The restoration man's game

George Clarke thrives on creative ambition, writes Nick Grant

George Clarke outside the Eco Hut, Gart Hill Wood, Cumbria.
George Clarke outside the Eco Hut, Gart Hill Wood, Cumbria.

When George Clarke first discussed making a series about the extraordinary inventiveness of people undertaking micro builds, the avuncular architect, best known for hosting Restoration Man, admits doubting there'd be enough material for more than one short season.

"I remember sitting in a meeting saying - and this is hand on heart the absolute honest truth - 'Well, I'm not sure how far we can take this, because once we've done caravans and camper vans and sheds and things like that, how much more of it is out there?' And you know what?" says Clarke happily, "I've been proven wrong on every single level, because we've been bombarded from all parts of the world by people saying, 'Have you heard about the guy who's doing this?', 'Have you heard about the family doing that?"'

Indeed, when Living talks to him about season one of George Clarke's Amazing Spaces, Clarke has just finished his final day filming the second season, and he's pleased to report he's already been commissioned to make two more seasons next year.

Clarke reckons that most building-related shows, including Restoration Man, "become quite serious, because people are investing their life savings and there's a lot at stake.

What's different about Amazing Spaces is that it's people buying affordable things, quirky things like buses and camper vans, so it's about 'how can we creatively make this space work?' They're more relaxed and playful, and the results are more inventive and, to be honest, fun."

People embark on micro builds for a range of reasons, says Clarke: "Some people want a place for the kids at the bottom of garden, others somewhere to work from, and then there's the conversion of the Bedford bus in the first episode, which is a business venture. But what it generally comes down to is making small spaces work in a really affordable way to create a dream space you've always wanted."

Often that involves tapping into childhood memories, which is certainly what drove Clarke's decision to convert a caravan as part of the show's first season.

"When we started filming other people's projects I was like a kid in a toy shop - I looked around and thought, 'Why don't I do one?' Two seconds later, the caravan idea occurred to me, because I have lovely nostalgic memories of spending my childhood holidays in the '70s in a caravan, even though the reality was probably horribly damp and dingy. So the aim was to restore a 1970s caravan and drag it into the 21st century, making that small space work to the point where my kids can have great childhood memories of their own."

That personal project taught Clarke that, although "the builds might be small, the ambition behind them is huge, and you've got to work really hard and invest a lot of time and creativity at the design stage to make them work".

The show has also taught the architect a great deal about the possibilities his own profession often ignores.

"I try to make the buildings I design special but even so there does tend to be a sameness: you know, there's the kitchen, there's the bathroom, the bedroom ... If we were to follow the lead of the small space movement and be more inventive and make spaces work to the millimetre in our homes, architecture would be a much better place."

The "biggest eye-opener", says Clarke, was the "genius apartment" he visits in Barcelona in season one, in which "the three-and-a-half metre by eight metre space can be reconfigured into whatever room you need at the time".

Clarke says Britain is having exactly the same debate as New Zealand - and especially Auckland - about whether to respond to a rising population by building up or out. He hopes Amazing Spaces will prompt some creative thinking about the issue.

He also hopes to visit here, having been urged for years by his grandfather to emigrate like his uncle, Stuart Dunbar: "He was always saying, 'Go to New Zealand, your uncle's living the dream there," Clarke laughs. "I've still never been, but I'd love to, it'd be brilliant to see my uncle, and maybe find some micro builds for the show a well!"

George Clarke's Amazing Spaces begins Friday, 8.30pm, on One.

- Herald on Sunday

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