Architect and presenter George Clarke loves knocking down walls to turn Ugly House To Lovely House on TV. Now, he’s taking his sledgehammer to the thinking behind new-builds – and tells David Johns how’s he’s encouraging the next generation of architects to do the same, starting in Brum!
Have you ever wondered what George Clarke really thinks about some of the homes that feature in his TV shows. After all, how often have you said you love someone’s taste in wallpaper or paint only to feel like throwing up once out of the door? The architect and presenter has an amazing ability to turn your average messed-up semi into the coolest dream home on the street. And where most of us would give up at the thought of knocking down a wall, George absolutely relishes picking up the sledgehammer and getting properly stuck in.
Part of his appeal is his down-to-earth style which has made shows like The Restoration Man, George Clarke’s Amazing Space, Old House New Home and Ugly House To Lovely House hugely popular. Behind the matey persona though is a serious and passionate professional who has worked with some of the biggest name in the architectural business.
As well as providing the rest of us with great entertainment and thought-provoking ideas, George is also a champion of producing better-designed new homes for people to live in – and better young architects to design them. That’s why he jumped at the chance when offered a visiting professorship at Birmingham City University.
The four-year Design for Future Living course began last September and sees students develop knowledge of how new understandings of the home, digital technologies and creative design can help shape the places where we live.
George who will make regular visits to give lectures, work with the students and share advice – via digital link during the coronavirus crisis – says he is honoured by the new role. “Birmingham School of Architecture and Design is a really forward-thinking institution and I know a lot of academics there and they are really like-minded. Birmingham is currently experiencing a massive amount of change and it is great to be part of that in a positive way. The city was at the heart of the industrial revolution, so why can’t it be at the heart of Britain’s housing revolution?
George is in no doubt that a huge change is needed in the way we design and build our homes. He’s hyper-critical of the millions of boring boxes being churned out by the country’s biggest building companies – not just how they look but also the lack of quality and sense of creating a proper community. And in case you think it’s easy for a celebrity architect to find fault, we should point out that George grew up around building sites – both his grandfathers were builders. “Where other lads were playing with Lego, I was experiencing the real thing.”
He says: “The quality of new-build in this country is shocking, presenting the lowest form architecture. The big house builders have a knack of making Government feel like they are doing them a favour. But in reality, this country has huge home design talent and we should be building truly wonderful new estates. Instead what we are getting from the big builders is scandalous. Good architecture is good whether it is old or modern. It’s all about what is appropriate for the location and building a proper community.”
As we spoke, George was juggling filming new series of Amazing Spaces, Restoration Man and Ugly House to Lovely House with setting up his own home building company to address the need to produce better, unique new housing in the UK. The move, he explains, is something he has been working on for several years after “deep conversations with a number of landowners”.
While not copying the highest profile builder in the land, George admits he has huge admiration for the new community of Poundbury, created by the Prince of Wales on Duchy of Cornwall land outside Dorchester in Dorset. Due for completion in 2025, Poundbury houses nearly 6,000 people in a new town which also features more than 180 businesses and has been widely praised for reviving low-rise streetscape which also incorporates local design features.
George said: “I just came off the phone to the Prince of Wales Foundation to talk about many things relating to good quality new homes. These include not just the housing itself, which people must want to live in and enjoy, but also creating a proper community which they feel proud to be part of and care for. Poundbury has fantastic building rules, for example about how many trees must be planted in the landscape. Despite being more traditional in style, it’s all about homes being designed for 21st century living. We don’t live in the past.”
George is adamant that it’s not the size of company that’s the problem with homebuilding in the UK. “Just because a company is big doesn’t excuse it from producing great design and quality. There are many examples in other areas of big companies which are to be admired for their product design – companies like Apple to name one. House building should be just as high quality and original.”
Since teaming up Birmingham City University, George has had conversations with important and influential voices involved in the future direction of Birmingham, including West Midlands Combined Authority and the mayor Andy Street – who he said he met with “over a few drinks”. He added: “Birmingham is a fantastic city and with HS2 approved there will be a staggering demand for new housing. So for me, that housing has to be done well for the area.”
One thing that George says he never wants to hear in any discussion about new house building is the word ‘units’. It sums up everything that is impersonal, mass-produced and poor quality which he is pledged to fight – whether that be on TV, in the lecture room or with his own grand plans to deliver the best homes possible.