¿Cuánto es un poquito?: Imprecise Recipes for Architecture

100 • Cycles

Volume 10, Issue 01
February 23, 2024

“¿Cómo lo hiciste?” Without fail, my grandma lists three to five ingredients for a dish made up of at least twenty.

Recognizing a flavor that wasn’t in her abbreviated list, “Agregaste ajo?” I ask.

“Si, claro.”

As I grew older, craving her food whenever she wasn’t around, I decided I would translate her cooking into clear and measured recipes by following along. My first request was that she teach me to make empanadas de viento, a traditional Ecuadorian food with a name that describes how the dough puffs up full of air as it’s fried.The melting cheese clings to the interior walls in preparation to be pulled—and pulled—apart. Granulated sugar is sprinkled on top, or perhaps piled inside after the first bite if you’re feeling bold. A single empanada can be made as small as a topping served with soup or as large as a dinner plate.

She starts to combine ingredients into a mixing bowl and I rush to ask her how much. For each ingredient, she responds with one of three quantities: “un poco,” “un poquito,” or “un poquitito.” Each word is equally unhelpful translating to “a small amount”—decreasing in size by an additional diminutive suffix or two with no comparative reference or consistency in use.

“¿Pero Ita, cuanto es un poquito?”

“¡Un poquito!” as if repetition of the phrase meant resolution of the issue.

Holding up a teaspoon and a tablespoon side by side, I beg “¿Cuánto es un poquito?”

How much is a little bit? Well, it depends. My imperfect efforts to translate generational knowledge into recipes–or structured lists of materials, measurements, and steps–parallel the friction at the center of architectural production. In Translations from Drawing to Building, Robin Evans explains that architecture is predicated on this act of translation in which, “things can get bent, broken or lost on the way.”1

Translation is required as drawing sets evolve over predetermined design phases that move linearly from concept to detail. This narrowing of scale locks in material quantities and selections even before the source is known. At its worst, this process of abstraction obscures the tangible effects of architecture on ecological, social, economic, and political realities.2 Drawings, and other sources of mediation, routinely lie unaware of the scale of action they orchestrate and mobilize, masquerading as neutral sets of ideas and instructions developed around a client’s needs. Even so, Evans argues that the architect must still believe in the possibility of a seamless translation and that only by suspending disbelief can they continue their work. There is, however, another scenario here. One in which the architect maintains the knowledge that there are inevitable gaps between drawing and building to fuel a different way of working.

Once the ingredients are worked together, we let the dough sit and then roll it out. By using a circular template, typically a bowl or this one plastic pitcher, each empanada is cut to roughly the same size. “Si no lo sellas bien se va a regar el queso.” The last step is the most important; it calls for sealing the empanada by sequentially twisting and folding the edge onto itself. As the empanadas are submerged in hot oil it becomes clear which ones I had a hand in as cheese begins to bubble out from small gaps. “No te preocupes. Así se aprende.”

How can we learn? In what ways can contemporary architecture learn from different cultures and timescales of building that are more accepting of intervention, intuition, and transformation? For example, templates, not drawing sets, were used in medieval times as direct tools of mediation between drawing and built work.3 In place of abstraction, templates guided stonemasons as they carved and construction was mediated through temporal collaborations requiring reinterpretations of existing states.4 These practices can also start to shed light on how design might be rethought in light of the increasing share of work done on existing building stock. 5

Discontinuous cycles of building call for tactical architecture that prioritizes creative interventions over grand gestures. Radically different approaches to the means and methods of architectural production require us to slow down—extricate practice, even if only a little bit, from efficient timelines of capital investment—to make room for conversations and collaborations across the tangled web of industries and laborers involved in building. A more ethical practice can only be
built through more intentional relationships that reshape design in service of every contributing hand at every step of the way.

As for the empanadas, I was only able to learn through repeated observation and practice. Writing down a precise recipe was no doubt a helpful and necessary endeavor, but it can only be fully understood by taking whatever time is needed to understand the process of translation.

  1. Robin Evans, Translations from Drawing to Building (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997), 154. ↩︎
  2. “A Case for a More Literal Architecture,” Metropolis, September 14, 2021, https://metropolismag.com/viewpoints/literal-architecture-kiel-moe/. ↩︎
  3. Turnbull, David. “The Ad Hoc Collective Work of Building Gothic Cathedrals with Templates, String, and Geometry.” Science, Technology, & Human Values 18, no. 3 (1993): 315–40. https://doi.org/10.1177/016224399301800304. ↩︎
  4. Ibid, pp. 317, 320-22. ↩︎
  5. Work on existing buildings made up 48% of architecture billings in 2022. Source: American Institute of Architects, “The Business of Architecture 2022: Firm Survey Report,” (2022), https://www.aia.org/resources/6151-firm-survey-report. ↩︎