There are plenty of home, design, and architecture TV shows to choose from nowadays, whether you’re a loyal cable subscriber or have gone full-on streaming. But thanks to the HGTV-fication of home design programming, many shows are stuck in a maze of clichés (all-gray interiors, anyone?)
Here at Curbed, we’ve spent much of August exploring all things TV, from which shows are worth watching to how iconic shows have shaped our homes. And this month, I’ve been on my own personal TV-minded mission: To find a new-to-me show about architecture or design that actually feels fresh.
And I think I’ve found it in The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes, a British documentary miniseries from BBC Two that premiered in 2017. In 2018, Netflix acquired the rights to stream the show, but I missed the initial buzz thanks to my daily chaos of kids and work.
I came to the show with fresh eyes and have been slowly enjoying it over the past month, watching one episode every few days; this isn’t so much a show to binge as it is something to be savored.
While there are no dramatic makeovers or home buying debacles to be had (which some of my favorite shows have focused on), The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes is a show for serious architecture and design lovers.
The show’s first stroke of genius was in casting the dynamic duo of award-winning architect Piers Taylor and actress and “passionate property developer” Caroline Quentin. Each episode starts with a voiceover that proclaims, “We’ve been given the keys to the most beautiful houses in the world,” and this is, in fact, the show’s premise: watching Piers and Caroline travel the world in search of incredible architecture.
It’s a genre that I’ve seen before in different iterations. But while Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or MTV’s Cribs nailed the shock and awe of impressive homes, those shows lacked depth and substance when it came to the grand gestures and nitty-gritty decisions of residential design. The World’s Most Extraordinary Homes, however, gives me all that and more, thrown together with a sizable amount of British wit.
Piers, a former design fellow at the University of Cambridge, a studio master at London’s Architectural Association, and the founder of two architectural firms—Invisible Studio and Mitchell Taylor Workshop—brings serious architecture credentials. His analysis of each design is studied and meticulous (he tries to explain to viewers the crux of each design through rough sketches, to varying degrees of success).
But the producers of the show seem to understand that too many rounds of hearing Piers discuss the “materiality” or “pastiche” of a building might get boring, so Piers’s architectural commentary is balanced out by Caroline’s intelligent humor.
To be sure, Caroline is no slouch in her understanding of architecture, but her commentary is more visceral. Endearing and charismatic, Caroline breathlessly enjoys the homes she visits, running from one end of a building to another with childlike curiosity. She is my “everywoman” of the show, living out the fantasies of ordinary people like me.
For example, visiting a striking minimalist house in Spain designed by Pritzker-winning firm RCR Architects, Piers waxes on about how the structure is made from 11 metal blocks set into the Pyrenees foothills. Caroline? She’s on the hunt for the family’s clutter and washrooms.
“The thing about houses like this, is they always look so immaculate, so minimalist,” she says. “But like every family, they’ve got clutter. I just have to find out where it is.” Pushing open metal doors in a large hallway, Caroline finds it. “This is where they hide all those things that you and I see, all the time.”
In each episode, Caroline brings a relatable eye to the unusual, using spaces instead of just admiring them.
She does what I wish I could do in the homes. She swims in the pools, puts her feet up on expensive furniture, and opens windows. She gushes over pitch-perfect bathrooms and lounges in outdoor swings. In a recent episode of homes in India, Caroline even climbs into one of the beds, apologizing, “I’m sorry, I know this is really bad but I can’t resist this.”
From an earth-bermed house to a seaside stunner, the residences featured in the show are otherworldly, and miles away from my everyday life. Yet Caroline and Piers walk through each space with a down-to-earth thoughtfulness that keeps luring me in.
The architecture is still impressive, of course, and as a person who writes a lot about buildings, I’m intellectually drawn to each design. But for me, the ultimate TV escapism comes not just from imagining the incredible, but seeing myself in it.
At one point in an episode, Piers remarks to Caroline, “Gosh, you’re making yourself at home.” And that’s exactly why the show works.