Tasting Space

by Peter Secan

Architect and foodie Peter Secan takes an interesting look at our perception of food through architecture.

An architect creates a design. After months, sometimes years of dedicated effort, that design manifests itself as a building. It’s a complex case of point A to point B where the contains a process and method that turns a raw concept into a physical thing. It’s a similar journey for a chef cooking a meal, and while the pay-off is more immediate, it doesn’t discount the inherent connection between the spaces we live in, and the food we eat. Food and architecture, when paired, create a special symbiosis that exploits the senses and our perception of what constitutes a good meal.

I am an architect. It is my job and my passion, both of which consume my creative energy on a daily, and sometimes nightly basis. However, no matter how unmanageable my professional life can get, I always find time to cook. It’s a mental and artistic release that happens to also be a necessity for…you know…life. I’m not a chef, nor do I pretend to be particularly good at developing flavors or being able to fast-chop an onion in under 5 seconds. I do, however, know how important architecture is to food, and how the two can melt into a harmonious and delicious partnership.

In fact, designing a building and developing a dish are in themselves similar processes. An architect assembles building materials in a specifically designed arrangement that results in creating space. The space is experienced through sight, sound and touch. A chef assembles ingredients in a specifically measured quantity and order that results in a dish. The dish is experienced through smell, touch, and taste. The opportunity here is to combine the experiential strengths of both the food and the space, resulting in a cohesive product that caters to all five senses.

When you go out to eat at a restaurant, the space in which you eat is equally important as the food itself. It is your first, and subconsciously your most potent impression of the entire experience. Although you will likely talk to your friends about the tastes, the cost, and perhaps the service, your mind will wrap all of that around the physical space in which you took in those things. The food is a compliment to the space. That may be an architect’s biased opinion, but it might have more merit than you think.

Put yourself in a chef’s hat for a second. You are about to open a restaurant and pour your creative juices into the public chalice. After you develop a concept for your business, the first thing you will do is select a space. You will then craft that space into the perfect representation of yourself as a culinary master. At this point the menu is not important. You will eventually create dishes that change with the season’s available ingredients, personal tastes, and public opinion, but the spatial platform for which you display your creations will remain constant. The lighting, the materials, the ceiling height, the color of the wall behind the bar; these are all important considerations that help to cultivate the attitude of your restaurant.

PoppyPoppy, a popular Indian fusion restaurant in Seattle (where I live), is an example of a unique marriage between food and architecture (see image). The clean lines and material restraint of the dining room reflect the simple complexity of the culinary flavors. It’s a complimentary relationship that demonstrates the collaborative efforts between the designer and the chef. But again, it has less to do with the specific menu items, and more to do with the style, flair, and flavor profiles the chef is creating. Conversely, find yourself inside an Appleby’s and you pretty much know what to expect: processed (yet delicious!) boneless buffalo wings, cheap beer and suspect service. The spaces we eat in talk to us in a way that clues us in on what’s to come. It helps to prime our taste buds by shaping our mental perception.

Next time you go out to eat, or even next time you eat at home, make an effort to think about the space you are in. How is the light acting? What does the table feel like? Is it claustrophobic or open? Think about these things as you chew your food. Those subconscious feelings you typically get will suddenly become conscious, and you might gain a greater sense of awareness as you enjoy what you are consuming. It’s not a perfect science, and we will all be affected differently by both the taste of the food, and the impact of the space. What’s important is that the connection is made, and that it allows you to get the most out of the experience. You don’t have to be an architect, or even a cook to be able to appreciate this phenomenon.

All you have to do is observe.

Peter Secan lives and works as an architect in Seattle, Washington. He is a project manager for Hybrid Architecture and Assembly, a small design/build firm that specializes in sustainable design, and pre-fabricated, modular building construction.  He is passionate about life and writing about life, which is on display at his blog, www.thatpoorarchitect.com. Follow him on twitter (@PoorArchitect).
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  • Andrew

    Don’t most restaurants rely more on decoration than architecture as such… especially ‘ethnic’ restaurants. Stick some bamboo on the walls and some paper lamps, and there you go – instant Chinese

    • Carmel

      So true, Lots of people seem to think you can apply the same principle to creating a French atmosphere. A few berets and strings of onions and Boom! Instant Paris Chic.


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