Is television afraid of architecture?
Most people are born in buildings, live, work and die in them, and spend most of their money paying off the mortgage. Buildings shape our lives, as Winston Churchill once said.
Americans have recently become particularly interested in architecture. They are beginning to see that new building can make or break the quality of the environment. And that old buildings are our link to the past. They represent civilization. They are the first thing we go to see when we travel.
But when we stay home and watch television, architecture does not seem to exist. TV producers have ignored the subject since, a decade or so ago, Aline Saarimen discussed important buildings for NBC.
Tonight's architectural offering on channel 25 at 10 o'clock is, therefore, something of an event. It is also a maddening bore and confirms that TV producers suffer archiphobia.
The show, so help me, is entitled "An Architectural Odyssey With G. E. Kidder Smith" and will be broadcast nationally over the Public Broadcasting Service.
Kidder Smith is a highly regarded architecture historian, critic and photographer, who is also articulate and photogenic. As part of our Bicentennial celebration, he traveled all over the country and recorded some 2,500 of our most interesting buildings. His two-volume book about them is soon to be published.
The TV show, produced by Milton Hoffman, opens on the sky over Mesa Verde, then the mountains, then the trees, then the leaves. When the camera finally, finally can no longer avoid the cliff dwellings, the camera man pans in pain and focuses on Kidder Smith
But our hero doesn't get to say much about the ancient dwellings, because his restless producer lingers on different skies, hilltops, waters, rocks, rivers and moods.
Between moods we see Kidder Smith lugging his big tripods, along country roads, into airplanes, out of airplanes, setting them up, taking them down. On occasion, we even get to hear his camera click.
But we never get the picture.
In a few sequences Kidder Smith tells his wife Dorothea about American architecture. But he does so sitting in an airplane or on busy street corners, so we cannot hear him for the background noise. On other occassions he dictates pearls of architectural wisdom to Dorothea, who takes them all down and smiles appreciatively.
We hardly ever see a building, so there is no need to explain when, how and why it was built.
Instead, we are taken on an uncharted odyssey - from Vesa Merde to Jamestown to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles back to New York, back to Los Angeles - seeing mostly a hapless Kidder Smith toting his tripod or photographing a honeymoon couple.
We see his architectural photographs, too, presented in three or four piles thrown into the non-action at odd moments. But we don't see much of what was photographed because here, too, archiphobia seizes the cameraman. The screen shows only a jumbled series of unexplained photographs fading in and out, panning from long shot to close up to long shot in a relentless, fast rhythm.
The sterotype views are accompanied by stereotype sound - ceaselessly dull baroque music.
It is too bad - a vicious circle. Our architecture is either humdrum or elitist because people are alleged to take little interest. They take little interest because television and the mass magazines rarely discuss architecture. They rarely discuss it because they think people are not interested.
It is time for television to come to terms with the issue. Someone should have the guts to do for architecture what Sir Kenneth Clark and his producers have done for art.
Kidder Smith may be the right man - but not with archiphobic producers.