In 2010 I visited Iran, courtesy of a travel grant from the Iran Heritage Foundation, to look at Iranian brickwork. What marvellous brickwork I discovered there! But that is another story.
Travelling around Iran (which I found to be quite different to that usually depicted on the six o’clock news, by the way), photographing some spectacular brick walls, naturally I stopped to eat from time to time, and as a result I found myself unexpectedly examining something else besides the country’s brickwork—Iran’s ubiquitous kebab shops.
The differences between say Melbourne, where I live, and Tehran, the capital of Iran, are in the main truly vast, but here was one tiny thing that both cities have in common.
This got me thinking after I returned home: if I found the kebab shops in Iran so interesting then perhaps I should look more closely at the kebab shops in Melbourne.
So I asked the Master of Architecture students who took my Popular Architecture and Design course in 2011 at the University of Melbourne, where I teach, to pair off; to each select a kebab shop in Melbourne; and to record the following basic information about them:
• The kebab shop’s name and address
• A plan of the kebab shop, including its fittings and furniture
• A photograph of the front façade of the kebab shop
• A photograph of the kebab shop next to the other shops in the street
• A photograph of the kebab shop at night
• A photograph of the other side and rear facades of the kebab shop (where they were accessible)
• Photographs of the interior of the kebab shop
• Photographs of the kebab shop’s advertising/signage
• A copy of the kebab shop’s menu
• A brief description of the kebab shop
• A brief interview with the shopkeeper and perhaps some customers
Kebab Shops in Melbourne: An Architectural Survey, a new book published by the Custom Book Centre at the University of Melbourne, contains all of this data exactly as collected by the architecture students and given to me.
The idea of compiling an eclectic-style, uncritical and unedited “encyclopaedia” like this was suggested by the 800-page The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (2002) by the Dutch “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas et al.
Several people have looked at and written about everyday places that are usually taken for granted and not given a second thought. One of the most interesting is the late French author, Georges Perec (1936 – 1982), whose work I introduced to the Master of Architecture students-cum-“kebab shop detectives.” His little book, An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (first translated into English in 2010), is a quirky masterpiece in my view.
Another source/sauce of inspiration was Reyner Banham’s brief but amusing and surprisingly insightful assessment of hamburgers and hamburger shops contained in his classic study of Los Angeles, Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971).
In light of some of the recent scary exchanges between America and Iran, it is oddly comforting to realize that fast food is fast food no matter whether it comes from Los Angeles or Tehran.
I hope that Kebab Shops in Melbourne: An Architectural Survey will encourage further and more detailed research into the humble kebab shop, which is an interesting and ubiquitous—nevertheless almost “invisible”—part of the urban built environment not only in Australia and Iran, but also elsewhere (for example, on a recent trip to Auckland, New Zealand, I spotted many kebab shops there too).
To sum up then, Kebab Shops in Melbourne: An Architectural Survey describes over 40 kebab shops in various Melbourne suburbs by means of descriptive prose, line drawings, black and white photographs, and interviews with shopkeepers and customers. This data was collected by Master of Architecture students at the University of Melbourne and compiled, warts and all, by Derham Groves. This quirky 500-plus-page book is perhaps best described as The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping meets Georges Perec.