Lessons of Gastronomy

Issue 01

Volume , Issue 01
September 4, 2014

XIAO WU (M.Arch ’16)

elBulli is the world’s leading innovator in the culture, material, and technology of gastronomy. The approach of designing to maximize human experience is a fading tradition in architecture to be revived.


Shelter and food are two basic human needs. Architecture is to shelter as Gastronomy is to food.

Architecture and gastronomy were closely related. In prehistory, early beings sought protection in caves and harvested wild berries. Then there were stone axes; we started dismembering deers, and cutting logs to build tipis. Then there was fire; we made ovens to cook meat and clay.

Romans baked lime with pozzolana for cement, flour with water for bread. We fire iron and carbon into steel, hazelnut and cocoa beans into Nutella. Both dictate our life and society.

But between now and historical times the process of architecture became alienated from human experience while cuisine stayed rather close to our immediate senses. To architect a great building requires ten planners, twenty architects, thirty engineers, and forty contractors. To cook well requires a chef or grandmother.

Nevertheless architecture and gastronomy attempted to remain close to each other. First consider design of the pasta. The shape of the pasta directly determines the best sauce pairing. Macaroni is good with thick sauce because its tubular shape is able to hold chunks of sauce and it’s short enough to let the mix diffuse into the tube; the small size allows it to mix well with the base. Farfalle can catch sauce that has textures and meat/vegetable bits with its twists; and the long, thin Capellini needs the lubrication of olive oil based sauce, Then consider the “Macaroni Design Contest”, organized by Kenya Hara. Architect Norihide Imagawa’s design (img.1) featured two different textures on either side of the noodle, making it warp as it cooks to give new texture and tension in the mouth in cthe hewing process. It is similar to Norihide’s architectural interest, as well as historic Chinese cooking technique in making steamed dumplings.

Ferran Adrià, the head chef of the elBulli restaurant, is among the first too venture into design and creative industry. He closed the elBulli restaurant in 2011 and announced the future re-open of a new elBulli foundation as a “think tank for creative cuisine and gastronomy, hosting not only chef but architects, philosophers, and designers”, exploring topics such as “Do we need a dining room?”

As architects we ought to also learn our lessons from gastronomy.


A traditional dinner typically consists of hors d’oeuvre, salad, entrée, and dessert. An extreme form of formal dinner can consists of twenty-one courses, carefully designed to complement each other gastronomically.

In an elBulli menu, the characteristics of both are preserved. The dinner is choreographed into four acts, with the aid of architecture space. Guests first enter Act One, welcoming cocktails and aperitifs on the terrace. Act Two of tapas-dishes and Act Three of the sweet world continues to take place in comedor/salon. Finally guests migrate back to the terrace for Act four of coffee, and liqueurs. Act Two and Act Three require cultery, and Act Four lasts as long as the guests wish. In Act Two entrées are served in sequence, to focus guests’ attention onto the careful composition in aesthetics and taste of each course, and in Act Three desserts are served in tapas style, allowing multiple dishes to be present on the table simultaneously to evoke a sense of immersion into the kaleidoscopic bliss of the “sweet world”.

Architecture intends similarly, to design for user experience. Such aspiration was clear in times when house was a stone fortress to offer safety and kitchen was a hearth to celebrate fire and food. Later architecture gained more identities, as a symbol of an art style, as an argument in philosophy, or as a statement in eco-politics, etc,. Study in philosophy and art is necessary in making a better building, yet the problem begins when such search in form, art, and philosophy no longer serves to please the user, but celebrates the formal signature of the designer or advocates the political statement of the investor instead.

Consider a chef who has never cooked a dish. If that is inconceivable to you then consider an architect who does not practice. The ephemeral nature of food forced itself to absolutely prioritize user experience while a building, benefiting from its permanence, does not necessarily have to do so to ensure its survival, leaving the architect room to disregard the user. A house that does not even attract the designer himself to live in, are poisons that undermined architects’ reputation and authority in society today.
If human activity is still the soul of a building, then the function of the building can be defined as the experience of performing such activity. Is a library a playground of text and color for kids, or a foretressed sanctuary that threatens to asphyxiate pilgrims to protect the manuscripts? And Form follows, the new, experience inspired Functions.


Here’s a list of experiences that elBulli cuisine explicitly intent to evoke

Knowledge: of ingredients, dishes, restaurants and chefs, style and characteristics
Primary senses (flavor): sight, hearing, touch, smell, taste
Sixth sense: memories, magic, playfulness, irony/provocation, de-contextualization, surprise, a “knowing wink”, deception, confounded expectations, recognition of a cultural reference

Cuisine is under extremely tight restrictions in its method to evoke senses, as the object must be something edible. To maximize potential within the minimum range, a wide variety of tools is invented to manipulate material properties. In the Still life of XXI century (img.2), radically different means are used to treat a carrot to create new size, form, texture, temperature, density, humidity, etc,. The material property determines the aesthetics and taste of the dish.
Architecture has manipulated and invented material more often to achieve efficiency than to create specific bodily experience of sight, touch, or smell. Too often as we improve efficiency we lose the texture and warmth of the material which carries the memory of the civilization. Chinese drink spirits and build with wood; Romans drink wine and build with stone. Wood and stone are extensions of, again, the two earliest forms of human dwellings: cave and tree. Wood is rooted in the earth and stone are extracted from the earth; Living in a wood or stone building is literally an act of inhabiting the earth. Then consider today: We live in buildings structured with steel, decked with concrete, cladded with glass and coated with paint. It is amazing how all materials come from earth (steel from iron ore, glass from sand, paint from petroleum), yet buildings seem alienated from the earth and nature in every way possible.

There are good moments when new technology makes great building: When the transparency of glass re-connectes human with nature in Farnsworth, when the large span of steel enabled world’s heritages to collect in Crystal Palace, when the solemnness of the concrete protected the broken heart of Toyo Ito’s sister in White U.

However there are other moments when we conveniently sheath all the wood framing with foam and plastic; coat every wall and ceiling with paint, hiding away as much reality as possible. A finished house looks nice, but not as dear and authentic as the wood framing; a steel bridge is polished, but not as honest and natural as rusted cast iron. Ruins are more attractive because they reveal the real materiality of the building, e.g. irons rust, stones fall, and glass break. They are much known and dearer to us internally.

Understanding every dish by its making process and technique, elBulli explored various ways of manipulating that process with technology: an omelette is no longer an omelet, but “lightly beaten eggs cooked and folded rapidly in a frying pan or skillet”. Through experiments in manipulating the process and technique, omelet with more desired taste and texture are invented.

“Foam and puff pastry may fall in and out of fashion, but technique and concepts will outlive trends and styles.”

Consider a common technique in elBulli: Sous-vide. The concept of cooking food sealed in airtight plastic bags in a warm temperature of 131-140F (55-60C) for longer than normal cooking times (up to 72 hours), is first described in 1799. It wasn’t rediscovered and applied widely in 1970s when advanceing technology made it more feasible and cost-effective. In concept, Sous-vide is much low-tech than traditional cooking since it does not require any skilled control of stove fire and frying pan. However it would not be feasible without adequate vacuum technology, and temperature control to ensure full pasteurization to avoid botulism poisoning.

Similarly in architecture more than often the easy way out is not the best way out, and the seemingly low-tech method is in infact more demanding. Consider Li Xiaodong’s LiYuan Library: the architect wanted the building to be made of wooden sticks to blend into the nature, but he had to construct a glass façade first, and then clad it all with the twigs that he loved. Regardless of efficiency, the result was a splendid dramatic experience.

There will be times that we need to take it the hard way to achieve a specific user experience. Understanding the built consequence as processes can help us manipulate it, through, hopefully a more localized and humanized approach.

Ferran Adrià. (2008) A Day at elBulli. Phaidon Press Limited
Ferran Adrià. (2014) Notes on Creativity. The Drawing Center
Jamie Horwitz. (2004). Eating Architecture. The MIT Press
Kenya Hara. (2007) Design by Design. Lars Müller Publishers

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Volume , Issue 01
September 4, 2014

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