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A GRAND MEETING WITH KEVIN MCCLOUD

As he prepared for the 11th instalment of the Grand Designs Live show at the Excel centre, we caught up with Kevin McCloud to discuss his love for the BT Tower, what makes a great invention and why he has no time for trends

This year at Grand Designs Live, you’ve chosen your ‘Green Heroes’, a handpicked selection of eco-innovations; what exactly were you looking for during the judging process?

It’s a real assembly of ideas. A lot of it comes over the course of the year, coming across something and trialing it. It’s not a democratic or committee process, it’s my choice. There’s always half a dozen new people making lampshades out of cardboard, so the trick is to try and find some work that is really, really beautiful. The same goes for furniture too. There are a lot of people to do recycled furniture; the trick is finding someone who does it with an edge who recreates and re-imagines something. Jokingly, I use the word ‘recontextualised’ — something that’s not just recycled or upcycled, but given a new purpose in a new place, and which resonates with that place in a way that it didn’t do before. 

Why is it important to you to continue doing Grand Designs Live?

Well, the series is a very important part of my life, but this is an enormously enjoyable event. We do it in Birmingham as well as London, and I get to meet my customers, which is the only time of year I do really. I can’t tell you the buzz walking in and seeing 600 to 700 exhibitors. For me it’s a very social time, and I have quite an unsociable job which involves standing in muddy fields. The only time I meet George Clarke is at Grand Designs. It’s a great time to meet some of the old muckers.

What part of London do you tend to drift towards when you visit?

The area around Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia. There are one or two streets around there which are just unchanged, small shopping streets. I like that very much.

What’s your favourite building in London?

As a kid, I very strongly remember being driven by my father down the M1 to London to see the ‘Post Office Tower’ as it was then, now it’s the BT Tower. It was on Blue Peter as a ‘modern wonder of the world’ at a time when every major city in the world had its mast. They all seemed weird and odd to me; Toronto, Helsinki, Auckland all had their strange, priapic masts. But the Post Office Tower was a bit more architectural. It had an almost Dalek, robotic look about it and a science fiction quality. I think it’s one of the great landmarks of the capital.

Is there any era of architecture you have a soft spot for?

I have a real soft spot for what I call a very British alternative tradition in design, which is a sort-of British modernist approach. It’s a bit more lyrical, and I think it’s best exemplified in the Royal Festival Hall. I am not such a fan of Brutalism, but I am a fan of bush-hammered concrete. Generally the South Bank complex is wonderful, including the National Theatre, but specifically I reserve my affections for the Royal Festival Hall, which is more poetic. Now it has been refurbished it’s a rather glamorous way to spend an evening.

Do you believe in interior or architectural trends?

I’ve said before I wouldn’t know a trend if it hit me in the face. I’m not interested in it really; I’m interested in people being relatively stylish, in architecture being good and well crafted. It brings to mind that thing Rem Koolhaas said about buildings; they take so long to design and build that if you put any fashion into it, by the time it’s built it’s passé. So don’t bother trying.

When it comes to interior design, is there any particular style that really turns you off?

Well, I reserve a particular loathing for ‘bling’. That’s anything that looks like the designer’s last job might have been a portable CD player. Loads of chrome and plastic. For me bling is a deception, and a betrayal of quality for the pursuit of the ‘shiny’.

On the Grand Designs TV series, you seem to have quite a good rapport with each subject and tend to avoid the conflict often seen in similar shows, is that something that’s important to you?

Very early on a producer of mine said ‘if we don’t care for the people, we don’t care for the building’ and she was right. It’s really, really important that we make each project different, and tell a story which nobody has ever quite heard before. The culmination of all that novelty means that, just as they are pushing for the very best possible home, we are pushing for the very best possible film. I’ve found that pissing people off is a great way to damage a film. My job is to tell stories, and if I don’t have the trust of the people I’m working with, then we can’t tell that story. And where we’ve failed, that’s led us into trouble. It hasn’t happened very often.

It’s important to tell a story which is truthful, not a silly whipped up piece of nonsense but something which has its roots in their experience. My job is to interpret, and I can’t do that if all I’m doing is laughing at people at their expense. Equally my job is to goad, push and cajole, but you can only do that once you’ve got a good relationship. I think it’s just proper old-fashioned telly. It’s not scripted, we just see where it goes. If all I did was turn up and read some cynical lines from a piece of paper, I’d have given up 15 years ago. You can’t go through life being negative, you’d turn into a pitiful human being, and it would turn me into Gollum. 

What’s next for you?

Well we’ve got a new series of Grand Designs coming out in the autumn followed by a series of four one-hour programmes about how we live: our cities, our suburbs, rural and remote environments. I’ve also got a series about living in the wild, where I go to extreme parts of the world and discover British people living in extraordinary environments with their families. I’ve been to Tonga, the Arctic Circle and the side of a volcano in Chile.

Grand Designs Live is on at the Excel Centre until 10 May for details and tickets visit: granddesignslive.com

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