Interview: George Clarke, celebrity architect

Man with a mission

Television was the last thing on architect George Clarke’s mind when he was starting out, but he took to it with gusto and his clear passion for good design and quality homes has made a winning champion for empty homes but, as he tells Mark Cantrell, solving the housing crisis will take nothing less than a radical overhaul of the entire system

First published in Housing magazine

FROM an early age, George Clarke aspired to become an architect but by his own admission he kind of fell into television; he’s never looked back, however, and his presence on prime-time telly has served to add clout to themes that are close to his heart.

In a sense, it all started back on the building sites of his childhood in Sunderland. “My grandfathers were both builders so when I was a kid I used to be on building sites a lot, during school holidays and weekends, always helping out,” Clarke said. “At the same time, I had a huge passion for drawing. My granddads said from the earliest age I’d just sit there drawing for ages and ages. Then I tended to start drawing buildings. I spent so much time around them so I sketched them a lot. And it just moved on from there.

“I didn’t really know what an architect was when I was seven or eight years old; once I started getting to 10, 11, 12 and started reading books about buildings, architecture was the only thing that I wanted to do. I had a huge passion for buildings on every level, the way they were built, the way they were designed, and I just enjoyed reading about them. I remember, really, being about 12 years old, thinking I want to be an architect, and never wavered from it for a second.”

That unwavering commitment took him to the university of Newcastle and then university College London, where he studied architecture. By 2000 he was working his dream, having established his first practice, Clarke: Desai, with business partner Bobby Desai. Television was the last thing on his mind.

“I just stumbled into it. I literally just stumbled in,” he said. At the time, alongside running his practice, he was teaching at Newcastle University as a visiting architect and tutor, he was also writing a book. “I didn’t realise that it was a broadcasting agent as well as a literary agent. And so I signed for them on a Thursday afternoon and on the Monday morning she called me and asked had I ever thought about television?”

The agent pitched the idea and sold him on the screen test; he went along and subsequently got the job. “So literally between the Thursday afternoon and the following Tuesday, it kind of changed everything really,” he said.

He’s been on air now since 2003, first with Channel 5 – ‘Build A New Life’ – and then with Channel 4 where he’s since become the “face of architecture”. His show reel includes ‘Property Dreams’ (2004, C5), ‘Dream Home Abroad’ (2005, C5), ‘Build A New Life In The Country’ (2005-2007, C5). For Channel 4 he’s made ‘The Homes Show’ and ‘The Restoration Man’; all told they convey his infectious enthusiasm for architecture, for buildings, for homes, and the tremendous impact they can have on our lives.

But it was ‘The Empty Homes Show’, aired in December last year, that proved Clarke’s ‘call to arms’ – and one that was answered beyond even his wildest dreams.

“When you make something like that you always worry that when it comes to something political, if you like, that the public might not buy into it, but luckily they did,” he said. “In the first week, we had 100,000 people sign up for the petition. Thousands and thousands of people used the Empty Homes app to report empty homes. The Government very quickly woke up to what I was saying.”

Indeed, in April he was asked to serve as the Government’s empty homes advisor. “Basically, I ’m sent around the country to work with different councils and different areas to try and help them bring empty homes back into use and try and minimise the amount of demolition that’s happening,” he explained. “The Government’s phrase is that I ’m there to challenge [them] regarding their housing policies and also to challenge councils to think differently about how we deal with our old housing stock.”

So, what does he think of the Government’s efforts on the issue? “The Government is heading in the right direction, there’s no doubt about it. For us to be even talking about empty homes is fantastic, because it’s never been on any previous government’s radar. We’re seeing some great changes. Is it going far enough? No. Do politicians ever go fast enough? No,” he said. Not that he’d like to find himself in their shoes, especially in these difficult times.

“So, the Government is making all the right steps, all the right noises, but I find the process quite frustrating because I just want to get on with things and get things done. I’m not very good at ticking boxes and red tape and bureaucracy but unfortunately government is all about bureaucracy, really. I’ve been moving in there and trying to throw big spanners in the works and causing lots of trouble to be perfectly honest.”

As a working architect – he established a new multi-disciplinary practice George Clarke and Partners last year – as well as a successful television broadcaster, one might wonder where he finds the time to manage all this ‘extra-curricular’ activity: essentially it’s teamwork.

“A lot of hours,” he said, laughing. “I’ve got a great team behind me, some great people in the office who manage the day-to-day when I’m filming,” he said. “Genuinely, it’s an enormous amount of work, from when I get up in the morning to the minute I go to bed at night; it’s not a lot of me time, put it that way.”

Clarke clearly relishes all his roles, and is currently working on a follow up to last year’s empty homes show, catching up with some of the stories from the last programme, and reporting back the successes that have been achieved since then. Obviously, the content is rather ‘hush hush’, but not so his enthusiasm for the project and the “inspirational” stories it will reveal.

Some of the shine is lost from his palpable enthusiasm, it must be said, when considering the wider housing crisis: “I’m pretty miserable about it, unfortunately. Normally, I’m forever the optimist, but talking about the housing crisis generally, I think it’s pretty bad. It’s something that has gradually got worse and worse and worse over the last 30 years,” he said.

“We’re not building enough affordable homes at all. The Government needs to take full responsibility for that: they have neglected the affordable housing needs of Britain... We haven’t got anywhere near enough council housing in this country.

“Unfortunately, there’s too many big developers. We’re very different to Europe. If you go to places like Germany and through Scandinavia, there are many many many small scale developers, rather than the big beasts we’ve got. They dominate the industry, and they control the industry, and they drip feed the market to basically control pricing.

It’s simple supply and demand. If you’ve got very few houses being built then the houses that are there are going to be at high value; there’s always a demand and if you then reduce the supply it keeps the individual unit prices up.”

Planning, banks, architects, building quality, the whole system, it all comes in for a critical appraisal; Clarke clearly isn’t afraid to risk upsetting people, as those who saw him speak at the CIH event in Manchester will have gathered.

“The whole system is a complete mess and needs a radical overhaul... I’m not saying all the things I recommend are right, but I think we should be talking about it, we should be debating it, and we should try to move things on because we can’t carry on as we are,” he said.

“We need to be building between 350,000 and 500,000 homes per year to make the system affordable. My God, we’re not even building 100,000 of them at the minute. Year on year, the situation is getting worse and worse and worse and that’s why I think the entire system needs a massive kick up the backside.”

This interview first appeared in the September 2012 edition of Housing magazine and was subsequently re-published on the Housing Excellence website, 2 October 2012.

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