What did they eat?
This year I am co-teaching the survey course in the history of architecture. In a previous gig (long ago), I taught a survey of the intellectual history (otherwise known as “theory”) of architecture from the Old Testament through to late-modern architectural writing. I still find it easier to talk about ideas versus things, but the survey is a great, worthy challenge and I’m in very good hands with my generous and very smart co-instructor and our dedicated assistant.
Last week it was my turn on the stage, and the subject was Mayan architecture. If you’re trained in the intellectual history of architecture the Mayan are a challenge. Not only has the writing system been translated very recently, but very little of that writing touches on the network of ideas that form their spatial outlook.
More to the point, reviewing various scripts for teaching and discussing the Maya, I’ve noticed a pronounced focus on what they ate. This focus on agriculture and diet also figures into discussions of virtually all Meso-American and other indigenous American architectural practices.
Standing on the stage, in the very beginnings of a lecture that touched on maize and chocolate, I had a moment, a simple thought, and a medium-watt lightbulb went off over my head: do we analyze the diets of the builders of carolingian or renaissance space? Do we ask what Alberti and his circle ate and drank? Within five seconds the history of architecture flashed before my eyes, and I realized that the subject of diet almost only figures in discussions of pre-historic western Europe or any architecture produced by a civilization composed of people of color. I stopped myself.
Diet of course is a b-line to tying civilizations down with NATURE and the processes of naturalization. And when we discuss diet, we tend to imply that there is a naturalized link between food and the fabrication of culture. Yes, maize and chocolate appear in Mayan imagery, in their art and architecture. But grapes and wine barrels figure in the art-work of many contemporaneous European movements, and I can’t recall anyone who shows imagery of medieval viticulture when analyzing Carolingian space; or claims that the cultivation of the vine led to the Palace complex at Aachen.
At that moment, I called for a moratorium on discussions of diet in our class until we can sort this out. And in subsequent lectures the issue has come up again and again, if only to make us better think about this enterprise of the history of architecture. I’m not saying diet cannot appear in the survey course, I’m only stating that the subject is unevenly distributed in our analysis of architectural history.