Food and Architecture: At the Table
Edited by Samantha L. Martin-McAuliffe
Shared concerns shape our thinking about both sustenance and shelter, as this book intriguingly demonstrates. Editor Samantha L. Martin-McAuliffe, who teaches at the School of Architecture, Planning, and Environmental Policy at University College, Dublin, organized the study according to key issues of regionalism, craft, sustainability, and authenticity to highlight the connection between food and architecture.
In each section she provides a good overview of the subject, but you should dig into essays by chefs, architects, designers, historians, and anthropologists too. My favorite is “Open Kitchen: Tracing the History of the Hearth in the Home,” by Fanny Singer. Despite its dry title, it’s a lively and insightful look at the way we cook and dine both at home and in restaurants. Singer, an art historian and curator (and daughter of Alice Waters, of the trailblazing Berkeley, California, restaurant Chez Panisse), uses her own childhood as a lens to examine our relationship to food.
She remembers crawling under the tables and behind the stairs at her mother’s restaurant set in a repurposed 1930s house that evolved along with Waters’s ideas about food. Singer describes the Arts-and-Crafts touches added to the original stucco cottage when the restaurant opened in 1971, as well as later changes that brought a large cooking hearth to the main dining area on the ground floor and an open kitchen to the upstairs café.
These modifications reflected a growing desire for visual transparency in the culinary world and the blurring of domestic and commercial dining experiences. Singer expands her perspective to chronicle the evolution in dining from the role of the sacred hearth in ancient Roman homes to the upstairs-downstairs bifurcation in Victorian England and the mass-produced “Frankfurt Kitchen” designed by Margarette Schütte-Lihotzky in 1926.
Some of the other essays in the book dive deeply into one specific topic—for example, butchering pigs on the Greek island of Kéa in the Cyclades. Cooking teacher and author Aglaia Kremezi points out the social role that animal slaughter plays in bringing together a rural community (lots of eating and drinking go along with the work) and the way Greek farmhouses are designed to accommodate such activities. As Kremezi writes, “the preparation of consumables fuses with the spatial contexts: food and architecture become one.”
Contributions to this collection that try to make direct connections between food and architecture tend to be the weakest. For example,“Cuisine and Architecture: Beams and Bones—Exposure and Concealment of Raw Ingredients, Structure and Processing Techniques in Two Sister Arts,” by Ken Albala and Lisa Cooperman, makes simplistic comparisons between trends in the two fields. Equating postmodern architecture, for example, with the fusion cuisine of the 1980s and 90s doesn’t really tell us much about either development.
The book’s other weakness is its graphic design, which is as dull as a textbook with mediocre black-and-white photographs. This is a shame, because most of the essays are engaging and deserve better illustrations. But many of them alone make for a satisfying repast.