; his ‘live shows’ in the UK present innovation in materials as the solution to the housing crisis. They are actually in part causing it, not solving it.

But the secret of the show’s success contains the wicked failure for me. And it centres on the role of architects, and the projects the show projects.

In the first few series the architect or designer didn’t appear at all, which is strange given that Kevin McCloud is an architect, and what made him understand the show’s potential, is actually erased from the final product. All is seemingly created by the owners and the long-suffering builder: no mention of the design process, the client-designer discussions, the approvals process, the documentation.

When the architects did eventually show on the GD show, it reinforces a narrow, negative view of the profession: architects are only good at designing palaces and ego-homes for the rich, and there are always cost over-runs and time delays. The latter two are Grand Designs staples.

When Kevin McCloud makes his final visit to review the home, the owners are always congratulated, but inevitably the conversation turns to how much they overspent their budget and how it took far too long to build.

The show is a diverting view of ‘house-porn’, but it has little to do with the viewers’ experience of their own home. In Australia we at least had Burkes Backyard, Our House and a dozen similar shows to fill that void. Just don’t mention the vile show called The Block, that tells viewers that can reap a windfall from redecorating. And all without an architect.

This DIY approach infects Australian house design in a very nasty way. It says that if you live in a house, and watch a few TV series, then you are ready to create your own masterpiece. The streets of our suburbs are testament to the talentless penny-pinchers who glorify in their own bad taste. Ironically, they then blame architects for the worst excesses and excrescences.

My main gripe about Grand Designs is that it gives a false impression of what architecture is about by concentrating on large single dwellings with big budgets on individual sites. Architects are painted as aesthetes with no idea of costs, which may well be true of the upper echelons, but is so far removed from the engine-room of current architectural practice as to be laughable.

Sadly, this impression is only reinforced by the awards program of the (R)AIA which, likewise, is obsessed with big-budget houses in the name of innovation and design excellence. Two weasel-words that will have to await another column.

Grand Designs has two clones, predictably in markets where the glamourous single-home reigns supreme: Australia and New Zealand. The Australian show follows the formula very closely; the projects have grand egos (and cost) and the presenter, Peter Maddison, is a personable and effective Oz-Cloud.

NZ Grand Designs is presented by Chris Moller, who has more of the Kiwi larrikin about him, which suits their low-key DIY ‘#8 wire’ projects. Like the UK, both shows place great emphasis on the presenters: the website for GD Australia has a story “5 reasons we're falling in love with Peter Maddison”. Really?

To be on the show is very onerous. Two separate clients from our studio have discussed having projects on GD Australia, and both walked away after reading the GD contract and fearing the possible intrusions into their lives by the program.

We should have the highest regard for the owners of projects who do proceed, subjecting themselves to visits by the camera and audio team, the scrutiny of the presenter, and moreover the viewing public (with its trolls). The owners are the stars for me (as all clients should be).

I have always wanted to see more architecture on TV and have fully developed two ideas for programs in the time that GD has run. The first one was called Building Australia. The premise was to talk about how architects design by focussing on the activities they design for: education, health, retail, sport etc rather than looking at particular periods or cities, or the ubiquitous individual houses.

My partners and I pitched it to ABC and SBS in 2008 to no avail. The ABC eventually aired a show with the same title, fronted by John Doyle (aka Roy Slaven) which did what we had set out to avoid: be historically and region based, and focussed on houses.

We also pitched to Channel 10, who were also cold, but asked if we had something more like GD, or even better a ‘reality show’. My partners were disheartened but I saw an opportunity.

As a long-time architecture teacher, I always felt that the final-year design studio was a hot-house that had everything the reality shows demanded: personalities, tension, fights and a barely controllable process, this time focussed on creativity. We proposed a show based on getting 20 of the best final year students from around Australia into a studio for 12 weeks and filming the outcomes. We wrote the day by day schedule and called it ‘Masterplan’.

It was 2008 and Channel 10 were enthusiastic and laughed at our title; little did we know that they were already well down the track for their juggernaut hit show ‘Masterchef’. When it first screened some months later, we knew why we had been ‘this close, but no cigar’.

Nevertheless, I have been inside ‘the TV business’ a couple of times, firstly as a judge on the ABC New Inventors show. The production team is deeply impressive: designs were deeply researched, technicians in and behind the studio were seamless, producers pre-checked judges’ questions; all to make it look so easy for the host and my fellow judges.

My second brush with TV fame came via Big Brother. No, not on the show this time but as the designer. When the raunch in one series became too much, we were approached to help clean up the image with a more ‘sustainable house’. The site visits to the ‘house’ revealed a theatrical set within a giant shed, again, with a huge number of technicians. Our design, with solar, water storage, better materials and food gardens was indeed implemented, but sadly the attempt to popularise green issues, on what was then a ratings juggernaut, came to nothing.

There is a fraught world behind what you see on TV, it’s a monster machine, which makes the 20 years of high-quality, scandal-free Grand Designs all the more impressive. And to give it its due, Grand Designs has tried to broaden its remit to deal with ‘housing’, and particularly affordability, more generally.

The series on DIY builders in the series called ‘GD: The Street’ was an attempt to show a more affordable approach, but it was far too niche, and it too largely erased the architects from view.

Kevin McCloud himself has seemingly tired of some of the original format. When interviewed recently in The Telegraph (UK) newspaper, he said he had seen far too many houses that were over glazed and that he was “so fed up with bi-fold doors”. His speaking tour is promoting the idea of a community sharing resources, tools, ideas and processes. Maybe he is finally moving away from the heroic individual.

I only wish that Kevin McCloud, with his undoubted clout, could further broaden his outlook on ‘design’ to get the programs I wanted to see on air, but could never achieve. Programs about how architects design for the real world: affordable apartments, urban squares, sustainable offices, better schools, friendlier health buildings. You know, the stuff that fills this website.

Tone Wheeler is principal architect at Environa Studio, Adjunct Professor at UNSW and is President of the Australian Architecture Association. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and are not held or endorsed by A+D, the AAA or UNSW. Comments can be posted here or addressed to [email protected].