The Architect and the Epicure

 

The Architect and the Epicure

Sean Mattio

Abstract: 

While some may find a comparison of the architect and the epicure unusual, the work of artists such as Marie-Antoine Carême, Adolf Loos, and Kazuko Okakura make such an analogy both plausible and interesting by giving us a set of intellectual tools to trace a connection between food and architecture, or rather, a connection between food and the built environment in which it is eaten. Throughout this article, Mattio uses the term architecture to refer broadly to conceptions of constructed space, be it a plate, a table, a room, or an entire structure. Building upon the discourse first introduced by the gastro-architectural works of Carême, he expands the term architecture to also encompass the fine art, the professional practice, as well as its generally accepted aesthetic traditions. This inquiry is situated within an interdisciplinary and emerging discourse of food studies, which seeks to critically examine the role of food within science, art, society, and other fields. Food studies differs from other food-related disciplines – nutrition, agriculture – in that it seeks to look beyond the simple consumption and production of food in order to examine the function of food within our generalized human experience. His research seeks to investigate what, how, and where we eat from a perspective both sociological and architectural. Because of the exploratory nature of this project, he focuses on a variety of analytical frameworks which all seek to posit new ways of playing with our food.

Article: 

Marie-Antoine Carême, the founder of modern French haute cuisine[i], once said, “Most noble of all the arts is architecture, and its greatest manifestation is the art of the pastry chef” (Brober 1). It is evident from his careful attention to proportion and decoration in his culinary monuments – columns and arches made from sugar, icing, and dough – that Carême’s work embodies his creed. For Carême, the way food was served was as important as the way it looked and tasted. In his written works on cookery, he criticized the way his predecessors served “mountains of food,” and he even attacked the size and shape of the china they employed (Carême). He often borrowed design ideas from books of architectural history and modeled his confections, sometimes reaching several feet high, on temples, pyramids, and ancient ruins.

While some may find a comparison of the architect and the epicure unusual, Carême’s work makes such an analogy both plausible and interesting by giving us a set of intellectual tools to trace a connection between food and architecture, or rather, a connection between food and the built environment in which it is eaten. Throughout this essay, I will therefore use the term architecture to refer broadly to conceptions of constructed space, be it a plate, a table, a room, or an entire structure. And building upon the discourse first introduced by the works of Carême, I will expand the term architecture to also encompass the fine art, the professional practice, as well as its generally accepted aesthetic traditions.

This inquiry is situated within an interdisciplinary and emerging discourse of food studies, which seeks to critically examine the role of food within science, art, society, and other fields. Food studies differs from other food-related disciplines – nutrition, agriculture – in that it seeks to look beyond the simple consumption and production of food in order to examine the function of food within our generalized human experience. My own research seeks to investigate what, how, and where we eat from a perspective both sociological and architectural. Because of the exploratory nature of this project, I will be focusing here on a variety of analytical frameworks which all seek to posit new ways of playing with our food.

Food studies scholar Phyllis Brober has argued that both the preparation and consumption of food imply a sense of “performative space” (10). Typically, the spaces devoted to cooking and eating are thought to be discrete spaces delineating the roles of producer and consumer; re-imagining these spaces as performative opens up new possibilities for understanding the social roles that are played in these spaces and more complex ways in which these roles may relate to one another. According to Brober, the chef enacts his particular role in the kitchen while the diner accomplishes his at the table, for if both he who cooks and he who eats are considered actors, then the spaces in which they play their respective parts are unique stages on which they perform. In this way, the ritual processes of cooking and dining come to “form and inform a distinctly expressive architecture” (Brober 5). Consider, for example, the ceremonial  responsibility of the chef as he compiles a list of necessary ingredients and goes through the effort of procuring them before finally starting to wash, chop, boil, and tenderize as needed. These activities are carried out and observed in a precise order, with proper attention paid to each. Likewise, study the particular preparation and arrangement of the dinner table: the placement of diners may be based upon family hierarchy or some other relationship dynamic, and the physical setting of the table with plates, glasses, and utensils is a sort of informal ceremony, precursory to the actual eating.

Italian architect Aldo Rossi acknowledges that his designs draw upon a culinary dimension, inspired by what he terms apparecchiare la tavola – meaning, literally, “to set the table, to prepare it, to arrange it” (Brober 6). Rossi blurs the line between table settings and cities, creating a space in which a serving tray may function as a small piazza, where cups and saucers are transformed into Lilliputian buildings[ii] that diners move about through tabletop towns (Brober 7). Similarly, the work of architect Greg Lynn also exhibits such an intersection between cooked and constructed creations. He compares the folding of batter – which employs neither “agitation nor evisceration but a supple layering” – to structural folding – “the ability to integrate unrelated elements within a new continuous mixture” – in the curvilinear forms of his structures (Brober 9; Hosey). Both Rossi and Lynn assemble and present performative spaces, venues which in turn stage events, congregating and segregating people in their interactions, much like a dinner table. A built environment is a space in which complex relationships are played out: the doctor in the hospital, the student in the classroom, the family in the home. An individual, when placed in a particular space, is designated and performs a particular role. The same applies to those who seat themselves at a table set for dining, a stage set for a very distinct show: they are transformed into actors for whom to perform is to eat.

 

Without a doubt, the conflation of food and architecture as performance media is exemplified in the confectionary edifices of the French chef de cuisine, Marie-Antoine Carême. The presentation of his pièces montées, or mounted pieces – towers and pavilions made from icing and pastry dough – were performances in and of themselves, notwithstanding the hours of preparation involved. The expertise and sense of aesthetic taste required for such a feat is easily comparable to that of an architect. It is this craft that upgrades a shrine built to house a holy image into a grand temple, or that transforms a rotisserie quail into succulent caille en sarcophage (Frascari 198-99; Hosey). It is almost as if the elaborate detail and precise calculation involved in the construction of either a building or a dinner raises the finished product to a more refined status. The performance lies in the skilled preparation and artful presentation: the basic human needs of food and shelter become elevated to the fine arts of cuisine and architecture through attention to tastes both gustatory and aesthetic.

This relationship between the necessities of food and shelter and the high culture of cuisine and architecture may also be understood in terms of ornamentation with regard to space (often the table) and the meal. Adolf Loos, an architect who railed against embellishment in his 1908 essay, “Ornament and Crime,” drew a parallel between ornamentation in architecture and ornamentation in cuisine. He wrote, comparing the dietary habits of the eighteenth and twentieth century, that “the vegetable he [the twentieth-century man] enjoys is simply boiled … the [eighteenth-century] man likes it equally well only when honey and nuts have been added to it and someone has spent hours cooking it.” Loos then goes on to declare that freedom from ornament is in fact “a sign of spiritual strength” (Friedman 121-22). Loos’ Café Museum in Vienna, Austria, demonstrates this departure from lavish decoration in its simple green walls, its straight-backed spindle chairs, and its bare-bulb chandeliers. Loos’ twentieth-century café is anything but the extravagant and elaborate ornamentation characteristic of the eighteenth-century Rococo architectural style.

Isak Dinesen’s story Babette’s Feast also develops this tension between ornamentation and restraint in regards to food and space. And also like Loos, Dinesen integrates spirituality into the conflict. Dinesen describes the house in which the story is primarily set as having only a “low room with bare floors and scanty furnishings.” In spite of this, the house is still held dear by the religious sect that uses it for their gatherings, as the home’s lack of embellishment reflects the disciples’ Puritan spirituality, their resistance to the sins of gluttony and overindulgence (Dinesen 28-9). In the film adaptation of Dinesen’s tale, the opening scene introduces the bleak Jutland village in which the story unfolds – a meager collection of gray houses amidst a stark white landscape (Friedman 120). Their similarly austere lifestyle fuels the disciples’ concern with the French expatriate Babette, who intends to prepare for them a sumptuous feast of gourmet delicacies and the finest wine in thanks for their hospitality. The disciples worry that their table – where they gather for daily prayer and their bland, frugal meals – will be desecrated by Babette’s extravagant dinner. In the film, she sets the table with fine china, crystal, and candelabra, elevating the space to match the high cuisine. In order to combat this intrusion of unwanted ornamentation – Babette’s epicurean feast, the decorated table – upon their ascetic space, the disciples vow to be silent upon all matters of food and drink (Dinesen 26).

Kakuzo Okakura’s Book of Tea also provides insight into the tensions between ornamentation and aesthetic restraint with regards to eating – or in this case, drinking – spaces. He asserts that “the tea-room does not pretend to be other than a mere cottage … the tea-room is unimpressive in its appearance … the materials used in its construction are intended to give the suggestion of refined poverty.” The emptiness of the tea-cottage resembles the scantily furnished house of the disciples in Babette’s Feast. But the similarities do not stop there. Both spaces take advantage of this impoverished appearance to allow for greater spiritual reflection. The tea-cottage, in its “simplicity and purism,” is intended to emulate the Zen monastery and reflect its doctrines (Okakura). This simplicity is intended to allow for a more peaceful meditation, much like the act of drinking tea itself. It is to be a gentle communing with the self, with nature, and with others. The minimalism of the tearoom is to make it a “sanctuary from the vexations of the outer world,” for there and there alone can one “consecrate himself to undisturbed adoration of the beautiful” (Okakura). The building is to serve as a refuge from the outside world. Architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow Tearooms in Glasgow, Scotland, were intended to serve a similar purpose. Meagerly decorated with simple woodcuts and cushions, they were to function as an oasis of tranquility amidst the chaos of the busy city. Mackintosh’s tearooms were to make manifest the words of Okakura – the space in which tea was to be taken was to imitate the art of tea itself, simple and unembellished.

Given Okakura’s emphasis – and that of the disciples in Babette – that the space in which one consumes emulate the simplicity of that which is consumed, it is certainly plausible to assert that there is a strong connection between food and the context in which it is eaten. In fact, there does seem to be a difference between eating and dining, as the latter aspires to satisfy far more than the feral cravings of the belly. The act of dining requires a bit of ornamentation, for it depends on careful preparation for the serving of the meal, on the choice of place, and on the thoughtful assembling of the guests (Anderson 248). It seeks to stimulate all the senses, not just the gustatory, as the pleasures of the experience do not result solely from the isolated act of eating, but also from the place in which the meal is taken (249). The French maîtres d’hôtel of the eighteenth century, indulging the courts of Louis XIV and XV, arranged elaborate artificial dinner “sets” to the king’s meals. These often took place in reconfigured gardens and involved a profusion of fountains and displays of fireworks intended to arouse every sense. The attention of “ears, nose, hands, and eyes [was] drawn outward toward these, even as the mouth and stomach ingest a great succession of lavish dishes” (Anderson 251). Following this same philosophy, Frank Lloyd Wright, in 1914, designed and built the Midway Gardens as an elaborate beer garden with an outdoor dance hall and band shell, restaurant and saloons. Wright sought to create a space that could be “consumed” along with the food served there – patrons were invited to feast upon the sights and sounds as well as the sundries. The Gardens were a dining experience, a treat for all the senses.

In the fictional tale An Abstract Art by Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Casares, the authors recount the invented evolution of “culinary cooking” and its obscure architectural counterpart, the tenebrarium[iii], in order to make a point about the act of dining and its relation to setting. The aim of culinary cooking is to develop “a cuisine owing nothing … to the object of nourishment,” seeking only to satisfy the sensation of taste. Abiding by this doctrine, all food is served in the form of “identical pyramids, each an inch high” and each affording the palate one of the fundamental tastes (sour, salty, etc.). Moreover, not only are all vivid colors and elegant serving platters removed from the dining experience, but all visual stimulation is eliminated – guests eat, quite literally, in the dark (Anderson 249). This is the tenebrarium, where diners are not required to see their surroundings or their unattractive morsels. In their story, Borges and Casares effectively demonstrate that the pleasures of dining do not stem singularly from the act of eating; it is not just taste but rather the whole experience - the stimulation of all the senses.

Italo Calvino’s fictional essay on taste, “Under the Jaguar Sun,” traces the connection between the experience of dining and its cultural contexts. The essay’s Italian protagonists, a middle-aged married couple, undertake a “gustatorial journey” in Mexico where a “deeply satisfying comprehension of their surroundings” suffuses and dominates their dining experiences (Anderson 252). While visiting the ornate Baroque style churches of Oaxaca and savoring spicy delicacies, the couple realizes that the same passions that inspired the construction of the churches also inspired the creation of their piquant dishes. They discover that

architecture … too, was impelled by the same drive toward the extreme that led to … flavors amplified by the blaze of the most spicy chiles. Just as colonial baroque set no limits on the profusion of ornament and display, in which God’s presence was identified in … excessive sensations, so the curing of the hundred or more native varieties of hot peppers carefully selected for each dish opened vistas of flaming ecstasy. (Anderson 252)

Calvino reveals that such local flavors resonate in the particulars of a place’s buildings and landscapes – cracked plaster walls, gilded ceilings, and the aroma of orange blossoms (Anderson 252). For the protagonists in Calvino’s story, the pleasure of the dining experience contains thematic resonance” between the food and its contexts, as a people’s habits and legends often manifest themselves in the cuisine of a place (Anderson 255).

Certainly, regional setting influences not only the local ingredients used in recipes, but the local materials used in building construction. The olive tree was central to the economy and the diet of ancient Greeks, who built with its wood and ate and traded its fruit and oil. The buffalo served a similar function in the culture and lives of the American Plains Indians – the meat was used for consumption and the hide used for their tents (Hosey). But transplanted into another environment – perhaps by way of the take-out box – the “characteristic embellishments” of a particular cuisine often fall out of place, for in many cases, regional and cultural context is essential to the complete experience of such a meal (Anderson 254).

With regards to location defining a meal, in the past half-century there has been a migration of the meal from the private space of the domestic sphere to more commercial and public spaces. Even within the home, the setting of the meal has shifted, encompassing not just the dining table, but now the television room as well. In both these instances – the TV dinner and the meal in motion – the spaces of eating have shifted the sociality of a “shared table” into something more isolated and contained (Horwitz 259). There has been a change from early twentieth-century homes, where the kitchen was segregated from other social spaces, to the midcentury “open plan” houses in which food-related activities became integral to the flow of daily life. But these changes in design were based less on shifts in architectural thought than on shifts in the “food axis” – the relationships between cooking, storing, serving, eating, and disposing. In this way, the advent of the frozen TV dinner represents a compression of the food axis. The TV dinner “reorders the chaotic field of the kitchen and table into a meal and entertainment grid … this meal is singular and precooked, predictable, and without hierarchy” (260). For if the dinner table is a setting that dictates the order of a meal, and the arrangement of the diners reflects some form of pecking order, then the TV dinner and the associated tray tables are radical departures from the social and spatial conventions of the food axis. The TV dinner – offering an isolated meal in which the compartmented dessert may be eaten before the “main course” – allows for a temporary abandonment of the rituals and routines of everyday life.

The table as social machinery also presents the question of those meals taken not only away from the table at an isolated “chair and tray” setting, but outside of the domestic sphere entirely. The Circle Restaurant, opened just after World War II in a Chicago department store, was intended to appeal to the consumer demand of the middle-class shopper who seeks an alternative to the lunch counters typically found in such establishments. The Circle Restaurant provided “table service” without a table – chair-tray-table combinations set equidistant, hinged together, and fixed in place (Horwitz 263). This led to an experience similar to dining on an airplane, creating an encapsulated space for the solitary customer eating alone. This chair-tray-table fixture has since become the norm in commercial airlines and passenger trains that serve commuters. These days, only passenger trains that cater to long-distance and vacation travel have retained their dining car, whose tables once served as shared public spaces that brought strangers into intimate spatial contact. With the rise of tray-table, self-contained eating spaces, diners could now draw perimeters around themselves, creating a “psychological distance” that protected “individual customers from the obligation of and the opportunity for both social and antisocial customs (268). The modern American lifestyle of constant multitasking has necessitated single-serving meals that are easy to eat while working as well as the proliferation of 24-hour menus and service – hence the cultural fixture of the drive-thru.

Fast-food franchises, like airports, shopping malls, and TV dinners, are in many ways disconnected from their immediate surroundings. The McDonald’s restaurant in China cares not for the regional and cultural climate in which it has been placed. Moreover, such franchises seem to open new locations every other month – fast buildings for fast food (Hosey). It is no coincidence that the exponential expansion of such establishments as McDonald’s has been mirrored in the housing market with the rise of the “McMansion.” The square footage of these homes, much like McDonald’s serving sizes, is greatly inflated, often doubled or tripled to spur greater consumption. These domestic monstrosities, typically found in homogenous communities, are quickly assembled with prefabricated components that disregard local materials and architectural styles. The McMansion rarely reflects the regional or cultural character of a place (Hosey). If location and cultural context are to define homes just as they define meals, then McDonald’s and the McMansion seem to flaunt a similar disregard for this notion.

Implicit in the relationship between location and cultural context is a certain degree of responsibility shared by the architect and the epicure. Carême seemed aware of this fact – not only did he take care in what he prepared and served, but he paid the utmost attention to how it was prepared and served as well. His culinary works represent a confluence of complex ways to consider the correspondents between food and architecture: not only food as architecture, but also its converse, architecture as food, or “comestible” constructed spaces. Carême’s pièce montées offer an opportunity for discussion regarding the professional practices and art forms of both building and cooking. Using these analytical tools as a foundation to explore the relationship between food and space, analogous themes develop that run as linking threads through each, such that the architect and the epicure seem to face an array of similar problems. Their respective arts each aspire for something elevated above the basic human need for shelter and food, a testament to our ambivalence regarding luxury and necessity. On television, we watch shows in which we are overawed by culinary exploits never to be accomplished in our own kitchens, only to turn next to 30 Minute Meals, where we watch an attractive host in an immaculate setting prepare meals pitched as more accessible to the casual cook. We are caught between Private Chefs of Beverly Hills and Quick Fix Meals. And what does this mean for the American viewer in terms of our appetites – both for our food and our lifestyle (our utensils, our ingredients, our homes)?

So too must the architect and the epicure take into account the context and setting of their constructions. There is an ethics to both these processes – building and eating. The McMansion in the Sedona Desert may be just as guilty of cultural and environmental disregard as the McDonalds placed in one of China’s oldest pedestrian districts. Over the course of our lives, we eat in variety of venues: the dining room table or facing the TV, in public or alone, in cars and in planes. How does what and where we eat (or do not eat) thus become a marker of our identity, a means of in/exclusion? The same goes for what and where we might choose to build; it is not, and never was, simply a matter of taste, but is instead caught up in the interstices of history, economics, anthropology, science, and much more. These questions therefore concern us all. They have done and will continue to do so, from the Last Supper onward to last night’s dinner.

 

 

[i] Haute cuisine (French: “high cooking”) refers simply to the art of skillfully preparing food which originated in France, characterized by elaborate preparations and presentations served in small and numerous courses.

[ii] “Lilliputian” here referring to those miniature inhabitants of the island of Lilliput, an imaginary country of tiny inhabitants featured in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726).

[iii] From the Latin tenebrae, meaning “darkness,” and the suffix –torium, denoting a place appropriate for an activity. The tenebrarium thus imagined in Borges’ and Casares’ story is, literally, a place of darkness.

 

Works Cited

Anderson, Alex T. “Table Settings: The Pleasures of Well-Situated Eating.” Eating Architecture. Ed. Jamie Horwitz and Paulette Singley. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. 247-258.

Brober, Phyllis P. “Introduction.” Eating Architecture. Ed. Jamie Horwitz and Paulette Singley. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. 5-20.

“Carême, Marie Antoine.” Encyclopedia of Food & Culture. Ed. Solomon H. Katz. Vol. 1. Gale Cengage, 2003. eNotes.com. 2006.

Dinesen, Isak. Babette's Feast and Other Anecdotes of Destiny. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1988. 3-48.

Frascari, Marco. “Semiotica Ab Edendo, Tate in Architecture.” Eating Architecture. Ed. Jamie Horwitz and Paulette Singley. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. 191-203.

Friedman, Daniel S. “Cuisine and the Compass of Ornament: A Note on the Architecture of Babette’s Feast.” Eating Architecture. Ed. Jamie Horwitz and Paulette Singley. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. 115-130.

Horwitz, Jamie. “Eating Space.” Eating Architecture. Ed. Jamie Horwitz and Paulette Singley. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2004. 259-275.

Hosey, Lance. “Food for Thought.” In the Cause of Architecture. Architectural Record. Nov. 2003. <http://archrecord.construction.com/inTheCause/1103food/andArchitecture.asp>.

Okakura, Kakuzo. “IV. The Tea-Room.” Book of Tea. 1906. Project Gutenberg Literary Archive, Aug. 2008. <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/769/769.txt>.


About the Author(s)
Sean Mattio
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