This Old House

By , Jane Holtz Kay is architecture critic of The Christian Science Monitor.

Not since early man leafed in the sides of his treehouse and called it home, has architecture had such a momentous moment.

Not since the caveman leafed in the sides of his treehouse and called it home , has architecture had such a momentous moment.

If you thought This Old House was just another recipe show (sift gravel! hammer nail! enjoy!) and host Bob Vila just another pretty face (Thalassa Cruso with a beard), consider the repercussions of the picture-window program.

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When the public television show's third series moved the staple window from its vista on the street and installed it to the rear, Levittown ranches from Maine to California trembled.

So have a certain number of architects, preservationists, and professionals concerned with issues of quality and the more cerebral elements of the building and environmental arts.

Starting with an ordinary old house in a deteriorating neighborhood, the program went on to a landmark one in an affluent area; this winter, it settled in to renovate a barely middle-aged home a few towns away.

In all three, the mix of folksy delivery and the weekly suspense of a Masterpiece Theater of building has earned This Old House high ratings - an educational TV record of 5 percent of the TV audience - plus two books that sold well.

Whopping off old walls and whipping in new partitions with its usual verve, WGBH-TV producer Russ Morash's how-to extravaganze has carved the same niche for the celebrity handyman as he did for the celebrity cook or gardener.

The question is: What has it done for (to?) old and new houses as well as contemporary and vintage architecture?

While viewers in 260 or so cities watch what broadcasting manager David Liroff calls a ''keyhole on architecture,'' happy voyeurs to the demystification of design, real architects and designers feel themselves abused and the design process misinterpreted.

Charming, but alarming in greater measure, the program broaches the architecture of the American house the way the pioneer broached the entire landscape.

Heroic, improvisational, energetic, the builder of a New Land surmounted obstacles with aplomb and ingenuity. A bootstrapper, he went it alone - without benefit or burden of expert - and it worked.

So does the builder-as-star shaped by Channel 2 in Boston. If the walls wobble, Bob Vila puts up new ones. If the bathroom lacks character or modernity, start again. This is good showmanship, and some find the how-to-grout aspects helpful, but it is a questionable model of either architecture or economy.

The first house wound up too expensive for the neighborhood; two units in the second are still idling on the market. House No., 3, though already owned, could hardly recoup its costs. Part of this is production problems, part the attitude toward architecture.

Just as the American landscape was virgin territory unimpeded by the tired past, so the architecture of the American landscape, misnamed This Old House, is a place without a heritage or restrictions. The attitude and the TV process have given the rehabbed houses the look of slick and stripped-down invaders in their settings.

In the name of ''telegenics,'' the program isolated building No. 1 from its Dorchester neihborhood, never addressing the fascinating porridge of a place on Meetinghouse Hill that impacts on the architecture.

House No. 2 was encumbered with an architect - and a famous architect, at that. Vandalized within an inch of its life, H.H. Richardson's Bigelow house in Newton, Mass., was technically rescued by the rehabbers, but the salvation doomed it for the true believer.

Slicing the ambling structure into condominiums (the last two are priced at $ 200,000 and $375,000) was a radical approach necessarily only in part because of structural problems. It saved the site but the innards are closer to tract and tacky than Richardsonian.

The latest house in Woburn will get its $25,000 in alterations, including a remake of bath and kitchen that need a facelift as little as any 30-year-old, plus, more happily, the new picture window.

More doodled than designed, its overall layout is awkward and thoughtlessly improvised.

Meanwhile, of course, no viewer is the wiser that Woburn is New England's Love Canal; that chemical dumping has polluted its waters and caused a radical drop in property values in which the $25,000 is invested. Such elements have as little place in this romanticized series as other details of reality - from true-life constuction schedules to mortgages.

Would Julia Child fold in the egg whites before she sifted the flour? Or baste the chicken after it was cooked? Vila does.

But does it really matter? Merrily we drywall along and if this is what TV-land thinks will help America tend its own architectural destiny, why not? It is the American way of commercial TV.

The ''why not'' is, of course, that we ask something more of educational TV. If not Nova, then Julia Child or Jim Crockett. Instead, we get a strange combination of snobbishness and lack of snobbishness that passes itself off as design wisdom.

On the one hand, the Old Housers haughtily disdain the patchy way most of us must make-do or re-do mildly. For all the handy hintism, this is largely architectural fantasy play.

At the same time, the show sets no standards for excellence, hiring a builder of no great sensitivity and an architect of modest talent to deal with the work of a genius. It was an arduous task not to expunge Richardson while restoring him.

The shoot-from-the-hip, anti-intellectural style of the producer insured equal parts construction and destruction to the place.

Is architecture a resource or a shell for tinkerers? This is not an unfair question even in a period when the first option, careful consideration of the historic givens, produces results that are both more appealing and more affordable.

What input should professional designers have? A valid question, too.

Producer Morash doesn't deal in such questions. Maybe he can't. He isn't in the preservation business, after all. Morash dismisses both developers (''that black art'') and architects (''trade unionists'') out of hand.

By turning its back on the design process, by refusing to examine the ''state of the arts'' with its real practitioners, by exalting the handyman as hero and ignoring the larger built environment and real building issues, the program has managed to offend its most eager constituency - a constituency that would like nothing better than to make good design accessible to us all.

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