Maybe this sounds unexpected, but there are a lot of links between architecture and food. Food and shelter are two of the basic necessities of life, so they are connected at the very root of human existence. Cuisine is to food what architecture is to shelter. They both give us comfort and pleasure. On a philosophical level Martin Heidegger links architecture, or building to be more precise, to food in his etymological analysis of the word building (bauen) in his text ‘Building Dwelling Thinking’ (’Bauen Wohnen Denken’). The origin of the word ‘bauen’ (building) is in ‘bin’ (being) but is also related to ‘bauer’ (farmer). So farming the land, the production of food, has an etymological link to building. Some of the first buildings were built because people started to grow crops and stayed in a fixed location. Heidegger also says that in order to build, you have to master living (”Nur wenn wir das Wohnen vermögen, können wir bauen.”). I would even go as far as to say that the preparation and consummation of food is a huge part of living and should be mastered in order to be able to build, to practice architecture. Personally I’m a great fan of the Japanese kitchen an an enthusiastic amateur sushi-home-chef. I also like to cook other food, but sushi for me represents good architecture the best.
A recent example of my home made sushi.
The preparation of food is basically about combining different elements to form an appealing constellation of flavor and texture. It has a certain form and substance. Preparing food is all about dealing with materials: how to treat the different elements of the dish (cook, grill, pouch, raw, cut etc.) and how to put them together. It all about the taste that is created through the dialogue of the ingredients and usually a nice presentation is just a bonus. But with sushi the presentation, the spatial composition, is essential. Not only because it has to look beautiful to the eye, but also because making sushi requires a level of love and attention that is reflected in the zen-garden-like presentation. If you don’t spend enough attention the the presentation, you probably didn’t pay enough attention to the preparation either. Texture, color and spatial arrangement link sushi clearly to architecture on a formal level. But there are deeper levels of interaction between sushi and architecture.
The American architect Greg Lynn has some interesting things to say about the three different ways you can mix the different elements in cooking. First there is a beating or whisking of homogenous elements into a new uniform ingredient (salt, yeast, water and flour become dough). Secondly there is a mixing of different ingredients into a mix in which the elements can still be seen and tasted individually (cucumber, tomato, salt, pepper, oil, vinegar and lettuce becomes a bowl of salad). And thirdly there is the folding, the smooth mixing of different ingredients without stirring or beating in such a way that the individual characteristics of the ingredients are maintained while still creating a new ingredient. These ways of dealing with raw materials can easily be transferred to architecture if you would just think of a building as a meal.
Sushi falls mainly into the second category. There are ingredients in sushi that are whisked together (first category) to form a new ingredient and even folded (third category). There is, for instance, the tamago: the Japanese folded omelet. First eggs, soy sauce, mirrin, sugar and fish stock are whisked together. This mixture is baked until the top of the omelet is still a bit wet. This omelet is folded into a roll after which the section of the pan that is now open is filled with the mixture again. Then the omelet is baked until the top is till wet and folded again. This is repeated until the mixture runs out. Because part of the omelet is still wet and uncooked and the omelet is rolled, the uncooked parts are cooked through the heat of the baked part. This creates a layered thick omelet that is sliced into pieces to be used for the sushi. But for the most part sushi falls into the second category of combining different elements into a mix in which each ingredient can be identified, and tasted. The taste is created in your mouth where the different ingredients meet. There is a dialogue between the elements that is clear and pure. This is different from a stew, where the ingredients melt together and ’share’ their tastes. This is also different from a dish made up from potatoes, meat and vegetables, where the elements don’t form one new whole. I like to think of architecture as sushi: different materials combined, that can be identified separately, but come together in the experience of the building. You can feel the attention for the material. The materials work together in creating the flavor of the building. There is a skin that holds the space together. On the inside you can experience different spatial experiences. There is a love and attention to each individual material and the composition and dialogue of the different materials creates a material experience that goes beyond the sum of the ingredients. Sweet and sour, hard and soft, crunchy and mushy, raw and cooked work together side by side.
Making sushi requires an insight into the materials you use. To become a master sushi chef requires a minimum of 5 years of training in which all the materials are studied and the dexterity to put them together is trained. The feeling for material that is required to make good sushi is also necessary to become a good architect. “Where modern architects looked to painting as a means to interrogate composition and generate form, more recently post-modern architects have looked to the text …” [quote form the book 'Eating Architecture'], I think the materiality of food is also a rich source of inspiration. More in general the role of food in society has a relation to the way we view and treat our environment and the buildings in it. Okay, there are cooking and eating spaces to be designed and the way we view food has its influence on the spatial articulation of restaurants and our homes. But I think the relation goes even deeper than that. The attention and love we give to food yields material qualities in our buildings. If we all go to McDonalds, we end up with a McDonalds world with McDonalds architecture: one taste for the entire world. I personally would never trust an architect or artist who doesn’t like to cook.