I have a dark secret, something that I’ve never admitted to my friends or colleagues before. The Wife and my boys know, of course, and have fallen into a grudging acceptance over the years that now borders on a sympathetic understanding. They have also been kind enough to never utter a word of my secret outside the four walls of our close-knit family unit, but there comes a time in every man’s life when he has to stand up and say ‘this is me, this is who I am’. That time has come, and now I’m about to announce it on the world wide interwebbage to millions (alright, a handful) of followers. I like Grand Designs.
Sometimes people grow into things slowly, like cardigans, and the Beatles later works, but the truth is that I was hooked right from the off, when the series hit our screens in 1999. What exactly is the strange fascination that it holds over me?
Is it that I’ve been through a (minor in comparison) house project of my own and can therefore relate to the agonies and ….. well just the agonies really, of the participants? I don’t think so, because I liked the programme even before I had experienced that achingly stressful process myself. Is it that I discover there are people out there who are who are as stubborn and odd as I am? No, I already suspected that. Is it that I can snigger at their naive optimism and commiserate with their slow-fracturing dreams? Possibly. Is it presenter Kevin McCloud’s witty narration and laconic enthusiasm? Certainly not.
Really, it is because, for reasons not entirely understood by modern science, the process of building a house reveals a window on somebody’s soul that is not opened by any other act in life.
My favourite episode came from Yorkshire in 2007. An architect called Francis, who you would think would be fully equipped to withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous planning law, found himself in an unravelling descent into despair. He had a dream to live in a castle. So he bought one that wasn’t quite falling down – it took for him to start removing the accumulated muck and debris from 70 years of neglect for it to do that. He (and I mean that in the collective sense to include some very patient builders) painstakingly rebuilt the 15th century peel tower, piece by piece, against a backdrop of ancient monument consent (the “grandaddy of planning permission”) and spiraling costs. It was a triumph of dogged determination over cold winters, costly delays and surprise disasters on a restoration project that spanned almost three years.
“At various stages I’ve thought it’s not worth the trouble” admitted Francis, the mild-mannered family man, “but the problem is each time I go and visit it, I fall in love with it again.”
At the end it was finished, as was he – physically, mentally and financially. The castle grew from the rubble and became majestic once more, but in an almost perfectly inverted relationship, Francis was utterly broken. But then something magical happened as he stood with Kevin and the camera crew in his freshly finished masterpiece. In his darkest hour he gave a little piece of his soul to that building, and astonishingly the castle gave a little piece of itself back to him. They became intertwined in a way that was poetic and permanent.
Which brings us to last night when I caught up with an episode of the current series. In the opening scene, Kevin mooched around the pretty towns of West Sussex, suggesting various sensible ways to merge a new design into the existing architectural landscape of the area, before adding with a mischievous glint in his eye “Or if you really wanted to hack off your neighbours, you could throw up a big, rusty cube of a building that looks as though it’s just been dredged out of the nearby river!”
This time it was the turn of newlyweds Stephen and Anita to unleash their individual tastes on an 11m slither of land squashed between the river and the main road into Lewes. It was billed as a gateway building, bold and brash. “A landmark for Lewes!” enthused Kevin. The concept was simple – concrete and glass downstairs, and ‘self-weathering’ steel upstairs.
In the same way as the Peel Castle was a representation of the local materials, the Lewes house was to be similarly reflective of its heritage. The site was previously a chalk quarry, a cement factory, and finally a dumping ground for industrial waste, and the new creation would give due deference to its historical setting. I wondered what the architect could have achieved with a converted sewage treatment plant.
The couple went to Spain to look at a Bilboa library, just around the corner from the factory that churned out the steel. It looked like a rusty cube. I wondered what the Lewes house would aim for as a finished product. By the end of the programme, the excitement was palpable, and Kevin’s enthusiasm could be contained no longer as he drove along the main road and spotted a rusty cube from about a mile away.
“There it is, there it is! Do you know, it looks like a pair of old, rusty sheds – that’s clever.” he mused, as if you could look up ‘clever’ in the dictionary and find ‘a pair of old, rusty sheds’ as the definition.
“It’s very good,” he continued, “because as you get closer to it, it gets more interesting.” Yes Kevin, so does a car crash, which is what this eyesore may just cause if they don’t find a way of screening it from unsuspecting motorists.
Inside, the downstairs looked remarkably like any other open-plan, concrete-and-glass modernist creation. But upstairs, the rusty steel cladding crept over the windows, giving the impression that you were caged in a Mexican prison, or driving one of those Mad Max vehicles. I suppose if we all looked at things the same way life would be boring. Both the Lewes Rusty Cube and the Yorkshire Peel Castle stand as monuments to what can be achieved through the power of human persistence, as well as enormous sums of cash, but I certainly know which building I’d prefer to live in.