“I was, I realise with hindsight, a slightly odd teenager. Definitely a geek, but an odd geek at that. Geeks are at least meant to obsess, collectively, over computers or comic books, but, alone among my friends, I obsessed over buildings, bollards and town planning. And while eighteen-year-olds in more fashionable parts were discovering MDMA and acid house, I was high on Zaha Hadid. I got my thrills from the Architectural Review.”
(From 'The Age of Spectacle: adventures in architecture and the 21st-century city')
Well, this geek eventually found his tribe. It took a while, mind you. I've always been interested in cities, spaces, buildings and geography, but also writing. It was hard to mix the two, at first. I got a place at Christ Church, Oxford University, to study for an MA in English literature, but after a Damascene conversion switched to geography, where I could look at maps and streets and landscapes all day long, and nobody would think I was strange. And so I did. My heart was stolen by architecture, so after Oxford I studied for an MSc in architectural history at the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, University College London. And then I had to turn my peculiar passions into a job that paid the rent.
I began as an assistant editor at Perspectives on Architecture, the Prince of Wales’s architectural magazine, before becoming exhibitions curator at the Royal Institute of British Architects, and then deputy editor of Space, The Guardian newspaper’s design and homes section. The Times asked me to become its architecture and design critic in 2003, and I stayed there until 2011, writing a weekly column and getting up close to all the latest buildings around the world. A dream job. A lucky boy.
I began dabbling in broadcasting in 2004, when Channel 4 approached me to make a documentary about architecture. Director Chloe Thomas patiently worked with me on 'I Love Carbuncles', a love letter about brutalist architecture broadcast on the 20th anniversary of the Prince of Wales's infamous 'Mansion House Speech', in which he called a mooted extension to London's National Gallery "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend". I disagreed.
After that, in 2006, I started making short and full-length documentaries for the BBC's flagship weekly arts programme, The Culture Show, as their architecture and design critic, on subjects and interviewees such as Frank Gehry, Ikea, Chinese design and architecture, Britain's housing crisis, Thomas Heatherwick and Dieter Rams. My proudest moment? Securing a rare interview with modernist veteran Oscar Niemeyer, on his 100th birthday.
Then, in 2009 I made my first TV series, the seven-part Saving Britain's Past, for BBC2, on Britain's relationship with heritage. And two years later made a second, the three-part primetime The Secret Life of Buildings, for Channel 4. This used the latest research in psychology and neuroscience, and real-life experiments to examine the impact of spaces and architecture on our brains and bodies. It was syndicated via Netflix around the world, and, I hope, raised awareness of some key failings of contemporary architecture, such as poor space standards in UK housing, the health problems associated with low light levels and the poor productivity inside many open-plan offices. “A punchy, thought-provoking series,” thought The Daily Mail. The Daily Telegraph called it “a fascinating investigation” that “brings something new to the genre”.
Along the way, I've taught and continue to teach the history of architecture, cities and design at various universities, including the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, University College London, where I was honorary senior research associate from 2013 to 2016. And I've written journalism for all kinds of places, such as Monocle and GQ, Domus and The New Statesman. I was also the editorial consultant for the 21st edition of Sir Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture (Bloomsbury), rethinking the content, structure, purpose and digital future of this classic text, first published in the late 19th century.
I'm an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, have been a trustee on the board of the Architecture Foundation and sat on the Arts Council’s Architecture Committee and the national shortlisting jury for the Stirling Prize for Architecture from 2008 to 2011. I've also been a judge on various architecture, design and urban competitions at all levels, such as, in 2013, finalists for the Stirling Prize.
I talk at or host events all the time, for all sorts of people and venues, from schoolchildren to visitors to London's Victoria & Albert Museum. Check the News, events & appearances section on the homepage for up-and-coming dates. I also work regularly with commercial clients, such as British Airways, Heineken and Velux, creating content or advising on architecture, design and urbanism.
The past three years or so I've mostly been presenting BBC2’s primetime The Great Interior Design Challenge, now on its fourth series; writing and presenting The Design Dimension, a regular series on design for BBC Radio 4; and writing my first book, The Age of Spectacle: adventures in architecture and the 21st-century city, which has just been published by Penguin Random House.
So there we are, right up to date. What's going to happen next?
Photographs © Mike Christie