Sunday, March 28, 2010

It was a busy fall, so I’m catching up on some old reading a bit late. But in Log 17, I came upon an interesting article by David Ruy, “Lessons from Molecular Gastronomy,” which I found oddly pertinent to some of the issues and questions recently addressed here, in some of my own writing. In his article, Ruy gives a vivid and in-depth account of the famous Spanish restaurant elBulli, the most consistently top-ranked restaurant in the world, where a 36-course meal will take you six hours to complete, where your senses will be engaged beyond saturation, and where you will only have access if you are one of the few selected out of the 2-million-plus that apply every year. Its popularity is a result of its extremely unique method of food-preparation - including the use of molecularly-generated ingredients, chemical reactions and scientific devices used as cooking utensils - and the food’s capacity to expand our comprehension of both its physical capability and as our own sensorial range.

By describing the elBulli experience, Ruy establishes a captivating parallel in the way we consume architecture – a process that engages the basic senses (sight, smell, taste, etc.), plus, as Ruy points out, our cognitive sensibility, including both the magic or mechanics of that process, terms that are ostensibly spectral opposites but necessary complements in the gastronomic or architectural experience. For Ruy, the key term is technique (a synonym for mechanics), and the key question is how to position technique within the more generalized goals of food or architecture. We might see this question as basic, but within its simplicity it challenges our assessment of the components of design, most notably the qualitative weight we attribute to generative technique versus consumption. Ruy’s position on this issue is clear:

At elBulli, the technology that goes into producing the work is often extremely complex. However, the staff prefers to keep all of that hidden during presentation at the dinner table. They sublimate the technology and the burden of its implications to allow the diner to focus on the sensations alone. The sublimation of technology brings about a magical effect – “how is this done? It seems impossible!” In the sciences, technology is never sublimated within the hypothesis. To do so would obviously obscure the validity of an investigation’s results. In the arts, the problems are different. As the material world continues to lose its magic through the knowledge of its causes, it becomes the burden of artistic practices to reintroduce magic into the world by obscuring material causes once again.

Ruy’s valuation of sensorial magic over mechanics is reflective of his generation's rising practitioners (whose leaders form the bulk of Log 17’s contributors), a group that conquered the introduction of digital technique in architectural practice and are currently seeking its maturation into something new. The natural reaction, after so many years of technique-based research and subsequent critique, is to return to the more fundamental agenda of sensation, which in this case is well served (albeit discretely) by the collective application of complex techniques and digital mechanics. The sublimation of technique and the emphasis on sensation is a refreshing perspective beyond an obsession with process and into the matter that engages our sincere and emotional capacities. It has nuances of the expressive modernism of Saarinen and Utzon to the transporting environments of disco. What’s missing, however, is a vision for its endgame – an agenda for the morning after, when the sensations have worn away, gotten old or grown tired. The same could be said of a meal at elBulli. After we leave the restaurant and return to our own kitchens, what role would an elite evening of sensational molecular gastronomy play in our daily lives, other than to know food’s ultimate capacity beyond the mundane? Is there a “trickle-down” effect of sensations in food or architecture, perhaps even towards an ethical design agenda? Perhaps Log 18 has all the answers, and at this rate I might get to that by the fall. We shall have to wait and see.


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