A reputation for restoration

photograph

From Arches 11, Summer 2008 

Architect, author, father, businessman, lecturer, TV presenter… Surely there’s a limit to how many hats one man can wear? But for George Clarke (BA Architectural Studies 1995; Certificate in Architectural Practice 1996), everything’s a bonus as long as he gets to draw buildings. Dan Howarth chats to the new face of property on Channel 4.

It’s an inspiration to see how committed George Clarke is to his work. Even now as the darling of terrestrial TV property programming, his focus on architecture remains untainted. Laid back and fully approachable, he doesn’t seem to have changed too much from the young lad who would break into building sites on Wearside, armed with just his sketchbook, a pen and a packed lunch.

‘All I ever wanted to be was an architect,’ says George. ‘Both of my grandfathers were builders, so it’s in my blood.’

Having left school at 16, George spent two and a half years working for a local architect in his home town of Washington, and after developing a strong portfolio and completing a BTEC in Building and Construction at Wearside College, he applied to study architecture at Newcastle.

But having come from a practical background, George felt slightly out of touch with the academic side of the course. ‘I found the first year quite tough initially,’ he admits. ‘I was thinking about damp proof courses and windows, rather than the spatial and theoretical aspects of architecture!’

Undeterred, he went on to win the year prize for architecture in his second and third years, and graduated with a first class degree. ‘My time at Newcastle was the best three years I’ve ever had,’ he says. ‘I had some amazing lecturers, like Harry Charrington, my second year tutor, who really inspired and motivated me.’

After graduating, George landed a job at FaulknerBrowns in Newcastle, before going on to work for Sir Terry Farrell in London, and spending time at the Farrell office in Hong Kong. He completed his training at the renowned Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL.

But this wasn’t to be the last of George’s affair with higher education, and in 2001, he returned to Newcastle as a visiting lecturer, which meant travelling up from London every Friday. When his first son was born two years later, and TV work began, George could no longer commit to the weekly trip up north.

George Clarke, whose new show Restoration Man (working title) begins on Channel Four later this year

A year’s break followed, and George is now a visiting lecturer at Nottingham University’s School for the Built Environment. ‘It’s been great: it’s a little easier to get to, and it’s got a strong environmental work ethic,’ says George. ‘But I miss Newcastle, and I miss teaching there.’

In February, George was snapped up to present a new generation of property programmes on Channel 4, having made a name for himself on Channel Five with A Dream Home Abroad and Build a New Life in the Country.

His new show, which has the working title Restoration Man, is Channel 4’s first new property commission in seven years, and George will be the channel’s first architect. ‘It’s basically a restoration series,’ he explains. ‘We’ll be looking at abandoned jewels of British architecture, and working with owners to bring them back to life. We’re not interested in the relocation aspect, so it’s going to be completely different. We’re more interested in people converting unusual buildings into homes such as water towers, pumping stations and ice houses.’

George dismisses a question about his new celebrity status with a smile. ‘I don’t really see myself as being a celebrity, I just like talking about buildings and people, which is what architecture is all about,’ he says.

‘I’ve always wanted to make architecture accessible to everyone, and TV is a great way to do that.’

Away from the spotlight, George is Creative Director at clarke:desai, an architectural practice based in London and Dorset, which he founded with his friend Bobby Desai in 1998.

The clarke:desai client list includes the likes of TV chef Jamie Oliver, and pop music impresario Simon Fuller, but it’s social developments like a recent £10 million affordable housing project in London that really get George’s creative juices flowing.

‘I think some of the best architecture in the world comes out of challenging projects, where budgets are tight,’ he says. ‘Good design doesn’t have to be expensive; it’s all about passion and commitment.’

‘Developers can make 20–30 per cent profit out of affordable housing projects, but I’m just happy to take a wage. I suppose that’s why I’ll always be a crap businessman, but a good architect!’

George would like to see Sunderland's River Wear re-developed in a similar way to the Newcastle Quayside (pictured)

George is currently working with English Heritage on plans for his first project in the North East. ‘Most people think that English Heritage are concerned with the preservation and restoration of old buildings, but they actually want to promote contemporary, innovative new buildings that could potentially be listed in 50 years time,’ he explains. ‘So we’re creating high quality architecture for the future, and that’s a completely different mindset.’

His dream project, however, is still yet to come. ‘I’d love to do a flagship development in the North East,’ says George. ‘I’ve never done anything back home, except for a few porches, garages and house extensions when I was 16!’

‘Newcastle is so vibrant. And I love Sunderland, although it has a long way to go to catch up with Newcastle. Since the shipyards have closed in Sunderland, the river has lost its identity. But the Tyne pretty much defines Newcastle. The Wear needs to do the same for Sunderland.’

‘So I suppose my dream project would be to do something by the river in Sunderland. Something economic and environmental. Something that leads the way in terms of affordable housing in Britain’.

published on: 1st May 2008

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