Today is my first day physically back in the TIME office, which means battling the Giant Pile of Mail. There were screeners much-awaited (HBO’s True Blood) and not-so-much-awaited (Fox’s Do Not Disturb). But the disc I immediately popped into the DVD player was one that had not been on my radar screen at all: Sundance’s Architecture School, debuting August 20.
If anything, people’s homes are even more bound up in emotion—and, when it comes to building them, stress—than food or clothes. So you’d think architecture would be a perfect fit for Bravo, as part of its Magical Elves line of Top Chef/Design shows. (Which, thanks to Project Runway, it will soon share with Lifetime.) I’m glad it didn’t make this show, though, because that enabled Sundance to put its own socially provocative spin on the creative-competition genre.
Yes, in Architecture School (and you have to love that plain-Jane title), there’s a competition. But it doesn’t involve a judges panel or weekly stunt challenges. A group of, yes, architecture students at New Orleans’ Tulane University gets the assignment to design a low-cost house to be built in an area devastated by Hurricane Katrina; the winning house will actually be erected. The show walks us through the design process and workshops, explaining principles of modern affordable design along the way, as well as traditional terms like “shotgun house.”
There’s conflict, though not the stage-managed kind (not that I have anything against the stage-managed kind on, say, Runway). Rather, in combative discussion sessions, students and professors challenge designers on their work and how well it serves the low-income residents it’s intended for. “How does this make better the life of someone who wants to live in the house,” one asks, “rather than stoke the ego of the architect who wants to express their nifty idea?” Ouch. As important, the show spends a considerable amount of time with the neighborhood residents, discussing the hurricane’s effect on them and their hopes for rebuilding.
I was a natural target for the show as would be anyone else with an interest in modern architecture (are you listening, Tim Goodman?). But for anyone whose TV is located in a home, Architecture School is a thoughtful, entertaining look at a creative field and its real-world effects. It goes to show that you don’t need a supermodel host to make a super reality show.