How did an architect like me end up writing about food? I don’t have a straight answer to that question; all I can offer below is an explanation of how I got here – which is tantamount to sketching out the story of my life.
From around the age of eight, I knew I wanted to be an architect. Buildings fascinated me, and my earliest photographs, taken with my trusty Kodak Instamatic, are almost comically architectural, consisting as they do mostly of ships, bridges, buildings and mountains, taken at jaunty angles. In shots featuring my parents and family, they are generally carefully posed so as to provide scale to some interesting backdrop. Where this passion came from is a total mystery to me: both my parents were medical, and there were no architects or artists of any kind in my family. But I did grow up in central London, so bricks and mortar, rather than trees and fields, formed the background of my youth. Food played a big part too, not just because both my parents were great cooks, but because my grandparents had a hotel in Bournemouth, where we spent most of our weekends and holidays.
The Hotel Miramar was a converted 1910 country house with a large garden overlooking the sea, full of antiques and the sort of regular clientele that barely exists today. The daily round of breakfast, ‘luncheon’, tea and dinner punctuated the day like a series of happy rituals – life really did feel like a matter of filling in time between meals. As a family, we would wait in the ‘back sitting room’ just off the kitchen until all the guests were seated before coming into the dining room – a prospect made all the more daunting by my grandmother’s insistence on combing my hair. But the meals themselves were magnificent: four-course feasts featuring glorious soups made from rich stock, great fillets of Dover Sole or steak and kidney pies with crumbling pastry, followed by rhubarb fool or golden sponge and ice-cream. How we packed away all that food I have no idea, but somehow we managed. Life in the hotel felt like one large house party, and the family all pitched in, not least at Christmas, when dinner was followed by games and bingo and the inevitable evening buffet.
What I most loved about being in the hotel was the way in which my family inhabited two separate worlds: the private, ‘backstage’ world of service rooms and kitchens, with their tiled floors, greasy walls and sense of urgency, and the public ‘front of house’ areas, with their comfortable elegance and air of genteel decorum. I liked to hover by the green baize service doors that separated these two realms, savouring the delicious sense of transformation that the mere thickness of a wooden door conferred. There was something magical about standing on that threshold – a liminal place between two worlds – with the freedom to move from one to the other and intimate knowledge of both. Looking back, I see that the architect in me was already stirring with dawning awareness that power and space are inextricably interlinked.
Soon after I began studying architecture at Cambridge, it became clear to me that my interest in the subject was not just to do with buildings. I realised that I wanted to know how they were inhabited: how people lived and moved in them, what they did and where they sat, what they ate, where the rubbish went and so on – these details fascinated me as much as the perfect proportions of their facades. I was drawn to the public-private, upstairs-downstairs divisions within buildings, and the ways in which they were subtly interwoven. I suppose I have always felt drawn to the hidden relationships between things. I was incredibly fortunate that two of my teachers – Dalibor Vesely and Peter Carl – not only encouraged me, but opened up entire worlds with their philosophy of architecture as the deepest embodiment of human culture. They were my intellectual godfathers and I owe them both a great deal.
Two years after I qualified and started to practice, Dalibor invited me back to teach with him and Peter, which I did for a few years before running my own studio. I would ask my students to imagine the everyday lives of their buildings, sometimes asking them to convert their designs, since everything must change with time. I often gave them briefs related to food, since this helped them to imaginatively inhabit their buildings. I also invited people from outside architecture – politicians, musicians and ecologists – to reviews as much as I could. All this time, I had a growing sense of searching for something that was just out of reach. I loved my work, but I also felt that something was missing: the very thing that had first drawn me to architecture. I realised that in order to discover what this was, I had to look elsewhere. In 1995-6, I went to the British School at Rome, where I studied the everyday life of a local neighbourhood – the market district around the Teatro Marcello – over the course of 2,000 years. I instinctively chose the market district, because I reckoned that was where everyday life would most manifest itself. I called my study The Mundane Order of the City, to reflect the curious ambiguity in our use of the word ‘mundane’: the fact that we use it to mean boring or routine, while the word itself is derived from the Latin mundus, meaning ‘earthly, cosmic, of the universe’.
I felt I was getting closer to the thing I was searching for, yet still I couldn’t quite grasp it. Then in 1998 I was invited to become Studio Director of the new Cities Programme at the London School of Economics. This was hugely exciting: at the LSE, there were architects, planners, politicians, economists, developers, sociologists, housing experts and engineers all gathered together discussing cities from every conceivable angle. I learned a vast amount, yet it soon became clear to me that even this dream academic scenario was not the answer. Try as they might, all the experts remained stuck in their silos, struggling vainly to find a common language. I realised that I had to look outside academia.
By now, I had been searching for my elusive idea for over twenty years, with an increasing sense of urgency and frustration. I decided to propose to one of my colleagues at the LSE, Roger Zogolovitch, that we write a book together on cities. I suggested that we meet at the Hotel Russell in London, where there is a rather spectacular bar that I thought might inspire us. We met, ordered drinks and sat at a table by the window and started to chat about our favourite cities and what made them great, discussing their character, density, ownership and typical plot size (Roger is a developer) and about what we loved about them. It was a great conversation, and I sat there thinking about my home city of London, the idea came to me. How would it be, I wondered aloud, if one tried to describe a city through food? I shall never forget that moment: on the evening of 28th of April, 2001, the biggest lightbulb of my life went off. I felt a great surge of excitement, my head tingled, I got goose-bumps, I knew that I finally had the thing for which I had been searching for so long. Food was the answer, I immediately knew, because it connected everything. It was as much as I could do not to rush out of the room that second to start work on the book that would, eight years later, become Hungry City. That moment changed my life, and I have spent the intervening two decades trying to do justice to the idea that came to me that day. It had, I now realise, been there all along – I just couldn’t see it.