“Architecture School,” which begins tonight on the Sundance Channel, is a rich and satisfying documentary series that incidentally rings some of the same bells as reality shows like "Project Runway" and "Top Chef" (talented folk design houses in competition) and "Flipping Out" and "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" (they build the winner). There's a little of "The Real World" in it as well -- the designers are all young, and sometimes they go to bars where music is played. But it has bigger fish to fry and crawfish to boil.
The city is New Orleans, and the eponymous institution is the Tulane University School of Architecture, which has partnered with the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services to build prototype low-income houses in the distressed Central City area. (It was distressed even before Katrina, but now it is also half deserted.) "Architecture School" follows the creation of the third of these prototypes -- and the selling of the second -- a 1,200-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom house destined for a narrow corner lot and capable of being built by unskilled labor -- the students -- in 15 weeks. The assignment elicits nervous laughter from the class when first described.
Because it's ultimately a group project and because the winning plan is chosen a third of the way through the series (by the students themselves), it is less about the clash of personalities than the way they cooperate. No one is voted off the building site (although someone never shows up). Although there is the usual manipulation of the teasers and coming attractions to get you to stick around -- we are meant, for instance, to think that a shattered car window might be from a bullet rather than, as it happens, the heat -- the series is low on manufactured drama.
Amarit gets something in his eye, Kim rips her jeans, Carter gets a measurement wrong, the wind plays havoc with the roofing, the kids may have to work through spring break, and the in-progress house gets bad notices from readers of Architectural Record. There is mild friction between the men and the women. Mardi Gras comes and goes.
The real drama surrounds the house itself and what it means in and to its place. The series is as much about the rebuilding of New Orleans and of the communities within it as it is about the architecture. In fact, the threads are inseparable -- both involve the balancing of tradition and continuity against the possibility of change, for better or worse. "Put it back like it was," says one resident of the new house going up across the street. "If you want to experiment, experiment on St. Charles Street" (in the well-to-do Garden District).
The house is modern, certainly, though radical only in the context of the neighborhood -- you see something like it on nearly every cover of Dwell magazine. It's lively and handsome and crafted with care and not at all what the phrase "student project" calls to mind. But what does it mean to build houses, even relatively inexpensive ones, that people already in the neighborhood can't afford? The series doesn't shy from the question or pretend to be able to answer it.
My only complaint about "Architecture School" is that even at six half-hour episodes it's too short -- just the length of three installments of "Project Runway." I would have liked to have seen more of the "competition" phase and to have gotten to know the builders a little better: both the students, who become more capable and confident over the school year, and their impressive professor Byron Mouton. (It's he who boils the crawfish.). Still, the series, created by Michael Selditch and Stan Bertheaud, covers a lot of ground in quick strokes. And it looks great.