Alexandra Lange
Architecture & design critic

The Architecture of Food

Every year, like the changing of the seasons, someone on my neighborhood parents Yahoo group decides to take on the ice cream truck. It idles by the playground, polluting the air. It sells sugary treats. It is like baby crack. This year, one mother went so far as to post the ingredients in Mr. Softee, including the dread corn syrup, mono- and diglycerides, guar gum. “Not trying to start anything here, but thought I’d post should you want to know what’s in the Mr. Softee Ice Cream your
kids are eating,” she wrote, signing off, “respectfully.”

So it amused me no end when Natasha Case, co-owner of the Los Angeles-based Coolhaus ice cream truck, said she and partner Freya Estreller picked ice cream as their product of choice because “everybody loves it.” The truck’s name, a punny reference to Dutch superstar architect Rem Koolhaas, indicates their unfrozen agenda. Case has an architecture degree, Estreller is a real estate developer, and “Coolhaus was really about bringing architecture to the public, naming flavors after architects,” Case says. “When you sit down with a client about creating a home for them, creating a flavor for them is the same thing.”

Jam-making jams, fertilized grow pockets, edible schoolyards, skyscraper farms. Every day my Twitter feed, nominally devoted to design, architecture and media, brings me a stream of architectural platings, watch packaging that becomes a food bowl, sidewalks that sprout, bananas with logos. Right behind the question Why Design Now?—the theme of this year’s National Design Triennial—appears the question What to Eat Now? And designers seem to be throwing themselves at the answer for many of the same reasons. Now that we know we produce too much waste, now that aesthetics are suspect, now that we must compost or perish, how do design and architecture retool themselves for less, or better, or tastier consumption?

Well, we all have to eat.

I originally decided to include the Coolhaus truck in this article as linkbait—it couldn’t be cuter. Though their truck is often included in articles detailing architects’ retreat from a recession-damaged profession, I found Case ready with an argument for food trucks in general as urban architecture. “The beauty of it all is activating these public spaces that are so under-utilized and so underappreciated,” Case says, “We almost never get people complaining about waiting in line. They are standing in line, talking to friends, in outdoor spaces. In LA you don’t usually have this moment to interact.”
What Case said reminded me of sociologist William H. Whyte’s concept of “triangulation.” Whyte argued that people need some external stimulus, a third term in the meeting of strangers, to create chat, links, community. Ice cream triangulates, even in a vacant lot. Case thinks the pop-up nature of the truck, aided by social media, gives it an advantage over temporary-but-immobile urban farmers markets. Plus, she’s selling ice cream.

“Our sandwiches are handmade, with the best produce and dairy, real chocolate, fresh herbs and to me that’s healthier than weirdo non-fat cyberspace ice cream,” Case says. Case argues that you catch more flies with gelato than with kale, but among the growing members of the design-food nation, she seems to be in a minority.

Just this week GOOD sent out a call for a (much-needed) redesign of the food pyramid, remembered from grade school cafeteria walls. Two different professors at the North Carolina State College of Design have run studios on design and food systems, most recently one titled “Greening the Grocery Store” on recycling. New York City’s Department of Design and Construction recently issued guidelines on building buildings that encourage you to use to stairs. And there’s the general obsession with urban rooftop farming (never mind that most roofs aren’t strong enough for all that dirt). Sometimes it seems like Mayor Michael Bloomberg has enlisted the design professions as food police—and clearly not against their will.

I suspect many designers fall into what might be called the Whole Foods demographic. If they were eating brown rice sushi, shouldn’t they use their powers to bring it to the people? Save school kids from a lifetime of obesity? Green the food desert? An exemplary product for this theory was recently profiled in Rob Walker’s New York Times Magazine Consumed column, baby carrots (which have their own waste problems) repackaged and advertised like junk food. Design for food, yes. Improving health, yes. But is a parody of the clashing colors and energized typography of Doritos really making a difference? Are better graphics about nutrition going to make a teenager put down that soda? I found myself attracted to those design-food that had three-dimensional and emotional, impact, rather than just educational appeal. I mean, I find Alice Waters a little preachy and I subscribe to a CSA. Her first East Coast Edible Schoolyard will open in TK in a WORCac-designed building and mobile greenhouse—the political and physical environment in New York City required more explicit design than the Berkeley versions.

Fallen Fruit, for example, an LA-based artists collective, began mapping the public fruit trees in the city, combining urban geography with seasonal harvest. “Fruit is the food we trust the most in a way. Fruit has never been in the unhealthy category while everything else has gone through a series of fads,” says FF’s Matias Viegener. (I didn’t want to tell him about the anti-fruit juice brigade. Pure sugar.) This year, they were invited by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to do a series of exhibitions and installations inside and outside the museum, named EATLACMA. On August 1 they held Public Fruit Jam, a canning extravaganza where public and donated fruit was transformed into 12,000 jars of preserves. Is that design? Fallen Fruit would not claim it as such, but it seems to occupy the same triangulating realm as Coolhaus.

And Fallen Fruit’s biggest dream seems well within the realms of landscape architecture: the creation of new orchards in Los Angeles, streets lined with flowering trees, citywide picking parties. (Which also reminded me of my parents Yahoo group: every September a flood of requests for recommendations of apple orchards accessible via public transportation. If only Brooklyn streets were lined with apple trees…).

What Case and Fallen Fruit have found is that to work with food is to have an instant connection with people’s memories, tastes and feelings. Perhaps design needs food because we’ve fallen out of love with plastic, new chairs no longer make our hearts sing. Coolhaus’s ice cream sandwiches come in a soon-to-be-patented edible wrapper: food + design allows people to make things that will be used up, things that will be loved.

Dutch designer Marije Vogelzang’s whole practice is devoted to just these ephemeral and emotional ideas. Trained at Design Academy Eindhoven (where alumni include product design superstars like Maarten Baas, Tord Boontje, Marcel Wanders), Vogelzang now operates a studio and the restaurant Proef in Amsterdam, and describes herself as an eating designer to distinguish what she does (re-thinking the Dutch funeral meal, revamping hospital feeding schedules) from arranging food geometrically on the plate.

“So many design products that are made are a waste of material, but all the things I make will be wasted,” she says. “All designers want to make things for people but with food you can make something that people actually put inside their body. You eat something and get a memory of a long time past. You can play with that and can make people want something. It is about seduction. There is a big difference between a table that might be made of beautiful wood, and something emphemeral on the table.”

Vogelzang isn’t as explicitly political as the American designers, but her emphasis on emphemerality offers a very 1960s, conceptual art critique of the design world, and even more commercial designs for food. Recycled packaging is still packaging. The elevator will always be easier than stairs. Design can make healthy choices more appealing, but to me projects like the edible wrapper, extending the growing season with a mobile greenhouse, using food (and making food) to create public spaces people want to be together in move design closer to the heart of the matter, and fix physical problems created by nature or design in the past. It is carrots three ways: carrot cake ice cream, a freshly dug carrot you planted yourself, a crinkly bag of baby carrots. Which are you most likely to eat?