TV review: Brutal buildings and daft decisions

Brutal or beautiful? Unite D'habitation, Marseilles, with Jonathan Meades. Photograph: BBC / Francis Hanly
9 Mar 2014 @ 9.34 pm
| News
Brutal or beautiful? Unite D'habitation, Marseilles, with Jonathan Meades. Photograph: BBC / Francis Hanly
Brutal or beautiful? Unite D’habitation, Marseilles, with Jonathan Meades. Photograph: BBC / Francis Hanly

Jonathan Meades: Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness BBC4
Horizon: How You Really Make Decisions BBC2

York is remarkably free of the post-war Brutalist concrete architecture that now mars so many British towns and cities.

True, there’s the Stonebow office block, described as “a disaster” by architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, and by The York Book as “one of the ugliest buildings” in the city.

Hilary House, at the end of St Saviourgate, way out of scale and at odds with its surroundings, is even worse.

But for Jonathan Meades, much Brutalist architecture should be viewed as “concrete poetry”. He set out his stall over two programmes on BBC 4 in the unique Meadesian style which can be described most politely as provocative and challenging.

Meades is hard to like. A word-drunk intellectual, he does not wear his learning lightly.

If your definition of a competently-constructed sentence is one which can be understood by the listener first time, then he’s probably not your man.

It is also hard to imagine any television presenter in whom the gulf between vanity and actual appearance is so marked.

In his black suit and sunglasses, he stands to attention for our inspection, part geek, part gangster, wanting to be adored.

At times he’s an almost ethereal presence behind the buildings he’s talking about, as if he’s an integral part of the architecture.

He must drive his producers mad with these ideas. At one point Meades towers over the Berlin Wall. Then he’s in a room where he is dwarfed by a massive baby.

Most bizarrely of all, he wears a tiger costume, stuffs himself with crisps and reads a Harry Potter book.

This is his way of illustrating the belief that poor architecture is “a curtailment of our ambition” and will infantilise us.

But some observations hit the spot and it was worth staying the course over the two programmes. Television needs mavericks who play by their own rules and make us look at the world in a different way.

Much of the work Meades espouses, such as that by his architectural hero Le Corbusier, is standing the test of time and he explains why.

Mind you, he defends some pretty vile stuff, including the Tyneside car park, now demolished, which featured in the original Michael Caine Get Carter film.

Meades believes that Brutalist architecture’s “golden age” from the 1950s to the 1970s can be related to the rise of atheism. Once we think we are alone in a Godless universe, we are liberated from convention.

Mankind is top of the pile and can express ever more powerful and imposing buildings on the Earth without any risk that they will crash down like the Tower of Babel.

At least, I think that’s what he meant. Any criticism has to be tempered by the knowledge that I might simply have got the wrong end of the stick.

Prof Paul Dolan of the LSE in Horizon. Photograph: BBC / Nigel Bradley
Prof Paul Dolan of the LSE in Horizon. Photograph: BBC / Nigel Bradley

I’ve made a few odd decisions in my life. I’m the uncrowned world champion of crying over the milk that was spilt when I made those wrong calls.

There was therefore something slightly comforting about Horizon on Monday. How You Really Make Decisions looked at the everyday battle we face between intuition and logic. I now know that I am not alone in my folly.

Our brains have two systems, fast and slow. Fast is intuition: two times two is four. No thought process required. Slow is logic: 22 times 17 is 374. We need to work that one out.

This conflict between two systems confuses us. We’ll use one when the other would be more appropriate and it can get us into trouble.

Snapshot decisions should sometimes have been thought out more. Or, like Hamlet, we can think too precisely on the event.

Then there’s something called confirmation bias, where we look for familiar patterns and don’t give proper consideration to new angles.

Intelligence experts were put to the test on Horizon. In a simulated event, all but one failed to spot the real terror threat from a previously non-violent organisation.

They were too hung up on red-herring information being fed to them about established terrorists. I must admit that I didn’t find that one quite so comforting.

Insights like these have led to the creation of a new field, behavioural economics. It won Daniel Kahneman, an Israeli-American, a Nobel Prize in Economics.

Making mistakes is part of what is to be human. It’s in our DNA, as it is with monkeys who were shown getting in a twist over two identical bowls of grapes.

The message is clear. We must change the environment, we cannot change ourselves.

In the meantime, I’d like to extend the hand of forgiveness to a couple of old flames who let me down.

I know you loved me really. You just got confused between intuition and logic.