It would be easy to dismiss “Cool Spaces!,” a new series on contemporary architecture that will make its KCET debut at 10 p.m. Thursday, as a superficial if very earnest example of the dumbing down of American culture. The title of the show -- especially its exclamation point -- is enough to give you a sense of the smiling and credulous tone that prevails.
Sorry: the smiling and credulous tone that prevails!
And in fact the three buildings featured in the first episode -- the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City and Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, home to the NBA’s Nets -- are presented in a breezy tone that occasionally verges on Robin Leach-like ogling of 1% privilege.
Host and series creator Stephen Chung, a Boston architect, has this to say about the Barclays interior: “The club called the Vault may be the most exclusive destination, with 13 individual suites that radiate out from a glittering champagne bar.”
Chung, who wrote the first episode with director Dan Frank, follows that up with a question about the role played in the club’s detailing by Jay Z, who used to own a small fraction of the Nets. An interior designer tells him, “Every time we showed him a rendering, it was sort of, ‘Make it more gold! Make it more gold!’ So we had a lot of fun with that.”
More gold! Lot of fun.
There are moments when Chung, always amiable in his on-camera role, shifts gears to talk about architectural details and even acoustics or structural engineering. When he draws diagrams on the surface of a flat-screen display, like a football commentator breaking down a pass rush or Brian Williams manipulating an electoral map on election night, he begins to make some compelling points about architecture and how it’s made. He’s a natural in this role. He should do more of it.
These brief scenes are for the most part drowned out by commentary from the architects (HKS in Dallas, Moshe Safdie in Kansas City and SHoP and AECOM in Brooklyn) that is more self-promotional than insightful. When the people who own, run or paid for these facilities are given substantial screen time -- Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Barclays developer Bruce Ratner, Kauffman Foundation head Julia Kauffman -- the discussion drifts even further from design.
In general Chung and Frank seem not to have realized that the people a building and its owners make available to them for the show are not necessarily the ones who will have the smartest things to say about its architecture.
But let’s not be too hard on Chung -- or on “Cool Spaces!” The truth is that producers have been struggling to figure out how to make architecture come alive on the small screen for many decades.
We may think back to Robert A.M. Stern’s eight-part 1986 series for PBS, “Pride of Place,” as some kind of erudite high point for architecture on TV. And in fact what distinguishes Stern from Chung is that the older architect used his public TV series to advance what was really a cultural argument (and one that Stern felt real urgency about): that modernism, with its desire to break from history, had not only ruined sections of our cities but created a kind of rupture in the American civic consciousness. A rupture, of course, that Stern, as a prominent architect himself, proposed to smooth over, with help from fellow post-modernists Michael Graves and Robert Venturi.
The closest the first episode of “Cool Spaces!” comes to a unifying argument is that in an age of home theaters and high-definition television it is becoming tougher and tougher for the producers of live events to lure people out of the house. Jerry Jones’ answer to that quandary has been to make everything inside his football stadium -- even the art -- stupefyingly large.
Yet it turns out that Stern’s series was knocked for being superficial too -- and for being awed by rich people and their glittering stuff.
“Instead of architectural analysis, Pride of Place gives us a House & Garden version of American architecture. Everything is reduced to surface, fa¿¿ade, decoration, local color — the couture of architecture,” Roger Kimball wrote in the New Criterion. “Also characteristic is the disproportionate amount of time Mr. Stern spends wandering through the houses of the very rich: the ‘cottages’ at Newport, Rhode Island, Hearst’s San Simeon, James Deering’s Vizcaya in Biscayne Bay, Florida, Isabella Stewart Gardner’s Fenway Court, Boston, and so on.”
For good measure, Kimball also called Stern’s screen presence “consistently, comically wooden.”
Even Paul Goldberger, who appeared in one of the “Pride of Place” episodes and was generally sympathetic to its critical stance, wrote in the New York Times about Stern, “He is not a great speaker and, indeed, often comes off as a bit prim, like a schoolboy reading from prepared lines.”
The next episode of “Cool Spaces!” to air on KCET, on July 10, will focus on libraries and include segments on the Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and Snohetta’s Hunt Library in Raleigh, N.C.