The Secret Life of Buildings (Channel 4)

A perky guide makes grim office architecture a joy, says Rachel Cooke

I do like Channel 4's new architecture series The Secret Life of Buildings. Specifically, I like its presenter, Tom Dyckhoff, who is so wonderfully natural on-screen, without ever being cocky. He is perky, sincere, unassuming and willing to make a fool of himself occasionally. (He keeps donning these silly Victorian bathing suits. Who knows why?)

The only thing that confuses me is his stance. While I agree with almost everything he says in The Secret Life of Buildings - its central point is that architects and builders are too often allowed to ignore how some poor sod will have to live or work in their designs for years - I can't help but wonder if this doesn't contradict the position he took in an earlier documentary, I Love Carbuncles, which was a hymn to various brutalist nightmares. I'm not sure you can have it both ways. Hey, I guess we all have to make a living. Television yawns in the face of those who stick to their guns.

Part two (8 August, 8pm) was about offices: how dreary they are and how this can affect us. First, Dyckhoff set about demolishing the received wisdom that open-plan offices are productive and happy. He donned a sort of swimming cap with electrodes on it - sorry about the science bit; I'm sadly lacking the vocabulary - which was connected to a computer, on the screen of which a neuroscientist could monitor his brain. Dyckhoff looked very cute: like one of BB's little grey men (a gnome, basically). His brain, however, looked extremely cross.

Whenever his "colleagues" talked over him, brushed by his chair or fought the photocopier, it would turn red - a sign, apparently, that his concentration was evaporating. As someone who worked in open-plan offices for years and now works at home, I already knew that the received wisdom was rubbish. It was fortifying to have a scientist back me up. The next time I visit the mother ship (the newspaper for which I work most of the time), my scorn for some of its groovier features will no doubt have doubled.

On the other hand, at least my mother ship is light, airy and moderately colourful. The places that Dyckhoff visited, though "iconic" on the outside, were grim within. At the offices of Deloitte, the financial services firm, a partner admitted that when he moved into its outwardly gorgeous new building, he thought: "Oh, no!" The place was grey, bland and institutional - but what to do? The company leases the space. Its options are limited. At the moment, employees are being encouraged to get creative with pot plants.

Worse still was 30 St Mary Axe, the Swiss Re Building, also known as the Gherkin. Dyckhoff, somewhat nervously, introduced its architect, Norman Foster, to some of the people who work in his grand design and think it fairly isolating (there is no social space; the view is their only consolation).

Then he asked him if he wasn't disappointed with what the building's owner had done with its interior. After all, it was Foster who, in the 1970s, designed the marvellous and now grade-one-listed Willis Building in Ipswich, with
its rooftop restaurant, basement swimming pool (these days, alas, hidden beneath a false floor) and judicious use of colour and light. Foster clenched his teeth. He made some pointed remark about reality television. "It's not a disaster," he said, finally. "But you know it could be better."

Dyckhoff's polemic works so effectively because he doesn't just identify problems; he attempts to suggest solutions, too. Every film ends with a feeling of possibility. So, off he skipped to see Herman Hertzberger's Centraal Beheer office building in Apeldoorn, Netherlands, which was completed in 1972.

The building is mystifying in some ways - its weird spatial framework looked exhaustingly tricky to navigate to me - but it is loved by those who work in it for the simple reason that it allows them to "nest": it is all cosy corners and excellent acoustics (by which I mean it works to reduce noise). Hertzberger feels that employees should be allowed to decorate their office spaces, which, when you think about it, is rather staggering for an architect. Can you imagine Foster encouraging the liberal distribution of gonks, musical birthday cards, helium balloons, photograph frames and naff executive toys? No, me neither.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 15 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The coming anarchy