I had a small revelation the other day. Nothing particularly to do with the aftermath of the storm except that it (and my ongoing health problems) has left me with more indoor sitting-around-thinking time than usual. I was reading a bunch of free chapters I’d downloaded to my phone from Amazon, and came to one from a book called American Terroir by Rowan Jacobsen. Terroir, for those who don’t know, is a fancy French word that means the specific flavor of a place. Although originally used to describe wines, it has since been applied to any kind of food grown in a specific place and how that locality affects the food’s flavor. Food and place are two things that are very important to me, so it’s interesting to see this mostly European concept applied to North America.
But what does this have to do with architecture or design? Good question! Nothing, I thought, until I came to this bit:
There are two distinct traditions running through gastronomy, and I am securely in one camp.
One tradition can be traced to to Antonin Carême, France’s “King of Chefs and Chef of Kings.” Carême, the father of haute cuisine, cooked for royalty and the richest of the rich in early nineteenth century France….
Today, the heirs to Carême’s throne are the molecular gastronomists, with their dehydrated black-currant foam and liquid ginger spheres. This is dinner theater, with the chef as performer whipping up paradoxical concoctions designed to awe. The focus is on the chef, and people pay obscene amounts of money for the privilege of eating foods designed by the master (though rarely cooked by him).
I have no interest in this food…. but when a beautifully fragrant pear or a bowl of Rhode Island razor clams is set before me, I get crazy happy….This is the ingredients-forward tradition of Alice Waters and Peter Hoffman and generations of good home cooks before them. The cook’s role is still vital, to be sure, but the goal is to let the nature of the beast (or beet) shine through.
Aha, yes! This is what I’ve been missing. I think there is really just one tradition alive today in architecture, and it’s the haute cuisine tradition. This tradition, in both food and architecture, is great and important — it leads to icons and innovations, and advances the science of both food and building. I love to be impressed, awed, or even a little confused but a masterpiece of culinary or concrete construction.
But my heart is really with the latter tradition (for food and for architecture/design), which, except for a few black sheep, architecture doesn’t seem to have or, really, desire. Simplicity, honesty, terroir — all of these things could be an important part of architecture if we started encouraging a, let’s call it, materials-forward tradition in the spirit of Alice Waters and Peter Hoffman. Something rooted to place, instead of the cookie-cutter-this-building-could-be-anywhere internationalist tradition, encouraged by the starchitect system, by the kinds of photographs that show up in all the best magazines, and by what we teach young architects. That’s a tradition I’d be ready to come back and join.