Thursday, 19 February 2015


The ABC TV infill programme, a short ten-minute optional extra, Dream Build – 23 June 2013 – was played just before the oft-repeated McCloud classic, Grand Designs. Only the quaint, homely ‘foodies’ show, River Cottage, seems to be a challenger for the most repeated television programme in history. Dream Build and Grand Designs looked like the apprentice and the master, with the ABC once again taking its inspiration from British television programming: see –   Here, as a ‘dream build,’ a couple with young children had been given a dramatically different home by James Russell, a Brisbane architect. It was a courtyard house behind a high brick wall that startled with its astonishing difference. The remainder of the street was the typical slab-on-ground, brick-veneer style of speculative housing with hipped, concrete tiled roofs, shallow overhangs, formal front doors, decorative numbers and neatly mown, hedged front lawns striped with coloured driveways and paths. The programme finished with the client sitting at the front of his house with its overhead doors opening up the residence’s interiors to the street. After sipping from a mug of coffee, as if he was enjoying the full exposure of his reverie to all of the neighbours, he paused to say thoughtfully: “You don’t go to an architect if you don’t want something different.” Was this a brave face? Was there some ambivalence tinged with the regret of being the odd one out; that the client, the family, was being asked to live the architect’s commitment to open living?

Brookes Street House - James Russell Architect
James Russell lives the dream

Well these folk certainly did get something different:  see -  The story was that the architect had enjoyed camping as a young man, so here, for these clients, he had created an ‘open’ house inspired by his outdoor experiences, with unenclosed rooms around a central open courtyard. No habitable space had four walls. The living areas were all open to each other and to the street - well, able to be opened to reveal all to the neighbours opposite and to any passerby. Apparently the idea was to provide a type of ‘communal playground’ for the local children; such was the completeness of the public openness of this gesture. While one can always recall the enjoyment of the best aspects of camping and understand how these delights might become an ambition for daily living, everyday – “We had such a good time!” - one wondered about this format for dwelling being introduced into suburbia that generally holds other expectations for place, permanence, privacy and presence.

Bisley Place House - James Russell Architect

One must not forget that camping has its bad times too: storm and tempest; wind and rain; mosquitoes and midges; possums and rats; other campers; and more, all create challenges for any camper. I can recall happy times under canvas – “Ah! We had such a good time!” I can also remember times when we had to: pack up to move to a quieter spot; dismantle the site in a raging gale and retreat to the nearest motel; sit up all night keeping wind and rain at bay while reefing ropes and pushing pegs into soaked ground, in between trying to get some rest in sodden sleeping bags; and having to be constantly alert to outwit the local rats, bush rats, but still rats, keen, like other wildlife, to get into our food and muck around in our cosy clothes. One cannot live only one part of a vision and hope to be able to reinvent this successfully anywhere. Context is complex and can be crippling.

Grand Designs was overly grand this time. It finished with Kevin McCloud arrogantly, pompously, declaring that he couldn’t care less about others’ tastes or any contexts; that the beauty of this build – a stark, minimalist glass box in a south London Victorian street – had its own stand-alone strength and wonder. The client had previously noted that the achievement did not come without a struggle. “One doesn’t get a gold medal for walking down a street,” was the comment that conceitedly suggested, as did Kevin too, that this was ‘a great piece of gold medal Architecture.’ McCloud noted that its beauty would be evident to all. Well, it seems that both of Kevin’s statements were contradictory. It sounded like the usual Grand Designs schematic, motherhood gibberish. Not being concerned about the opinions of others who would all ‘obviously’ see and appreciate the beauty in the work appeared more than irrational; just silly. If the beauty were so universally self-evident, one would not have to brazenly dismiss any other opinion as irrelevant.

House on Clapham Park Terrace, Brixton, London by Carl Turner Architects

The difficulty with this project seemed to be with money: it reportedly cost 550 thousand pounds when there was an apparent struggle at the beginning of the show to raise the 300 thousand pound maximum estimated for this work! But it appears that one expects architecture to cost money, especially gold medal architecture: ‘quality is expensive; minimalism is more expensive.' Perhaps the more expensive the project, the better the work? As Kevin haughtily noted with his superior, explanatory professional blurb, “It costs a lot to join two cheap sheets of ply together perfectly.”

Strangely the now supportive Kevin had previously suggested somewhat mockingly that the minimalism was a charade; a façade! This was to be expected since the cliché Grand Designs programme production model is the promotion of a potential disaster that always finishes on a wonderfully successful, exhilarating ‘high,’ grandly, all by design!! – see: and The music tells the story.

Both of these positions promoted in Dream Build and Grand Designs suffer from the delusion that architecture is singularly special, different, and requires a unique commitment, even a sacrifice, be this financial or in lifestyle: maybe both. As with Victorian romanticism, perhaps the idea is that the more the suffering, the better the outcome: that more is more, and more meaningful. Little wonder that folk are reluctant to use architects when the idea is that “You don’t go to an architect if you don’t want something different.”  Do people want to pay to be given a challenge for life and its living all for the sake of an interesting, perhaps experimental idea? Is it this potentially different distraction, diversion or distortion in life that makes a new architecturally designed house the frequent, (albeit often temporary), solution to marriage problems?

The irony of a house trying to be a tent is that a tent always struggles to be a house. One just has to look to see all the gadgets that are a part of the camping ensemble: even the kitchen sink!

The irony of minimalism is the great effort and cost required to achieve what appears to be basic simplicity, the Mesian ‘less is more’ ideal that requires much, much more of more to achieve the image of less. Does simplicity have to be an intensely determined reaching out into the self-conscious extremities of nothingness? Is this ‘special’ approach merely a different fashionable style to be raised for praise at ‘camp’ dinner parties: “Oh! Dhharrrling”? – see:

James Russell Architect has won numerous State and National awards for housing projects: see - 
Carl Turner Architects was the RIBA ‘Architect of the Year’ winner for a ‘One Off House’ in 2013: see -
Difference is a quality that attracts the eyes of judges.

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