Kevin McCloud made honorary architect

The success of Grand Designs' TV presenter in bringing architecture to a wider audience has been rewarded with membership of …

The success of Grand Designs' TV presenter in bringing architecture to a wider audience has been rewarded with membership of the profession. Emma Cullinanasks him about demystifying design

"What I've been trying to do for the past eight years, on Grand Designs, is to make 'architecture' a word that everyone can use freely and to promote the idea of using an architect - and a good architect at that," says TV presenter Kevin McCloud who was recently made an Honorary Fellow of the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) along with nine other non-architects recognised for their contribution to architecture, including clothes designer Paul Smith and London Mayor Ken Livingstone.

He begins our conversation, during a break in filming the latest series, by being a tad "awe shucks" about the honour. "It's all very nice and flattering and I felt that it's a sort of thank-you from the community," but when McCloud describes going up to receive the award at the RIBA in London he gets into his stride. "There were people from the art and architecture world, and MPs. When standing up and getting the thing I sort of felt, well that's great, but do you know what made a complete difference and absolutely overwhelmed me? I got a round of applause. Everybody was being polite but in that moment I realised that blimey we - and we are a team - we've done it.

"We had that tiny little objective and we'd got there and that was fantastic. In that moment when I walked up on the stage I had a sort of emotional blip. It was wow, it was lovely. Now we've got to go out there and do a bit more - promoting architecture and also promoting sustainable architecture more."


McCloud is just as engaging in conversation as he is on television, pausing thoughtfully, and saying, "you know", before introducing a subject to which your natural response is to listen in.

Such engagement works with the clients on Grand Designs for whom he is sympathetic while being prepared to ask awkward questions in a pleasant way.

"We concentrate on the client because that's where the emotional investment is," says McCloud. "The architect will move to the next project and the client will live in the house for the next 20 years."

But the programme's forte is seeing the projects from the architect's point of view too and respecting what they do.

I remind him of one programme in which the client wanted a home in sympathy with Mies van der Rohe's Farnsworth House but the client increasingly took over at the building stage and the details started to be eroded to an extent where the design was severely compromised.

"What a waste of time that was," he agrees. "It spirals on and on and you see the degradation of the original ideas. I'm a real advocate of a full service contract, I really am. We try and follow projects where the architects are retained."

While many see architecture as a bit of a mystery, not helped by having the subject clouded in archi-speak, Grand Designs has opened up the building process - showing how architects and clients work in tandem and how the building is put together.

"The great and the funny thing is that the design process is not mysterious. To design is to be human. We are, all of us, naturally expressive, creative human beings. If you want to buy a sofa, car or go on holiday what do you do? You look at magazines, you look at places that inspire you. You organise, you choose, you decide and before you know it you are creating something; you are creating an experience. That's exactly what design is like. You research, you create a brief and follow it. It's just that architects have more training so they can do it in a bit more of a disciplined way and do it faster.

"An architect will respond to people, to place, to context, to site, to budget and go away, take ideas, flesh them out and build them up. We all do that."

Some architects may panic at the thought of a client imagining that they can do the job just as well as them; after all, architects have to put up with the notion that they swan around drawing pretty pictures all day but McCloud is well aware of the complexity of the role - hence his belief that designers should be taken on to see the job through until the end of the build.

In Grand Designs he has seen the value of a good architect/client relationship - one in which the client cares about design. "People who are fascinated with design employ an architect because of that fascination and they find themselves becoming deeply involved and as obsessive about detail and material as the architect. I'm filming a project at the moment in Scotland with someone who runs a design business. He's absolutely fascinated with building, architecture and the design process. He's almost like the third architect on the project, putting all his time and energy into the design solutions."

As well as opening up the building process Grand Designs illustrates that behind every polished façade, exquisite form and much-adored abode there is an often painful building process that pushes up budgets and tests relationships.

"Of course conflict arises and so it's important to choose an architect who in some way shares your view of the world because it is going to be rough," says McCloud. "There are going to be disagreements and budget problems. You're creating beautiful, very expensive, bespoke, one-off objects.

"Any piece of architecture that is worth its salt is going to be original and involve experiments. An architect friend of mine said to his client, 'I am going to make one big mistake on this project, I don't know what it is yet, but I am going to make one big mistake and you are going to pay for it'. If you don't have a mistake it means you haven't pushed the envelope."

While many architects seek to do more than just one-off houses, McCloud's work on Grand Designs has brought him into contact with those who specialise in this work. "I'm intrigued by practices who specialise in one-off houses. They tend to get very good at that and dealing with clients on a one-off basis. The late Richard Paxton [who died too young last year] was very good in that respect. There's a great deal of humanity required in the work and I sum it up as people and place, although there are many other ways of talking about it, of course."

So how does the intimacy of the client/architect relationship portrayed in Grand Designs (and its sister programme Trade Secrets on More 4) compare with the projects he presents in the annual RIBA Stirling Prize award programme. "Stirling is a very different kind of thing. Grand Designs is about understanding architecture through people because architecture is for people. It's about trying to understand the journey and coming to care for the building because you care for the people for whom the building is built. That's how you demystify architecture, by having people who understand that buildings belong to them. Buildings aren't put up for an elite few, they are there for us all to enjoy.

"That's what Grand Designs illustrates whereas the Stirling is about points of excellence in the landscape and trying to explain the story of the evolution of a building: how it comes to be great, why it's on the short list and why it deserves to win the Stirling Prize."

McCloud has taken a roundabout route to his current role of bringing architecture to the masses. He started out with a career in music (a discipline whose mix of maths and art can be compared to architecture), then studied languages, and philosophy before switching to the history of art and architecture. He now runs a product design practice, specialising in lighting and furniture.

"The only thing I haven't done is practice as an architect and I don't think I could do either. There's a large set of skills and aptitudes required and I don't think that I have those. I probably could have been an architect but I think to be a successful and very good one requires a very specific and large range of skills. Those who do it all brilliantly are scary."