aired, there have been converted water towers, barns, chapels and imaginatively odd dwellings built from sandbags and straw.
McCloud provides a sure-footed, informed guide to the process whereby self-builders attempt to construct these dream homes, their eventual triumph over hair-raising obstacles tantamount to religious conversion. (David Lowe’s distinctive title music is so aspirational it has become popular for wedding couples to walk down the aisle to its soaring strings and that harp.)
McCloud proselytises the notion that the personal investment involved in creating a home should be greater than the thought of financial potential. After all, he likes to say, you could be hit by a bus tomorrow.
Homes, he argues, should be about enriching the daily experience and he seems constantly amazed at the way people pile on the technology, the massive glass windows and sometimes ceilings, ‘‘ as if they have been captured by some cult’’. As he said recently, ‘‘ Maybe I’m in a minority when I say I don’t want much technology; that I want simple, I want small, I want gloom.’’
Usually highly emotional at show’s end, he believes good design can change the way people think and feel. But his constant mantra about these usually impossible constructions is: ‘‘ I wonder, will they be able to pull it off?’’
McCloud has moved property TV light years on from Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen’s longrunning property series Changing Rooms. A remarkably entertaining mixture of psychology, religion, design and pretty faces, the show altered the face of television. Airing before McCloud arrived, it was the first of many popular instant-fix, low-budget makeover shows, eventually eclipsed by Grand Designs. It was the foppish Llewelyn-Bowen, with his mane of perfectly flamboyant hair, who turned Britain’s TV watchers into a nation of self-obsessed would-be property developers. And Changing Rooms also led to many Australian women becoming obsessed with organising their so-called ‘‘ display’’ cushions.
McCloud, while just as accessible, is more agreeably highbrow, cushions and frilly curtains rarely making an appearance in his narratives. He campaigns for architecture and design that responds to the people who use it. He believes the best design relates to context — landscape, place and neighbouring buildings — and the fun of Grand Designs is in his constant sense of disappointment when the basics are wrong.
Not that he’s interested in schadenfreude; his abiding idea is to celebrate architecture and to look for projects that perhaps will shift the canon a bit. Few TV presenters are as adroit as McCloud at presenting ideas in a condensed fashion.
In the first episode of the new series he leads us to a building in Ireland that’s more of a romantic obsession than a coherent dwelling. Actor and singer Sean Simons fell in love with derelict Cloontykilla Castle in County Roscommon when he played there as a boy.
He eventually bought it with the idea of turning it into a spectacular, theatrical mock16th-century home with grand baronial hall, luxury bedrooms, sweeping staircases, waterspouting gargoyles, jacuzzis in the battlements and a huge recording studio in the basement.
Kevin is drolly amused by the actor’s plans, ‘‘ a heady combination of history and fantasy’’, but already is worried about the possibility of ‘‘ naff Disneyfication, fakery’’.
Simons manages to borrow million just as Ireland plunges into recession, but there’s no architect and seemingly no formal plans, and the bank’s surveyor is sitting on his shoulder. ‘‘ This won’t take eight months,’’ McCloud remarks to camera. ‘‘ More like eight years.’’
The episode is a compelling example of just how entertained we are by the psychological drama of watching people chase after their deepest fantasies, of watching them as they attempt to define just what a home means to them.
As always, McCloud is charmingly at ease with his direct address to the ever-present camera, quite often in rhapsodic form. He’s so good at talking on TV, so used to it, that he’s like an actor, skilled in the presentation of the self.
So many women I know are carrying on a love affair — a very one-sided one — with McCloud. They just adore the way he climbs ladders, wears yellow gumboots, lifts a spade in the wet, and is useful as well as funny and intelligent. Grand Designs was a cult show for women of a certain age well before it crossed over and became mainstream TV. Like so many popular presenters McCloud makes no demands other than to be watched as he delivers his pleasurable experiences. ‘‘ SKILL without imagination is craftsmanship and gives us many useful objects such as wickerwork picnic baskets,’’ Tom Stoppard once said. ‘‘ Imagination without skill gives us modern art.’’
He also said, perhaps channelling the great George Burns, that it is not hard to understand modern art: ‘‘ If it hangs on a wall it’s a painting, and if you can walk around it, it’s a sculpture.’’
Well, if you are as confused as Stoppard, not only by the notion of contemporary art but also the absurdly complex, jargon-laden way that insiders talk about it, then Andrew Frost’s new two-part series, The A-Z of Contemporary Art, is the show for you. In Britain recently The Guardian, in attempting to clear things up a bit, gave this example of so-called art-speak: ‘‘ Combining radical notions of performativity and the body as liminal space, my practice interrogates the theoretical limitations of altermodernism.’’ You can see the problem; liminal space indeed.
As Frost, an art critic, writer, broadcaster and lecturer, suggests at the start of this droll series, most of us haven’t a clue about the difference between new and old media, can’t tell the difference between a biennale and a triennale, and ‘‘ notions’’ leave us baffled. To say nothing of liminal space. (It’s apparently the place of transition, when all previous ideas of yourself are released and new ones are open for exploration. So there you go.)
Frost’s show is a kind of amusing A-to-Z guidebook starting in the first episode with A to K: Artists and Biennales, the meaning of Contemporary, the art of Drawing, a list of Exceptions and Fakes, all kinds of Galleries, art History and Ideas, Junk and throwaway Kitsch. The second episode continues in this vein, covering among other notions (we are getting the hang) Modernism, Postmodernity, Queer theory and, finally, Zeitgeist.
In the first episode Frost, dressed in a black suit and crisp open-necked white shirt, and fashionably stubbled around the chops, also decodes examples of the dreaded Artspeak; looks at one of contemporary art’s favourite themes, the Body; and at what he terms the Everyday, where even brushing your teeth may be considered art.
There’s even a fast blast through art history, ending with postmodernism, all irony, pastiche and appropriation. It’s very witty, stylishly directed by Scott Otto Anderson with some striking images from cinematographer Nino Tamburri and full of dry, clear thinking about some confusing ideas. Frost is thoughtful, amiable and occasionally mordant, though any sarcasm is delivered with an impressively deadpan face and uninflected delivery.