Piers Taylor film debuts new series on how architects work

18 March, 2020

As a subject, architects’ idiosyncratic working practices should be a gift to filmmakers. But it rarely is. Sometimes this is because the filmmaker is too in awe of his subject, for example in Tomas Koolhaas’s documentary about his father. More often it is because the raison d’etre is promotional and however hard the filmmaker tries to disguise it, this is always apparent.

Photographer and filmmaker Jim Stephenson and journalist Laura Mark have not fallen into either of these traps with their series called Practice.

The first one that Stephenson describes as “a pilot of sorts” is about Piers Taylor of Invisible Architecture and it’s clear from the outset why he’s chosen him to launch their Kickstarter campaign to make more films about interesting architects.

Taylor doesn’t fit the conventional architect mould and nor does his work. For many he embodies the down to earth, principled way of practicing that few other architects have managed to pull off.

Transported, rather too slowly, to the bucolic Somerset setting where he set up shop seven years ago and lives with his wife and children, we are given a potted history of how he came to be living in the middle of a wood and about his work he produces as Invisible Studio. 

However, the interview never touches on what made Taylor famous outside architecture – the TV show he presents with Caroline Quentin, The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes – or how Taylor has become a kind of architectural hero for railing against Brexit (among other things). Yet visually the film is a treat. Leaves rustle, birds tweet and men busy themselves with tow ropes, Land Rovers and chunks of wood. 

The ‘home made projects’ that Taylor and his friends make “by coming together doing stuff and then disappearing” is a large part of the story as is the huge influence of Glen Murcutt. “It was like I’d been given a roadmap for the rest of my life,” recalls Taylor after hearing him lecture in Sydney.

Yet we never get any further. There’s no surprise or other insights through, say, an unexpected revelation (I am still curious to know what made Taylor put on a pair of gold high heels during one of the episodes of Extraordinary Homes) that make you want to keep watching.  

Laura Mark, who knows her stuff, hasn’t probed Taylor enough, and the supporting interviews with his partner Charley Brentnall and a colleague, add nothing to our understanding of either him or ‘the practice’.

When I read that the aim was to make a series of “slow paced, contemplative documentaries looking at how architects practice”, I slightly groaned. Indeed, the film took  Stephenson and Marks two years to make partly because of other work commitments which may explain the lack of pace that at times makes you want to hit the fast forward button.

Film is an underused medium to explain architecture and has the potential to be brilliant. But it needs clarity of purpose. This did not really show us how Taylor practices. It skimmed the surface and this was a problem. 

Rather than reinforcing my view of what I already knew of Taylor and his work, I wanted to be surprised. What happens when the timber wig-wam structure fails to stand up or he needs to nip out to the local shops? I’d like to see him having a bad day, not forever poised elegantly on a tree trunk. I want this series to succeed, but wrapping architects in an exotic mist – or in this case Somerset drizzle – tells me nothing I didn’t know already.