Lights, Camera, Design, Action!

Lights, Camera, Design, Action!

The UK’s newest TV makeover program is tackling something more complicated than someone’s wardrobe or living room. Kester Ratternbury goes behind the scenes for the made-for-TV revitalization of an entire town.

Those who call television the new public realm probably don’t have reality-based makeover shows in mind. But they might change their minds after viewing the latest wave of British public programming. Last summer, UK viewers voted on which of a range of derelict buildings–presented on TV over several weeks–they wanted to restore, with the full support of the English Heritage, the government agency devoted to maintaining the country’s built heritage. Next October’s Regeneration: The Castleford Project takes an even bigger step into the workings of democracy and design when Castleford, a town in Yorkshire, is revitalized for TV broadcast

This is not fly-on-the-wall documentary-making. The revitalization, called "regeneration" in British parlance, of Castleford is created by and for TV. It is produced by Talkback Productions for the BBC’s Channel 4 (the UK’s alternative public programming channel), which put 5 million (almost US $8 million) into the series (though only 100,000, or US $150,000, into the projects!). Talkback spearheaded the partnership of local and national public and public-private regeneration bodies, which provided the capital funding for this project. They identified the town, found key local people, and helped them form into community groups. They brought in experts to advise the citizenry and the local city council on how to select and work with the designers, advise on the regeneration, and manage the project. And they are pushing the whole project through for completion for a Fall 2004 broadcast. In fact, they assumed the role of the leading local authority. Except that they’re filming everything, and this time next year, they won’t be in town.

The Talkback team is led by the experienced TV producer David Barrie, and high-profile developer- architect Roger Zogolovitch, a former member of the government’s Urban Task Force and now a principal of his own development/ regeneration firm, AZ Urban Development, based in London. Zogolovitch acts as the "ringmaster" of the designers, with regeneration expert Chris Brown of Igloo Regeneration (London and Manchester) advising. Talkback is dead serious about its intentions, and shrugs off claims that this is the biggest makeover in television history. "This is not makeover telly," Barrie insisted. (They shook off a journalist from a tabloid by claiming it was a deeply worthy and boring urban regeneration program). According to Barrie and his team, the project makes the community into clients. The program should expose and cut through the clogging mass of bureaucratic red tape that makes urban regeneration so problematic. It might also act as a model–for the 3 to 4 million-plus viewers they hope to attract–of how they, too, can motivate change in their own towns, and what quality of design they ought to expect.

Talkback pulled in a top design shortlist despite the minimal fee ((1,000 or US $1,500 fees for the first phase) and the uncertainty of how the designers would be presented to the public, given the risk of getting voted off the telly. The shortlist included top young London firms such as Fat; Alex de Rijke of dr.m.m; Sarah Wigglesworth Architects; Anthony Hudson of Hudson Architects; DSDHA; McDowell & Benedetti; Dept.; as well as Nottingham-based Letts Wheeler Architecture & Design; Leeds firm Allen Tod Architecture. Also recruited were veteran community architect Ted Cullinan of Edward Cullinan Architects, Whitby Bird Engineers, and landscape design firm Parklife (all based in London). Early in the process, Will Alsop, Foreign Office Architects, and West 8 pulled out before filming began, this winter.

Castleford is a great candidate for urban renewal. It is a former mining town with real problems, real character, and an economy that’s been depressed since the coalmines shut down 20 years ago. It was a Roman town and, as one of the locals said, "if the Romans had built in stone, not wood, they’d be where York is now." Run-down and under-funded, Castleford still has a small working industry, including a flourmill, a Burberry factory, and a chemical plant right on the edge of town. It’s cheerful and lively, with classic urban problems such as a riverside you can’t get to, roads carving through the town, auto-centric business parks fueling the new economy but never designed to be part of the urban fabric. The program gives great focus to the many small towns in the UK which have been left behind and forgotten in the postindustrial age.

All the short-listed proposals shrewdly mixed highly visible, highly achievable elements with strategic moves to re-engineer the long-term workings of the town of 38,000 inhabitants–assuming the pressure of the cameras could be used to break the usual logjam of competing interests.

Ultimately, none of the schemes were hugely controversial, even if the way the architects drew or described them sometimes made them seem so. Fat, for instance, proposed a sensible, mild strategy that included lighting the old mill building, upgrading the old market gardens, moving the market, making a riverside walk, fountains and floating bridge. Unfortunately, their Vegas-style graphics and comically challenging presentation might have acted against them. Ted Cullinan’s Tiger Park, a park in the shape of a Tiger (in honor of the local football team) won the popular vote but was reluctantly dropped by cautious locals as too difficult to maintain. De Rijke’s Pringle-potato-chip-shaped market canopy fared similarly.

In the end, the community went for the gentlest of the schemes: Wigglesworth’s community riverside adaptations; Benedetti’s illumination running round the main pool of the river and his simple floating bridge (now to have an old barge as a central floating island); Allen Tod’s playground treehouses and "archaeological" remaking of local public space; DSDHA’s market redesign; and Parklife’s straightforward landscape upgrade that proposed to make the park safer and more engaging for all ages. The TV producers’ lights, camera, design, action! continued from previous page   architectural advisers did their best to keep many of the other schemes (like those by Fat or Letts Wheeler) among the favored, but after a huge discussion–mainly off camera and without the architects–the community made its own choice.

No matter how much Talkback hates the makeover tag, the project is shaped by some of the demands of television, concerning, for example, time, scope, budget, visibility, not to mention drama. The nature of the production set up its own bureaucratic maelstrom, i.e., tension between design management and project management (i.e., the producers). The architectural ringleaders, on the side of flexible, lateral-thinking design, struggled against the producers’ desire for a fast-track schedule. In Barrie’s mind, however, TV’s demands coincide with those of the public, which would hate to experience the real world’s endless public procurement process. "Two years ought to be quite long enough for a small project like this," he said, "quite long enough to do things like upgrade an underpass." His point is well taken: The participating architects are anxious, of course, about progress. The selected schemes are now being developed, with the winners working together on a general strategy that links their ideas. But as of yet, contracts have not been sorted and the time schedule is ebbing away. There’s even talk of delaying broadcast for six months.

Regeneration: The Castleford Project is a welcome alternative to the current, hugely complex, and slow forms of regeneration and, given the size of its audience, potentially influential on a grand scale. Of course, there are dangers with this model, such as the possibility of TV producers foisting their own comic or cruel agenda on their unsuspecting subjects. The Castleford Project opens a new range of questions about how democracy works in the age of television, when TV itself becomes akin to the client, local authority, representative of the community–and chronicler–rolled into one.
Kester Rattenbury is a critic and teacher based in London.