We're posting the latest RA Magazine 'Out to lunch' feature here so we can show you the photos of the delicious food that architect Piers Gough RA and I enjoyed on our visit to NOPI.
You can read the feature below and feast your eyes on the gallery of small plates (right).
The pleasure principle
Architect Piers Gough RA designs buildings that make people smile. Over lunch at NOPI, he enthuses about food, art and architecture with Sarah Greenberg.
Rarely have I looked forward to lunch so eagerly. And for Piers Gough RA, the feeling was mutual.
It wasn’t the prospect of conversation that had us so excited – although he was a delightful companion – but the chance to try Yotam Ottolenghi’s fabulous new restaurant, a five-minute walk from the RA in Soho. While the name, NOPI, is an awkward abbreviation of its location, North of Piccadilly, the rest of the operation is flawless, with an endless array of small sharing plates delivering vibrant bursts of Mediterranean flavours and colours.
Gough suggested NOPI because he’s a fan of Ottolenghi’s café/deli in Islington near his Clerkenwell office, swears by his cookbooks and, getting nearer to the subject of this interview, is an admirer of his fresh, unfussy design. As we look around the restaurant, both of us notice that everyone seems to be whipping out their phones to snap the gorgeous food that arrives two plates at a time. When our first pair arrives – char-grilled green and white English asparagus in garlicky romesco sauce (made of red pepper and hazelnuts) and Burrata (extra-creamy fresh mozzarella) with blood orange and coriander seeds – we cannot resist doing the same.
Despite his eccentric professor façade, Gough doesn’t miss a trick and is constantly observing how people use space. He is interested in the social life of architecture, in leavening modernity with colour and humour, and his own work reflects that. ‘My attitude to architecture was profoundly influenced by Pop art when I was a student at the Architectural Association in the 1960s,’ he says. ‘I had the temerity to find modernism boring and disliked by the public. There were all these Pop artists having a great time – Allen Jones, Hockney – and there was something cheeky and irreverent about what they did, but also colourful and pleasurable, even that dangerous idea that ordinary members of the public might actually like their work. We wanted that for architecture.’
He launched his practice CZWG with three fellow students while still at the AA. ‘In the 1960s that wasn’t so mad – today it would be almost inconceivable.’ Ever since, his buildings have brought a sense of colour, design and fun to areas such as the Southbank and Canary Wharf, notably his orange cylindrical building, Bankside Lofts, across from the entrance to Tate Modern. But he is perhaps best known for the iconic public loo and traffic island he built in Westbourne Grove: ‘There’s nothing like being famous for the smallest thing you have ever done. My fame rests on a loo – and a flower shop,’ he says of the Wild at Heart florist alongside it.
When the second pair of plates arrives – fried Japanese aubergine with walnut salsa and pomegranate and confit artichoke, faro (a wholewheat grain), broad beans and preserved lemon – we pause to admire the palette of colours and unexpected combinations of flavours and ingredients, which somehow succeed. It is not unlike Gough’s own work, for example his new library – a metallic golden inverted pyramid on the Thames at Canada Water, Docklands, due for completion this autumn. ‘I wanted the metallic surface to reflect the water. It’s an inverted pyramid because we had a small footprint to work with, so we built up and out. It’s gold because I wanted it to be a glamorous civic building. Libraries are where you go to dream, to escape from the ordinary. You go to a library to discover other worlds, so the building should look like that.’
He is particularly drawn to public projects: ‘It is lovely to design buildings that make an impression on public life,’ he says, as he describes the ‘green bridge’ he built in Mile End Park, east London: ‘The park is split by a six-lane highway, so we invented a bridge which carries the park over the road. When you’re on top of the bridge, there are trees and grass, so you don’t even realize you’ve crossed a road.’
Gough is a selector of the Architecture Room at the Summer Exhibition this year and one of his aims is to show as many younger architects as possible. ‘It’s tough for the young in architecture. And by young I mean people up to 40. We’ve got some of the rising stars of architecture in the show.’ He believes the quality of architectural discussion at the RA is one of the benefits of being a member: ‘Many of the best architects in the world are British and most of them are RAs’. How does he account for this wealth of talent from a small island, which can be unsupportive of big, bold new architecture? ‘It’s the British architectural education: free-thinking, imaginative and good at questioning, but there is also an insistence on explanation, on a certain rigour whichever way you’re inclined to design.’
Gough is worried that the current government cuts are placing this education at risk. ‘Britain’s art, culture and design punch way beyond their weight in terms of the size of the country. The government cuts to arts and humanities education are counter-productive because it’s our massive success story – everybody wants to come here to study art and architecture.’
Art and artists are a constant stimulus for Gough. The RA’s Matisse textiles show in 2005, for example, inspired his design for a skyscraper in Croydon, whose façade is punctuated by curving shapes. ‘I was very taken by his cut-outs and thought how interesting they would be for a building – they are elemental forms that just sing.’
Over delicious desserts, he continues to talk about how architecture can learn from art about giving visual pleasure and excitement to an audience. ‘Other art forms seem to have transformed in our lifetime – dance, music and particularly art, which has taken on video and so many other media. Architecture needs to engage with the world in the same multifarious way. And that goes against the natural British longing for comfort, cosiness and conservation. But what’s funny is that the public’s enjoyment of new architecture has never been higher.’
- Maggie’s Centre, Nottingham by Piers Gough’s firm CZWG is completed in August. NOPI London, 020 7494 9584, www.nopi-restaurant.com