By MIKA ROSS-SOUTHALL
Running alongside the Royal Academy of Art’s new exhibition on Richard Rogers, artists, designers, architects and writers are arming themselves this summer with a microphone and a wooden soapbox to speak about the issues confronting contemporary architecture and cities (if you follow the RA’s twitter account you’ll have noticed the numerous, contentious conversation-starters they’ve been feeding us lately “live” from these talks).
Audience participation, they told us at the start of the fifteen-minute discussion on Friday, is key; but there were only a handful of polite contributors, no fiery hecklers – a shame. Perhaps the “free, no booking required” talk (only to those who had bought a ticket to the Richard Rogers exhibition) held at the Burlington Garden gallery would have engaged more public scrutiny had it been in the RA’s courtyard, and really open to all . . . .
What would it be like to describe a city through food? This was the question posed by the architect and writer Carolyn Steel at the end of last week, based on her book Hungry City: How food shapes our lives (2008), which won the Royal Society of Literature Jerwood Award for Non-Fiction. Her last chapter coined the word “sitopia”, from the Greek “sitos” (food), to mean an evolving utopia with food at its centre. After all, she argued, food is a way of thinking, seeing and changing cities, “a tool to understand the city as an organism . . . and for dwelling in a holistic way. We need to ask ourselves how we live”.
The ecological loop of a city can be mapped through food (its production, use, waste etc.). A huge influence on Steel’s thinking is George Dodd’s book (and no doubt his extensive subtitle) The Food of London: A sketch of the chief varieties, sources of supply, probable quantities, modes of arrival, processes of manufacture, suspected adulteration, and machinery of distribution, of the food for a community of two millions and a half (1856). While lecturing in Cambridge during the 1990s, Steel discovered that her students intuitively understood the importance of sustainability in architecture when she related it to food. “If there is food in the middle of a table of people, we all know how to behave, how to share, how to respect each other’s needs around us.”
Can this food-thinking be applied to how we create and inhabit space? She has a point. Architecture should address the humanness of a space, and not only for environmental reasons (good architecture does both). Buildings, cities, public spaces – these are all intense places for human interaction.
Around the gallery, quotations from Richard Rogers stamp the wall in bold, black lettering on bright (those iconic Rogers colours) poster-like backgrounds: “good design humanizes. Bad design brutalizes”; “the concepts of citizenship, civil society and civil responsibility were all born in the city”; “architecture plays a vital part in humanizing cities, structuring the scale of spaces and buildings, and shaping an environment that encourages justice, fairness and delight” – snippets from his BBC Reith Lecture in 1995 (published in the book Cities For a Small Planet).
Another block of colour states “The Ephebic Oath” – “I shall leave this city not less but more beautiful than I found it” – apparently it was sworn more than 2,400 years ago by the young people of Athens (a world city at the time) as they were formally inducted as citizens.
Elsewhere on the walls are “Your Ideas For London” (above) – a selection of A6-sized notes written by the public, some serious, some not. My favourites include “use empty buildings” (a thoughtful, ecological idea for housing a growing population and the importance of a building’s legacy); and “make a massive spoon swimming pool that sits on top of the Thames . . . and make it heated”.
In light of Thomas Heatherwick’s plans for a tree-lined pedestrian bridge across the Thames, a spoon swimming pool doesn’t seem too far-fetched. And I’m sure Carolyn Steel would be pleased with a cutlery-shaped urban structure.