Around the world with hardly time to draw breath

Architectural historian Dan Cruickshank’s light touch could sometimes use a firmer hand, but he’ll win you over all the same

Dan Cruickshank’s CV describes his new eight-part series for BBC Two, Dan Cruickshank’s Adventures in Architecture, as “an anthropological history

of architecture through the stories of nearly 40 different buildings, places and cities”. His opening programme remarks put it less ambitiously: “This is the story of how architecture has defined the way we live,” he says. In the event, the series tells fascinating individual stories, but lacks an overarching plot.

This must be Mr Cruickshank’s tenth television series. He is a noted architectural historian with concern for heritage and conservation, but in this series, from the titles forward, he comes across as the Tintin of TV architecture, evading bandits, climbing into subterranean tombs, squeezing through tight spaces, and taking us to some magnificent sites in the process. A veteran performer on location, he has a facility for recapturing first-time surprise, for vivid evocation and informed, off-the-cuff, commentary on buildings. His mannerisms are now his hallmark: a breathless, sotto-voce intimacy and dramatic exaggeration: “Golly!” “Wow!” The more natural he is, the more I warm to his genial personality. It is hard not to compare him with John Betjeman, one of his heroes, and Kenneth Clark, still unsurpassed as a TV art historian. Techniques, novel in the 1960s, such as the hand gliding over the object, now seem over-used and have lost their meaning and degenerated into touchy feely gestures, as indeed Mr Cruickshank’s subject, which might have dealt more consistently with technique, style and aesthetics, is often hijacked by human interest.

The series is divided into eight episodic themes: of beauty—the only aesthetic concept—death, paradise, disaster, connections, power, dreams and pleasure. These provide a loose wrapping paper for a medley of jaunts into extreme, exotic and exceptional environments, such as the Arctic Circle, India, China, and the Russian wastes. Some are remote, and like the 12th-century minaret in Jam in Afghanistan, only accessible under armed police escort. The series represents Continental Europe and the Americas, but the British Isles is not, so I am informed, part of the anthropological story, a glaring omission, surely. His unseen production team deserves praise for submitting to the same strenuous regime over eight months filming, and acquiring such magnificent material. The editing is seamless and easy-going, allowing you to savour the shots. Mr Cruickshank chats to locals along the way and has a brief set-piece exchange at every call point. 

It works best when the chosen buildings express the theme. The examples in “Death” are illustrative and have more to do with places of burial and memorial than with architecture. Sights for the curious include an ossuary in which the bones of the dead decorate a chapel in Sedlec in the Czech Republic, and Staglieno cemetery in Genoa, in which commemorative statuary titillates mourners with sensual pleasure. The theme of disaster may fascinate, but is only tenuously connected to architecture. Mr Cruickshank contrasts the reconstruction of Dresden and the ruins of Palmyra in Syria, a great city laid waste by the Romans. In San Francisco, under constant threat of earthquakes, he makes an interesting technical exploration into how engineers have safeguarded public buildings like the town hall.

His particular interests and concerns emerge strongly in the course of the programmes. He is a past master, for example, at demonstrating a building’s construction. In Greenland, he has hands-on experience of “man’s dream of creating beauty”—building an igloo. “A miniature masterpiece of engineering,” he remarks on completion, “so simple and also so complex in construction.” He explores the Hanging Temple in Shanxi, poised miraculously on the mountain face. “It is more a work of the gods than man,” he says. Most of its weight is carried on horizontal beams, which “work as cantilevers. The more weight that’s put on them, the more firmly they’re rooted into the mountain side. This is Taoist architecture working with nature, drawing strength from the mountain itself.”

He also has a knack of tweaking out the meaning of buildings, however controversial, with a light touch. The Sun Temple at Konark in India is “the most beautiful and also the most obscene, a symbol to the power of sex”. Victorian observers called it “beastly”.

The fourth episode, “a journey to paradise on earth”, benefits in particular from Mr Cruickshank’s explanations. In the middle of a frozen lake in the wilds of Russia, he is astonished by two wooden, multi-domed churches. “In total 33 domes. Christ dies in his 33rd year, so perhaps this represents his death, in which case,” he speculates, “it’s paradise, it’s to do with judgement, death, the end of the world, the world to come.” He interprets the Hindu temple of Sri Ranganathaswamy in India in similar vein, “the seven concentric square enclosures representing the seven visible worlds of Hindu cosmology, dedicated to god Vishnu …The architectural plan of the temple is ornamental and symbolic, but also very functional because together they create the perfect theatre for the rituals enacted within…The temple is the living pulsating temple of the god, a vision of the divine cosmos, a vision of paradise.”

The story of architecture carries a message for us today, Mr Cruickshank believes. The acid rain remorselessly eroding the sandstone Buddha of Leshan “is a warning from the past to the future”. For him, the minaret still intact in the Afghan battle zone “stands for the vulnerability of historic sites around the world, threatened by conflict and looting. In this conservation conscious age, we assume our most precious buildings are safe. Yet, in the 21st century, many face new dangers and imminent disaster.”

His strongest creed is that architecture has an independent life. In New Orleans, Louisiana, we look round Evergreen, a former sugar plantation. Its public face was a grand family mansion in Greek Revival style, whose giant columns magnified its owner’s social and cultural ambitions. “Behind the house was a different world…a grim industrial road with utilitarian cabins on either side… the slave quarters…While the slave quarters survive,” Mr Cruickshank says, “people are reminded of the evil that comes when man has power over man, the evil of exploitation, the evil of domination.” He ends a visit to Astana, the space age capital city for independent Kazakhstan, with a tour of Norman Foster’s pyramid, “a pioneering piece of structural engineering”. For Mr Cruickshank, its symbolism represents the autocratic president as sun god. “Although displays of power can be oppressive,” he concludes, “they can also produce architecture of high quality. History teaches that something ugly can create something beautiful.” n

o Dan Cruickshank’s Adventures in Architecture BBC Two: “Beauty”, 2 April; “Death”, 9 April; “Paradise”, 16 April; “Disaster”, 23 April; “Connections”, 30 April; “Power”, 7 May; “Dreams”, 14 May; “Pleasure”, 21 May. Written and presented by Dan Cruickshank. Executive producer Basil Comely. Producers/ directors John Hay, Andrea Illescas, John Mullen, Helen Nixon, et al.

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