One Italian, One Spanish, One Turkish.
All are independent businesses, family owned in fact.
They are not held back by the corporate guidelines of a chain.
They are filled with the kind of customers who value an authentic experience.
These places are not consciously designed.
Rather the spaces are an accumulation of ideas from different people, sometimes generations.
They are about the informal enjoyment of food, not just its presentation
They create and add to the community. These are real places. Comfortable and unpretentious.
They have what Christopher Alexander describes as ‘the quality without a name’. *
The ‘quality’ is something remarkable that makes a place feel whole. It’s not possible to describe it specifically Alexander says, but it’s a feeling you get in a place or space when you feel most ‘alive’.
My three restaurants feel ‘alive’. I feel ‘alive’ in them. A result of the building, the diners, the owners, and the atmosphere all being in some sort of sync.
My interpretation of this is that we as humans have the ability to discern whether this quality exists (the space is alive) or not (the space is dead). This is a basic instinct that makes us feel comfortable or uncomfortable respectively. This must be a natural response from way back that we extend to our current human/urban environment.
Designing buildings or at least bits of buildings, its assumed by many that this ‘quality’ can just be conjured. Surely it’s easy to create a space with this complex layering of feeling, atmosphere and social vibrancy.
Here’s the reality.
Something this complete must be arrived at over time.
You might get some of the way with a few good decisions but often a ‘designed’ space can miss the mark.
If you try to fake the ‘quality’, it’s obvious.
You must program a space to work towards the ‘quality’. Plant the seeds that will grow. Prioritise slowness in the spaces development. Allow for flex. Don’t fix things in stone.
A good restaurant will concentrate on delivering the food in the most simple, beautiful way. They reduce the menu choice to a handful of great dishes but rotate and develop these over time depending on feedback, ingredients and seasonality.
A restaurant space should be the same. Do a few things well and grow into the space. Keep what works and discard what fails.
Pretty soon you will have a more amazingly complex space than you could ever have designed in one go. A space that has evolved with the ‘quality’.
Small independent businesses often grasp this approach more easily. They are constrained by budget which limits growth. They find themselves creating a space in a series of steps. It’s exactly this process that allows for the ability to change things as they go along.
It’s exactly this evolution that leads to the ‘quality’. An interconnectedness of context, building, layout, customers, food and service.
These spaces have character, not sterility. They become unique to a particular business and place.
It doesn’t matter so much what my three restaurants look like.
In fact I deliberately won’t share images here. They are best judged on how they feel to actually be there, which is the point of the ‘quality’. An image reduces things to a visual assessment which is only one part of the ‘quality’.
There are similar venues in your neighbourhood. They are without doubt the best places to eat.
Go and look for the ‘quality without a name’. How would you start to work towards it in your space?
For more insight into Alexander’s theories on space and place get his book here;
If you run a business from a building, it would be good to remember that humans are pre-programmed to look for the ‘quality’ If you manage to create this, they will come.
*Christopher Alexander – The Timeless Way of Building (1979)