Fall 2005

Ingestion / Why Architects Look Sick at Building Dedication Ceremonies

The edible complex

Mark Morris

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

Little King Boggin built a fine hall, Pie crust and pastry crust, that was the wall; The windows were made of black puddings and white And slated with pancakes—you never saw the like.
— Mother Goose

American rituals surrounding new construction, particularly civic structures, have shifted focus over time from solemn quasi-religious affairs to media-friendly parties. One thing hasn’t changed much: the symbolic role of food on such occasions. Cornerstone ceremonies mark the start of a building, and dedication ceremonies its completion. Traditional cornerstone ceremonies, presided over by a local lodge of Masons in little aprons, included placing and pouring foodstuffs on the stone itself. Corn was featured to symbolically preserve the workmen and give thanks for their labor; wine was poured on the cornerstone to bless the community’s undertaking, and a vessel of oil rounded things off, ensuring everyone’s peace and enjoyment of the building to come. This was the sort of ritual that Grand Master Mason George Washington enacted at the site of the Capitol building. A simple ceremony, one could probably pull it off today for $20.

A model cake of a Seattle biotech company’s new headquarters. Photo courtesy Mike’s Amazing Cakes, Auburn, Washington.

Not so with the dedication media blitz; not anymore anyway. The centerpiece of the modern dedication ceremony is a cake in the form of the building itself and these can cost as much as $20,000. Few bother with cornerstone ceremonies these days, tied as they are to full-pomp Masonic rites. Instead, there’s the watered-down alternative: the foodless groundbreaking ceremony. Dedication ceremonies, however, only get more and more popular—any excuse for a party. Whereas a traditional dedication ceremony focused on ribbon cutting or the presentation of keys to the front door followed by a simple reception peppered with speeches from dignitaries and the architect, now the reception and its centerpiece, the cake, predominate. This pricey dessert is typically bankrolled by benefactors wishing to underscore their support of the building project.

To explain the presence of such a cake and why an edible architectural model would be so important to opening a new library or museum, one has to acknowledge the curious and long-lived relationship between architecture and food. Architects, as a profession, have a particular preoccupation with food. Restaurants serve as their alternate offices—places to meet clients, do work, and take calls. The legend of the “napkin sketch” grows out of this association. It is always a cause for comment if an architect designs not just the building, but also the furniture and even the table service, as though bespoke china and cutlery represented the zenith of the architect’s services; suggesting that definitive proof of the architect’s skill not only extends to, but resides in, the table service and not the building itself. It follows a fantasy that the design of, say, the Macintosh Tea Rooms could be found condensed and abstracted in the teacups there, as if the table service itself were a kind of model. Taking this a step further, Henry van de Velde designed his own house, its furniture, the tableware, cutlery, napery, and even the meals that were served on the bespoke china so that no unappetizing color combinations could thwart the moral education of his children.

Salvador Dalí wrote of the “edible beauty” of Art Nouveau architecture. The critic Adrian Stokes described the “oral invitation of Veronese marble,” referring to John Ruskin’s own wish to “eat up this Verona touch by touch” after exhausting all other types of architectural analysis. Marie-Antoine Carême, considered the father of French cooking and chef to the Prince Regent, wrote cookery treatises like Le Patissier Pittoresque (1815) taking inspiration not from other chefs, but from architects like Giacomo Vignola and Asher B. Durand. He famously asserted: “The main branch of architecture is confectionery.” Carême’s trademark was to produce highly designed dishes culminating in a dessert masterpiece resembling an architectural model: iced classical temples on meringue mountains or rustic mills with moving wheels and champagne sluices. Following in the tradition of Carême, the edible building (as opposed to the gingerbread house which emphasizes appearance over taste) is intended to be eaten and enjoyed. Delectable and decorative aspects are both meant to fully operate. This is a natural extension of the modern pastry chef’s skills coming out of increasingly complex wedding cake design.

Wedding cakes are themselves edible buildings. The first tiered wedding cake, so the legend goes, was prepared by an enterprising London baker in Fleet Street. This reinvention of the bridal cake was modeled on the steeple of—what else—nearby St. Bride’s church (church of the press, printing, and journalism). St. Bride’s was one of fifty-one City churches designed by Sir Christopher Wren after the Great Fire of 1666. The church was completed by 1674, but the steeple was not finished until 1703 owing to delays and redesign. At over 225 feet, it was Wren’s tallest steeple and managed to survive the Blitz. The poet, W. E. Henley, wrote of its “fanciful, formal finicking charm” and described it as “that madrigal of stone.” The cake version might never have caught on so well had it not later received the royal seal of approval of Queen Victoria’s daughters, who chose tiered cakes for their wedding receptions. These majestic cakes were seven feet tall and clearly referenced the object of their inspiration with pilasters and swags and so on. The trend today is to downplay their architectural ancestry, but the tiers remain intact.

The wedding cake’s symbolic function—to reference the churchly site of the ceremony and thereby connect the celebration with the ceremony that precedes it—still persists even when the ceremony takes place elsewhere. As with those at dedication ceremonies, the wedding cake has only grown in importance (and price) over time. But dedication cakes are still in their infancy compared to the wedding sort and their quality and specificity vary widely. Depending on the occasion and budget, these objects may just be rearranged hunks of sheet cake carefully iced and meant only to approximate a building. Others, on the other hand, are “built” layer upon layer according to actual blueprints. Marzipan façades are checked against photographs of the real thing. Increasingly, architectural accuracy is sought after not only for dedication ceremonies (where the design of the building is the focus), but also for select weddings and business celebrations. A bride may want her cake to remind everyone where the groom proposed or where the couple will honeymoon. A CEO might mark a successful IPO with a party centered on a cake resembling the company HQ.

That the cake should strive to be a model is proof of a design’s formal strength if it can be realized in any material, concrete or sugar paste. Colliding building and butter cream can offer certain payoffs. James Thurber quipped, “Seeing is deceiving, it’s eating that’s believing.” With the model cake a sort of visceral proof is offered, associating a new building with sugary sweetness (where taste reinforces visual pleasure), and tapping childhood recollections of highly decorated birthday cakes. One might argue that the building itself should suffice as focus for a dedication ceremony. The problem is that the scale of the actual building precludes press and public from grasping the overall design; the model cake gives everyone a bird’s-eye view. One might then argue that a scale model could do the job. With computer modeling becoming prevalent in the industry, real tactile models are an indulgence (finished models costing as much as their pastry equivalents). In light of this, the novelty of the edible model increasingly wins out in terms of PR. Here Carême’s assertion rings true and chefs get a portion of what had been an architect’s trade (and fee). Anytime one loses that kind of money, there is an excuse to feel sick to one’s stomach no matter how good the food.

At the dedication of a brand new building, the model cake endures destruction, slice after slice. Hitler’s architect Albert Speer wrote of imagining every new building of his as an eventual ruin, and that is what this type of cake supplies. At the eve of its use, a vision of the building’s eventual demise is conjured. This, in part, prompts some nausea for the architects handed a chunk of their creation with a fork stabbed into it. So much of what architects do—from sketching to drafting to modeling to creating virtual fly-through presentations—is predicated on communicating an interior vision to the client and the rest of the world. The whole logic of an architect’s creative path, a striving to commit design concepts to legible, reproducible, and incorrupt media, is undone by the act of eating/destroying any representation. Unlike a cornerstone ceremony, which is all about potential and hope, a dedication cuts the ribbon on a fully manifested and flawed object in the world. There is something of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory working here; materiality and scale run counter to our expectations. Everyone but the architect can enjoy eating the normally inedible; everyone becomes King Kong gorging on a fragment of the metropolis.

Further reading
Simon R. Charsley, Wedding Cakes and Cultural History (London and New York: Routledge,1992).
Karen A. Franck, ed., Food + Architecture (Chichester: Wiley-Academy, 2002).
Jamie Horwitz & Paulette Singley, eds., Eating Architecture (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2004).
Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste: Or Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy [1825], trans. M.F.K. Fisher (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
Adrian Stokes, The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes, v. 2 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978).

Mark Morris is assistant professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, where he teaches design and theory. He previously worked at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London, and Architectural Association while completing his doctorate at the London Consortium. His book, Models, is forthcoming from Wiley-Academy in 2006.

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