Nathaniel Robert Walker: Architecture and food

Courtesy of the Both illustrations courtesy of Maison d'Ailleurs, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland

Illustrations courtesy of Maison d’Ailleurs, Yverdon-les-Bains, Switzerland

My friend Nathaniel Walker, who got his doctorate at Brown last spring and now teaches architectural history at the College of Charleston, has contributed this essay.

* * *

From the Ground Up: How Architects Can Learn from the Organic and Local Food Movements

By Nathaniel Robert Walker

As a supporter of traditional urban design and a believer in the contemporary relevance of traditional architecture, I cannot count the number of times I have heard generally well-meaning, otherwise reasonable people say the words: “Well, we cannot pretend that we are building in the nineteenth century.”  This statement envelops within its svelte hide a veritable swarm of debatable assumptions, many of which lie at the heart of global architecture culture’s current malaise.

I find it is usually useless to attack these assumptions directly by asking complicated questions such as “What is it about symmetry or ornament that makes them the exclusive property of any particular historical period, considering the fact that they are found almost everywhere, in almost every era?”  Instead I have lately taken to nursing the argument from another, indirect angle — an approach that has, to my surprise and delight, enjoyed some success in pubs and classrooms around the world.  I ask the Modernist: “May we pretend that we are eating in the nineteenth century?”  The initial response is a quizzical stare.  I follow up: “What I mean to say is, is it progressive or backwards to eat locally sourced, organically grown food?  What about heirloom tomatoes?  And how about cuisine inspired by traditional recipes drawn from local cultures?   Is any of this acceptable for modern people?  Is that a lemongrass curry on your plate, by the way?  Rather old-fashioned, that.”

CadyQuickLunchIt is fun to take this line of questioning further.  What would our dinner tables look like if culinary culture were half as hung up on the rigid rulebook of progressive aesthetics as architecture culture is?  Would we be allowed to eat bread or rice, or would they be forbidden due to their unspeakable antiquity?  Would regional fare using locally harvested ingredients be celebrated as part of a rich, diverse, interconnected world of unique traditions, or would it be condemned as provincial nostalgia?

The histories of food and modern architecture have, actually, long been intertwined, on many levels.  By the early 20th century, many people in the Western world assumed that no aspect of our lives would go untouched by the rise of industry, including the way we eat. (See adjacent cartoons!)  Prominent architects such as Adolf Loos argued that simplicity in architecture should be matched by simplicity in cuisine, because truly modern people had no need for ostentatious ornaments either on their façades or on their dinner plates.  By the late 1930s, high-tech, industrialized domestic kitchens had been formulated as a cornerstone of national (and often racial) progress by everybody from Good Housekeeping to the Italian fascists.  Famously, many technology gurus predicted that the irrational, animalistic pleasures of eating would be abolished altogether when nutrition came in pill form.

After World War II, Americans in particular were enthusiastic about the cheap and convenient edibles that industry was bringing to the table. TV dinners, synthetic factory foodstuffs like BAC-Os®, SPAM® and Velveeta®, monosodium glutamate and eventually microwave-radiation, push-button cooking were all rolled out as triumphs of the age, tokens of modernity to be embraced alongside automobiles, rockets to the moon and, of course, modern architecture.  What backwards fool would attempt to hold their ground against the inexorable forces of evolutionary destiny by slow-roasting a free-range chicken with homegrown herbs — let alone insisting that the bird be gently raised without steroids or antibiotics and humanely slaughtered?

And then the tide turned. Many of today’s young progressives — many of whom were raised in the TV glow of suburbia absorbing luminous, corn syrup-based “fruit snacks” — have whole-heartedly rejected industrially processed, chemical-infused products in favor of foods only their great-grandparents would recognize.  And remarkably, such organically produced victuals are not ridiculed as the product of nostalgic reaction, but lauded as the fuel of cutting-edge progress!  What would you expect to see, after all, on the plate of a black-frame bespectacled, elegantly disheveled Modernist architect: a goosh of Cheez Whiz®, or a wedge of Adirondack chèvre?  More to the point, while most of us would, of course, allow someone to consume Cheez Whiz® if they desired it (especially on a Philly cheesesteak), what tyrant would insist that only Cheez Whiz® be offered to the public due to its privileged status as a lovechild of industrial modernity?  And who among us would today abstain from the “unnecessary” ornaments of saffron, cinnamon, nutmeg, black pepper, habanero, etc., in the service of rationalist minimalism?

When our thoughtful Modernist architects shop for food they are generally open-minded about traditional growing and cooking practices — I believe they should be equally open to traditional architectural ingredients such as locally sourced natural materials, organic symmetry, humanistic proportion, craft production and “applied” ornament.  As we can see in our farm fields and pastures, old things are not invalid simply due to their age.  Indeed, many of the modern promises about the future of food have turned out to be hollow, and one of the chief challenges of our times is figuring out how to undo some of the damage of industrial agricultural practices.

That said, I also believe that our more conservative traditional architects have something to learn from modern food culture: good vegetables may be grown according to ancient methods, but food processors are really, truly useful for turning them into decent soup!  Even more importantly, we can and we should revive local agricultural and culinary cultures, but we must also seize the blessings provided by our globalized, Internet-sourced recipe collections, most of which draw from a world’s worth of traditions, and rightly so!  Would we willingly go back to the days when Western palates were ignorant of the joys of injera, bibimbap, and ghee?  The old must be synthesized with the new, the local with the global, and the traditional with the modern, if a living cuisine or a living architecture is to prosper.  We must reject the simplistic monoculture of orthodox Modernism, and we must continue to relearn and revive lost ideas and practices, but we must not fall back on a myopic, limited traditionalism that refuses to look outward and onward in search for good ideas.

If all of our architects were as liberated as our local farmers and chefs, our cities would be designed and built from the ground up, cultivated in the fertile, living soil of our shared cultural resources, past, present and future. The main job of architecture is not to convey history but to make it, ideally by being beautiful, useful, and sustainable — a timeless feast, at the common table.

Nathaniel Robert Walker is an assistant professor of architectural history at the College of Charleston, in Charleston, S.C.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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93 Responses to Nathaniel Robert Walker: Architecture and food

  1. Tinky_Winky says:

    Reblogged this on My World and commented:
    Take a Look!


  2. AD says:

    Love the second last paragraph. As someone in agriculture I love this comparison


  3. please comment on my blog


  4. Raul Bucciarelli says:

    Reblogged this on daisuzoku.


  5. solayinkas says:

    Reblogged this on ArkIfriqa. and commented:
    What food got to do with architecture,


  6. Reblogged this on Human Relationships and commented:
    Essay! Sharing!


  7. artecollage says:

    Reblogged this on MaALm and commented:
    A well thought out article on urban development, food movements et alt. A must read!


  8. Jen says:

    I love your intention here — “synthesizing the old with the new.” Great piece.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. bailoun says:

    This is really beautifully written. I’d say the analogy applies to so much more than just architecture and food – it applies to religion and spirituality, to language and to design.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Beautifully written… thanks so much for sharing this.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. creamy725 says:

    Reblogged this on My Blog.


  12. History is the best tutor indeed!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. 1dollardigitizingcom says:

    Good items

    Liked by 1 person

  14. tells a tale of all old britainia field life with garment of true civilization at course thank god they came before us – british and the america

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Pingback: The architecture of dessert | Architecture Here and There

  16. Maybe old fashioned is an art form that continually changes it’s clothes!

    Liked by 1 person

  17. martafrant says:

    hm, quite an interesting parallel between food and architecture

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Wonderful essay! I love this statement: “The old must be synthesized with the new, the local with the global, and the traditional with the modern, if a living cuisine or a living architecture is to prosper.”

    Liked by 2 people

  19. jhorel freeborn says:

    Reblogged this on Jhorel's Blog.


  20. johnberk says:

    “The main job of architecture is not to convey history, but to make it, ideally by being beautiful, useful, and sustainable.”

    Beautifly formulated idea. I totally agree. Food, and architecture are more connected than we think. Even now, we still think in closed categories when thinking, writing or talking about them. It is important to recognize this and move forward in forging new city architecture conceptions. Many times, old does mean good quality, tested, and being recognized for its value.

    Liked by 2 people

  21. Nina Butcher says:

    Brilliant piece!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. ArasBacho says:

    Nice 🙂


  23. Francis.R. says:

    I don’t want to sound disrespectful to the author but, Was the essay written fifty years ago? Modernism as an architectural style or school of thought died, I don’t remember the exact date, in 70’s in the twentieth century. Otherwise I cannot understand that a teacher of architecture history could write this essay today without play with anachronism.


  24. it'ssofa'i says:

    I write about my old fashioned home where I grew up in the South Pacific! I love oldfashioned organic creations! Seems like things that were built in the past last way longer than the new stuff today.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. jgalloway888 says:

    Great post! The guest blogger is in area where architecture provides to be both old and modern, and it works beautifully. Charleston truly shows the unison of old and new in a refreshing sense that all generations can appreciate. No doubt he gained some inspiration from such a beautiful place. Well written, and a great parallel to illustrate; enjoyed the read!

    Liked by 3 people

  26. huhanjiang says:

    Reblogged this on 测试.

    Liked by 2 people

  27. sambudlong7 says:

    Reblogged this on What I Learned and commented:
    To make the correct decisions for the future, sometimes all you have to do is look at the past.

    Liked by 2 people

  28. Rika says:

    Great blog!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  29. abedaydin says:


    Liked by 1 person

  30. xelliegrace says:

    Just a quick question…how do u change your profile pic?

    Liked by 2 people

  31. I’ve often marveled at the lush, artisan food in sparse modernist buildings. There’s something here not about the past, but about what nourishes the human spirit. Some architecture seeks to nourish, other seems to ignore that need.

    Liked by 4 people

  32. tamer461 says:

    Reblogged this on TEAM CO..

    Liked by 2 people

  33. Nadya says:

    Nice. 🌚🌚🌚

    Liked by 3 people

  34. Pingback: Architecture & Food | Joel E VanderWeele

  35. David Rau says:

    It’s in the air: my 2014 TED Talk, called “Reawakening,” lays out a similar argument, comparing Food and Architecture, along with a few other cultural parallels (it’s on YouTube, here:

    Liked by 6 people

  36. Hoping you will soon open people’s eyes to the wisdom of returning to surgical methods of ancient times. And, by the way, how did we ever let Henry Ford convince us to stop using horses and buggies?

    Liked by 5 people

    • Did Eytan not read the piece? He seems to think that some houses are not built with updated materials, technologies and conveniences. If they have gabled roofs, they must also have outhouses in the back yard. Right? I am surprised that this guy knows how to spell. A third grader could debunk his logic.

      Liked by 3 people

  37. Michael Tyrrell says:

    It’s time we adjust our Architectural diets: hold the PVC, fiberglass, and aluminum!

    Liked by 5 people

  38. Anonymous says:

    Excellent item David. Thanks for sharing -Walker truly nails it with comparison.

    Liked by 5 people

  39. It’s amazing that this parallel is not more commonly voiced. Jenny Bevan (coincidentally also of Charleston) made a broader but similar cultural parallel in an essay from the Charleston City Paper that I reprinted last year. I have often stated that architecture is the only field of human endeavor where precedent is not considered vital to practice, but I’ve never thought of it in terms of its most trenchant example – food. Nathan is a dear friend, and he speaks about architecture with greater verve and eloquence than almost everybody (including me) writes about it. Charleston is lucky to have him.

    Liked by 7 people

  40. I’m so pleased that you posted this, David. Nathaniel Walker is so spot on with his analysis that I am embarrassed not to have thought of it. The concept has now officially entered the lexicon of my traditionalism offense. Russell

    Liked by 6 people

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