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.



  1. This is why I’m having so much fun teaching a seminar on the architecture of artificial refrigeration at Columbia’s GSAPP this autumn — trying to even out the balance of discussion. Food shapes the architecture, infrastructure, urban form, and land use of all cultures in all eras, but it seems to me that the more tenuous/complex the relationship between producer and consumer becomes, the less the spatial impact of food is considered in discussions of the built or cultivated environment. Today’s architects and urban planners could be using food as a design tool; instead they use it (if at all) as greenwash.

    • dlgissen

      The class sounds great. I doubt the “SURVEY” (cue the monster music) will ever incorporate much about food – at least outside “Mayans with the Munchies”. But it would be a fun experiment to try it out in some larger context. At the GSD event in the video feed below Meredith TenHoor lectured on food and architecture. Of the many things she showed, she mentioned architecture as a form that entangled with the concerns of famine (actually) in 18th century France.

  2. Benjamin Golder

    I enjoyed the article, thank you for sharing it! Food was a major topic when we discussed Mayan architecture in the survey course at Berkeley as well. Your observations about the relevance of food suggest that it should play some role throughout a survey course, rather than be removed from the spotlight of lectures on the Maya, which I think is compelling. It seems like an opportunity to discuss a history of things rather than a history of ideas, which feels appropriate when facing unequal availability of texts across the cultures surveyed. Should a survey course be a history of things, and focus on observations about the material culture and built environment more than a lineage of ideas?

    Also, could you clarify what you mean by “processes of naturalization”? I’m not familiar with the phrase, and googling that phrase lands squarely in pages about immigration.

  3. dlgissen

    Thanks for visiting. Personally, I would avoid discussions of diet in the survey course – maybe a discussion of food here and there – maybe…maybe.

    When we discuss the Maya, we really discuss diet more than “food”. How many maize recipes can you name? We discuss the food as nutritional, the foundation of a thriving civilization.

    In terms of naturalization, I use that term to describe many things and processes that essentially link the productions of society to the natural sciences. In this case, I’m using the term to describe how we make Mayan civilization appear – or partially appear – as the outcome of their diet.

  4. Hi David, thanks for directing me to this post. I think you’re so right to have questioned the food/nature collapse. It’s all too easy to for us to over-recognize the role food played in a non-Western, pre-modern context, and too easy to forget its importance in contexts that seem to be more modern and Western. It’s worth noting that we often “naturalize” gender through diet as well.

    I do think there is a place for discussions of food in our teaching. As I’ve sketched out in my essay “The Architect’s Farm” (on its way to becoming its own book…) one can learn a lot about architectural modernism by talking about what architects do when they encounter the food supply, and food-architecture is an under-recognized but very important program even of European modernism.

    I teach grad students, so the context is a bit different, but I don’t think it hurts to bring historiography into the picture, and would probably handle this by talking a bit about maize and chocolate, but also about why they are so much a part of the story we tell about Mayan architecture. Why is it so difficult to translate that form of cultural production into our own frames of reference? Why do we need to use food to plug epistemological gaps? What differences are we unwittingly producing?

    To get at this issue in my global architectural history classes, I often assign the short piece James Clifford wrote about how “tradition” is naturalized from Hal Foster’s _Discussions in Contemporary Culture #1_. It’s not about food, but the point is similar to the one you make above. Or, if you (or anyone) really wanted to dig into this in a food-specific way, people who work in the field of food studies have dealt with the methodological issues you raise too. The journal _Food, Culture and Society_ is a great source – editors Lisa Heldke and Krishnendu Ray write about how food is used as a means to produce gender, class, and geographical boundaries…

  5. dlgissen

    These are fantastic questions (from above): “Why is it so difficult to translate that form of cultural production into our own frames of reference? Why do we need to use food to plug epistemological gaps? What differences are we unwittingly producing?”

    The issue of “plugging” epistemological gaps might trump the latent naturalization of culture as the key issue here.

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