I admit it, I am powerless against my addiction to television house shows. To preserve harmony in my household, I have agreed to swap off TV time with my family: one house show for one political show. If left to my own devices (the remote control, for instance), I will fast-forward through five of them in a sitting. Thank heavens for DVR. My two current favorites are Extreme Living and Beyond the Box. I discovered Extreme on my own, but our high-design, bargain-loving Senior Editor Nigel Maynard turned me on to Beyond the Box.
I love these shows because they finally provide a regular forum for architect-designed houses on major cable TV networks. They aren't decorating shows; they are true architecture programs that address the minutiae of difficult sites, unusual construction methods, and innovative use of materials and products.
In the case of Beyond the Box, they also emphasize cost-saving solutions that come from a highly unusual source—surprise!—the architect. So, they promote the architect as someone who can save the project money while at the same time imbuing it with compelling, custom design solutions. You and I knew this was possible, but the rest of the world—until now—did not. This is a huge public service for the architecture profession.
Of course, nothing is perfect. These two architecture series also have two major problems. And those problems are revealing of how the public perceives architects and the houses they design and build. The difficulty with Extreme Living is embedded in the title itself. If you've watched the show, you've seen that, for the most part, there is nothing extreme at all about the houses it features. They are simply individual, site-specific, custom dwellings—a break from the monotonous multiples in suburban subdivisions. If America thinks “architect-designed house” equals “extreme house,” that does not advance our cause. “Fine Living” or “High-Design Living” is a more accurate and less intimidating image to spread among the populace.
Beyond the Box has a subtler, but no less insidious message it's communicating to your potential patrons. The projects are often quite strong (many of them are by architects who've appeared in this magazine), and the presentation is sensible. But I've noticed that even when the project is an architect's own house, it's the spouse who does all the talking. The architect seems almost physically restrained from uttering anything but a few quick sound bites. The spouse gives the grand tour, with backstory anecdotes about why decisions were made, products and materials chosen.
Do architects really need a layperson translator to do all the talking for them? Are they so off-putting or esoteric when they talk about design—of even something as emotional and personal as their own home—they're not allowed to speak for themselves in prime time? Obviously, architects have a communication problem. Either they don't use language that the rest of the world can understand, or they don't talk about the elements that are of essential importance to the people who occupy their buildings.
Plain talk about how a house really lives, and a simple explanation for why a detail was chosen and executed—that's what plays in Peoria. And while we may not all live in Illinois, we do want everyone to understand the value and the quality of life talented architects can provide in every house they design. There's nothing extreme about that.
Comments? E-mail S. Claire Conroy at firstname.lastname@example.org.