Tasting Space

rahm-digestible-gulfstream-2
temperature

Tasting Space
-Lidia Klein

Among the senses engaged in experiencing architecture, taste remains the least active. Edible architectural structures seem only to exist in fiction, in stories such as The Gingerbread House, a German fairy tale collected by the Brothers Grimm and published in 1812. The protagonists, Hansel and Gretel, are a young brother and sister cast away from home. Wandering alone through the forest, the two children discover a house made of cake and confectionery. Tempted by the luscious structure, the hungry siblings start to bite into its sugar windowpanes and gingerbread roof, not yet knowing this architectural treat is a trap set by a witch. In Grimms’ story, architecture appears as an object of immediate, bodily experience. Doors, roof, walls and other structural elements function as sources of sensual pleasure, as they are “nibbled,” “tasted,” and “enjoyed with.”1 The tale of Hansel and Gretel is still one of the most powerful stories on the sensual perception of architecture, yet it remains different from our experience of buildings. First, the gingerbread house lacks the constraints of “real” architecture, which is expected to provide shelter and possess the quality of permanence. Second, its sensuous dimension remains in strong contrast with the dominant discourse of architecture.

In The Eyes Of The Skin, a seminal book that provided the ground for further scholarship on architecture and the senses, Juhani Pallasmaa argues architecture is firmly placed within the ocularcentric paradigm.2 He sees its foundation in antiquity, and traces its manifestations in architectural writing through the epochs, claiming that the dominance of vision over other senses reaches its peak in contemporary practice. Pallasmaa states, “the ocular bias and the visual hegemony in the art of architecture have never been more apparent than in the past thirty years” and describes the current situation of the discipline as “a practice of architecture of visual image, which enabled the emergence of a bodiless observer.”3 He associates this condition mainly with material issues, stating that contemporary architects tend to ignore the tactile dimensions of a building by choosing materials like reflective glass rather than more tangible, natural materials like wood or stone that encourage not only looking, but also touching. Therefore, architecture partly informs the reductive, vision-based paradigm authors such as Martin Jay or David Michael Levin have diagnosed.4

Among all the senses marginalized in European theory and architectural practice, taste is the most ambiguous. While the sensory hierarchy may vary slightly within the theories of different thinkers, taste (together with smell) is regarded as practical, animalistic and thus inferior. Sight is considered more objective and noble.5 To maintain its status not only as one of the fine arts, but also as a discipline closely connected to intellectual realm of mathematics and engineering, architecture emphasizes the visual, while simultaneously and reluctantly engaging taste.

By the eighteenth century taste emerged within the discourse of architecture, parallel to its introduction to the emerging discipline of aesthetics. Edmund Burke compared the difference between the beautiful and the ugly to the tastes of sugar and salt. Jean-Baptiste Dubos, who juxtaposed tasting ragout with judging a work of art, elaborated the discourse of taste.6 In their writing, the meaning of taste shifts from the purely sensorial terms of gustatory perception, to gain broader significance in relation to aesthetic judgment.

In such analyses, however, architecture did not hold a privileged position. It is compared to food just as other of the Beaux-Arts. As British architectural historian Peter Collins points out, the relationship between food and architecture was first expressed explicitly in 1862.7 In a lecture titled The Principles of Design in Architecture James Ferguson explained, “the process by which a hut to shelter an image is refined into a temple, or a meeting house into a cathedral, is the same as that which refines a boiled neck of mutton into côtelettes à l’Impériale or a grilled fowl into poulet à la Marengo.” Ferguson went even further with this analogy, stating “if you wish to acquire a knowledge of the true principles of design in architecture you will do better to study the works of Soyer or Mrs. Glass than any or all of the writers on architecture from Vitruvius to Pugin.”8 The inevitably practical dimension of architecture and its connection to craftsmanship, underlined in architectural theory from its beginnings, finds architecture in line with the culinary arts. Theoreticians from various fields noted this similarity, including anthropologist Mary Douglas who classified food with architecture as applied art, owing to their practical functions of providing either nourishment or shelter.9 The audacity of Ferguson’s claim considers the most established figures from western theory less relevant than a celebrity chef and a cookbook author. But the audacity of his parallel lies in acclaiming taste as necessary for “knowledge of the true principles of design in architecture.” The now lowly sense was once critically regarded for understanding the discipline.

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Although the associations between taste and architecture can be traced more in the theory of architecture than in actual designs, we find other important connections in architectural food arrangements and small architecture. One of the most spectacular examples of these are provided by Marie-Antoine Carême (1784-1833), French chef, confectioner, and creator of completely edible small architectural pieces, known from drawings reproduced in culinary treatises.10 Those constructions, presented in his book “Le Patissier Royal parisien” published in 1854, reproduce ancient ruins or temples from chocolate, sponge cake and marzipan and gained fame among Parisian high society, helping to establish Carême’s position as a master of haute cuisine [Fig. 1]. Edible structures, crossing the seemingly distinct paths of confection and architecture, are significant as not merely conceptual, but practical attempts of linking the sense of taste with architectural maquettes. At the same time, the role of taste in architecture can indeed reach beyond zones of sensual pleasure and into the realm of productive juxtaposition, creating ironic clashes between the conventional building materials of brick or stone and foodstuffs, as in Carême’s pieces. In contemporary practices, taste often becomes a tool for redefining the discipline helping to side step established oppositions such as exterior/interior or bodily/architectural. Moreover, when it is paired with the aspect of disgust, taste might help undermine the very foundations of architecture. To show how the incorporation of taste in architecture can lead to such consequences, I will focus on three projects created by Philippe Rahm, Greg Lynn and Zbigniew Oksiuta.

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Philippe Rahm’s goal is to engage architecture and extend its field “to other dimensions, other perceptions, from the physiological to the atmospheric, from the sensorial to the meteorogical, from the gastronomic to the climatic.”11 In his attempt to widen the ways in which architecture can be grasped, taste plays a crucial role. One such example is Digestible Gulf Stream, a site-specific installation designed in 2008 for the eleventh Architectural Biennale in Venice [Fig. 2]. Its main components are two horizontal, white metal planes approximately20 feet in length, built at different heights. The lower plane is heated to 28 C (82 F) and the upper cooled to 12 C (53 F). The temperatures were selected following an understanding of thermal comfort. Thermal comfort is a bodily condition maintained when heat generated by the human metabolism is allowed to dissipate, generally situating between 12 C and 28 C (53 F and 82 F). Rahm’s lower plane is placed directly on the floor, allowing visitors to sit down or lay on its surface [Fig. 3]. The higher one is located a few feet away from the first, and by standing under it, visitors can sense the coolness it emits. The plates are the only structural components of Rahm’s installation, and their role is to create an “invisible landscape,” shaped by bodily sensations of hot and cold. Visitors choose an optimal place of comfort according to personal preferences, dietary habits or clothing.

***

Besides the platforms, Rahm added two other material components to his installation. He characterizes these components as “culinary/pharmaceutical preparations …that directly stimulate the sensory receptors of hot and cold at the cerebral level and that can be eaten.”12 Those “preparations” are mints and chili peppers, ready for consumption while moving between the zones of hold and cold. Containing menthol, mint causes the same sensation in the human brain as the coolness perceptible at temperature of 15 C (59 F). Chili peppers, in turn, are the source of capsaicin, activating the neuro-receptor TRPV1 and thus stimulating temperatures comparable to 44 C (111 F). For Rahm the role of food and its physiological effects are integral to the experience of architecture itself:

The sensations of hot and cold may be perceived as much inside the body (diet) as outside (atmosphere). So the question of diet also comes into the field of architecture, on a par with its climatic dimension…Architecture becomes a “Gulf Stream” that polarizes the contrast on different scales (hot/cold, low/high, clothed/unclothed, internal/external, rest/activity).13

In Digestible Gulf Stream architecture is understood far beyond the criteria of material constructions. Visible material provides just a framework, enabling what Rahm considers actual architecture: a practice that connects the atmosphere and the body. Architecture takes place both outside the body and inside it, as its metabolic and biophysical processes generate the experience of the surrounding climatic aura. Digestible Gulf Stream thus questions Pallasmaa’s diagnosis of architecture as “a practice of visual image, which enabled the emergence of a bodiless observer.”14 That taste might play a crucial role in the project of rethinking architecture is what Rahm seems to suggest by labeling this space “digestible.” Taste becomes the first step in linking the interior to the exterior, and establishing connections between our bodies and space. It is partly through tasting mints and chili peppers that this operation is performed. Mints and peppers are mediators between the body and its surroundings, extending the body within architecture and architecture within the body. Through the introduction of taste, which works to activate various bodily sensations, it is possible to acquire more than “a knowledge of the true principles of design in architecture,” as Ferguson once sought in his lecture, and to undertake a far more daring enterprise of broadening the discipline’s purview beyond shelter and permanence.

Incorporating taste into architecture brings far-reaching consequences, especially in tandem with the aspect of disgust. Though they remain closely bounded in cultural and physiological terms (taste and the emotional feeling of disgust are governed by the same areas of the brain, the insular cortex), the relations that bring them together elude scientific categorizations.15 The ambiguous association of taste and disgust can be traced in the projects of Greg Lynn and Zbigniew Oksiuta. In those designs, taste is present as a source of pleasure, but it is also juxtaposed with qualities far from palatal satisfaction.

***

In Embryological House, designed by Lynn in 1998-9, taste is introduced through the notion of folding, borrowed from Gilles Deleuze and intertwined with discourses as various as evolutionary biology, mathematics, pop-culture and gastronomy [Fig. 4].16 In many of his works, Lynn explores similarities between building technologies and processes of cooking and baking. His Embryological House is one such exploration. Embryological House was conceived as “a vital, evolving biological model of embryological design” that seeks to mimic biological processes rather than merely imitate natural shapes.17 To achieve this, Lynn uses Computer-Aided Design (CAD) and software borrowed from the movie industry (Autodesk Maya, used as an animation tool) as a technical base for his design method. This computer-based process of designing the building begins with a “germ” (or embryo) of the house – a spherical shape, which is modified following data introduced to a computer program. Those data are closely fitted to each individual variation of Embryological House, allowing variables such as information about the particular terrain where it will be located, the architect’s individual requirements and its potential client or future tenant to determine its outcome. The form of the house, shaped by user-defined parameters, emerges as the optimal outcome of singular conditions. Each is fitted to the demands of the customer and represents an ideally customized design. Lynn refers to the variations of Embryological House as mutations among which no privileged example can be pointed out, as all of them represent particular sites and unique conditions.

Although it is technically realizable thanks to Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAM) technologies, Embryological House exists only in the realm of computer visualizations. It is not presented as a typical rendering, which shows what the house might look like in particular surrounding, but as still frames from the computer modifications made during the design process [Fig. 5]. This way of visualizing the project is worth noting, as it emphasizes Lynn’s focus on process, rather than finished form. The house is subjected to simple evolutionary rules such as adaptation or mutation, enabling the creation of the fittest individual home – a project perfectly adjusted to given conditions. The biological discourses present in Lynn’s designs and writing are introduced through Deleuzian notions, especially the fold, which acts as the framework for Lynn’s design theory. The fold’s architectural connotations are explained using examples from culinary techniques and paired with biological analogies taken from the French philosopher. Deleuze regards the fold as the smallest unit of matter and describes the development of organisms in terms of folding.18

***

Deleuzian thinking led Lynn towards a process-oriented practice and an understanding of architecture in terms of continuity and constant becoming, in which one form seamlessly morphs into other. As well as an embryo and a mutation, Lynn labels Embryological House as fold. Looking for folded forms analogical to his architectural manifestations, Lynn explores various disciplines ranging from film (animation) to topological mathematics (including figures of continuity such as the Mobius Strip or Klein Bottle) and cuisine. In explaining his interest in the latter, Lynn writes:

If there is a single effect produced in architecture by folding, it will be the ability to integrate unrelated elements within a new continuous mixture. Culinary theory has developed both a practical and precise definition for at least three types of mixtures. The first involves the manipulation of homogeneous elements; beating, whisking and whipping change the volume but not the nature of a liquid through agitation. The second method of incorporation mixes two or more disparate elements; chopping, dicing, grinding, grating, slicing, shredding and mincing eviscerate elements into fragments. The first method agitates a single uniform ingredient, the second eviscerates disparate ingredients. Folding, creaming and blending mix smoothly multiple ingredients through repeated gentle overturnings without stirring or beating in such a way that their individual characteristics are maintained. For instance, an egg and chocolate are folded together so that each is a distinct layer within a continuous mixture.19

The Embryological House, conceived as a fold and thus based on the same technique used to produce a mouthwatering, smooth egg-and-chocolate mixture, hides an unexpected element. Beyond viewing his project as an (un)folding embryo, Lynn regards it as a blob, a monster from the 1958 Irvin Yeaworth film. Its main feature is the ability to absorb any kind of matter into its body. As Lynn writes, “the blob is all surface, not pictorial or flat, but sticky, thick, and mutable…a gelatinous surface with no depth per se; its interior and exterior are continuous.”20 The blob is a creature in a state of continuous transformation; it is a jelly-like, multidimensional mass uniting different substances into one aggregate form. It, too, serves as an example of folding, just as the mixture of eggs and chocolate. Lynn describes the blob-like characteristics of his project in the following manner:

You do the working drawings for what I call the “seed” of the house, and then the computer generates all the mutations. You never really see the norm, it’s all monsters. That’s why it’s called an Embryological House. You can have young ones, egg-like ones that haven’t been mutated much, but when these things get adult – in other words, after they’ve been designed and customized for their context, the client, the whims of the architects, whatever – they mutate into full-blown monsters.21

Even from this short passage it is easy to observe Lynn’s tendency to intermingle various spheres and shift the meanings of terms he chooses. This strategy seems crucial for linking taste and disgust, as they are seamlessly folded one into another within Lynn’s theory. In his writing, the discourse of evolutionary biology and one of its key terms, mutation, moves fluidly into mass-culture, recalling a popular association with mutation as a source of terrifying monstrosity. Embryological House is, at once, a form of artificial life, tied to the laws of nature (mutation) like any other living and evolving creature, a disgusting mutant from the Hollywood B-movie, and a tasty substance associated more with a confectioner’s workplace than an architect’s studio. Embryological House encapsulates the ambiguity between taste and disgust, present in the smooth texture of eggs and chocolate batter and the blob’s viscous body. Juxtaposing culinary analogies evoking pleasant palatal sensations with the blob’s repulsive ability to “slither, creep, and squirm” to instigate “disgust and queasiness in the movie audience” provokes a tension, one that bears the potential to undermine the very foundations of architecture.22 This possibility will be further explored, after introducing a project of similar uncertainty and ambiguity – Spatium Gelatum.

***

Conceptualized by Polish architect Zbigniew Oksiuta in 1974 at the Faculty of Architecture of Warsaw University of Technology, Spatium Gelatum is currently being realized in cooperation with the University of Cologne and Max-Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, Cologne [Fig. 6]. Spatium Gelatum is a new form of architectural space, described by Oksiuta as a “future habitat” made from biological polymers of vegetal (cellulose) or animal (collagen) character. Habitats are created by blowing the polymer bubble (transparent or colored) into a desirable size and by shaping it using high-pressure air or water. Due to the great elasticity of the material, the bubbles can form various shapes and dimensions. Oksiuta emphasizes that Spatium Gelatum should not be considered only as a form of dwelling, but as a growing biological organism as well. This consideration suggests that in the future, thanks to developments in biotechnology, it might be possible for such structures to grow and replicate. Spatium Gelatum attempts to create a new environment, blurring the borders between nature and artificiality. Such spaces, in comparison to architecture built with non-biological materials, will provoke a more direct interaction with the body, engaging an inhabitant’s sensorium. Not only is it tactile – thanks to the biological, wet materials Spatium Gelatum is made from – but also projects various odors and flavors. Both sensorial aspects can be selected individually by the author or by future tenants. As one of basic inspiration for his project, Oksiuta recalls works of Marie-Antoine Carême, and edible structures from fiction, including The Gingerbread House. What is more, similarly to Lynn, Oksiuta widely uses culinary metaphors, for example referring to the process of blowing up Spatium Gelatum underwater as “poached dumplings technology” [Fig. 7]. In both Spatium Gelatum and Embryological House, luscious culinary references are paired with repulsive qualities. Spatium Gelatum shares features with the blob. It is created from wet, sticky materials that scarcely resemble typical solid materials used in architecture such as brick or stone. Oksiuta draws our attention to this aspect when he writes:

For physics, intermediate states between liquid and solid body are especially interesting. Such physical states include gel, mucus, and mud. It is interesting that these states have negative meaning in most languages. The descriptions like slippery, slithery, slimy are only several examples whose richness in other languages is just unlimited. In living nature, “slippery substances” are the main medium to enable the exchange of information and transport of energy of all levels of life from a cell to the human organism.23

Oksiuta underlines the connotations of disgust tied to the material he employs. These connotations evoke fluidity, stickiness and the early stages of life. As Oksiuta explains, he is “conducting experiments mainly based on water, as it is a cradle and everlasting grease of life” thereby associating the process of shaping Spatium Gelatum with the development of the fetus.24 Describing the materials he uses, Oksiuta merges two aspects: associations with the beginnings of life as well as the repulsive qualities that stem from cultural connotations surrounding viscosity and slipperiness. Similar aspects can be found in Lynn’s Embryological House, in which the embryo, egg or seed are interchangeably connected with the monstrous blob.

***

The work of Lynn and Oksiuta explores abjection’s potential in architecture. For understanding possible consequences of this ambiguity between taste and disgust in architecture, it is worth recalling the notion of abjection, a concept introduced by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror. In Kristeva’s theory, the abject, strongly connected with the physiological ability to taste, functions also as a “primer of culture.”25 The main quality of the abject is its ambiguity. It is a sphere of repulsion, rejection and repression, emerging not because of its “lack of cleanliness or health” but due to the fact that it “disturbs identity, system order.” It is “what does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambiguous, the composite.”26 We observe this ambiguity and violation in various levels of Embryological House and Spatium Gelatum. To consider those projects through the theory of abjection – the repulsiveness of undefined materials in Oksiuta’s project and the presence of the disgusting monster in the work of Greg Lynn – is also to consider the analogy between the two projects and a mother’s life-giving body.27 In Kristeva’s theory, the body of mother is considered as a primal form of repression. As we read in Powers of Horror, “But what is primal repression? Let us call it the ability of the speaking being, always already haunted by the Other, to divide, reject, repeat…The abject confronts us, on the other hand, and this time within our personal archeology, with our earliest attempts to release the hold of maternal eternity even before existing outside of her, thanks to the autonomy of language.”28

Kristeva connects the act of separation from a mother’s body with repulsion toward food. She states, “Food loathing is perhaps the most elementary and most archaic form of abjection.” She draws a suggestive example of how the abject operates during the contact with the surface of hot milk:

When the eyes see or the lips touch that skin on the surface of milk – harmless, thin as a sheet of cigarette paper, pitiful as nail paring – I experience a gagging sensation and, still farther down, spasms in stomach, the belly; and all the organs shrivel up the body, provoke tears and bile, increase heartbeat, cause forehead and hands to perspire. Along with sight-clouding dizziness, nausea makes me balk at milk cream, separates me from the mother.29

The slimy, sticky and jelly-like material Oksiuta uses is within the same sphere of abjection, and is akin to the skin that forms at the outer surface of hot milk. It is both appealing, having a tempting scent and flavor, and repulsive in the disgust-provoking qualities of its visceral materiality. Similarly, Embryological House is both appealing and disgusting, as associated both with the viscous monster and sweet chocolate batter. The works evoke Kristeva’s ambivalence and uncertainty.

Introducing the notion of abjection to the domain of architecture seems especially productive when we consider the discipline’s historical foundations. In the first known architectural treatise—10 Books on Architecture written by Vitruvius ca. 30-20 B.C.—architecture appears just after the use of fire and the development of speech as a part of the transitional stage from the primordial, savage condition towards cultural and social order.30 From that moment, architecture was considered one of the most basic elements of culture itself.

Works by Oksiuta and Lynn undermine such simple characterizations of architecture. They violate established orders and fixed oppositions, such as nature and culture, questioning architecture’s easy placement within the latter. Spatium Gelatum is at one and the same time an architectural space, a “habitat” and new nature. Embryological House is a building generated on the basis of natural laws. Both projects exist on the threshold of architecture by rejecting the logic of stability guaranteed by rigid walls and apparently fixed, seemingly reliable building materials. It is this ambiguity that qualifies these structures as abject. To introduce abjection into the field of architecture is to undermine its integrity as a discipline, just as it is to threaten the integrity of cultural norms. Paraphrasing Kristeva, the abject and the process of abjection are the primers of culture. So, too, is architecture.

If Pallasmaa suggested that architecture is mired in a visual paradigm, then incorporating the sense of taste helps the discipline move beyond ocularcentrism. As in Digestible Gulf Stream, taste can also help the discipline and its practice extend to domains varying “from the physiological to the atmospheric, from the sensorial to the meteorogical, from the gastronomic to the climatic.”31 When paired with the aspect of disgust, as in Lynn’s and Oksiuta’s works, and thus engaging abjection, it can question the integrity of the discipline of architecture, undermining its foundations. In its subversive potential, the inferior sense of taste turns out to be more powerful than the noblest, sight.

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Categories: Architecture, Theory

Author:jonbailey

studying: architecture design

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2 Comments on “Tasting Space”

  1. April 28, 2013 at 5:37 am #

    well, nice post, thanks for share

  2. iperez2012
    April 29, 2013 at 1:14 pm #

    Dear Jon,

    I’m going to moderate to round tables about Architecture and Nature during 14th and 21st of May.

    Do you have corresponsal in Barcelona in order I could invite him/her to come and post comment later on?

    Best,

    Ignasi Pérez Arnal

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