The belly of architecture

At Harvard’s prestigious Graduate School of Design, Shohei Shigematsu of OMA runs a studio that questions the fundamentals of our food systems. By Jenny Jones

Tank _autumn 2016_43The West Louisville Food Port is a 2015 project by OMA New York that grew out of the Alimentary Design studio. 

The Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) is famed for its approach of treating architecture as a metaphoric language, and its focus on process, rather than the charisma of the finished artefact. These two methodologies enable OMA to attack the belly of their projects, working from the inside out on themes that are often not considered to have a relationship to architecture. OMA’s much-celebrated Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (2000) is perhaps the best known example of this conceptual approach to architectural practice, capturing as it did the ineffable aspects of human relations and their social contexts, within, in this case, the domain of shopping. 

Since autumn 2013, Shohei Shigematsu, a partner at OMA, has led the Alimentary Design studio at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Taught in collaboration with Christy Cheng, this studio works towards new and innovative ways to think about food, and through that process, to reconsider the relationship between architecture, urban design and what we eat. “I thought about the three fundamentals of life: clothing, food and shelter,” Shigematsu explains over Skype from New York, where he heads OMA’s office. “But I thought that food is the only one that can be both global and local – as well as fun. It has the ability to be so expansive while simultaneously very specific to livelihoods, to the soil and to culture.”  

Food, as a topic of architectural study, is surprisingly under-researched – there has been no thorough and universal study of its systems and processes. “Everyone knows there is a relationship between agriculture, or food production, and architecture, but it has not really ever been coherently articulated,” he says. “Shopping was fascinating in terms of its diverse relationship to the city, urbanism and beyond, and I thought food would be interesting because it has not really been investigated as a cohesive and coherent component within the city, even though it is so large and so fundamental. We are planning to make a food version of the Harvard Guide to Shopping.” 

Shifts in the cultural context have affected the focus of the courses since their creation. “The great thing about running the courses for three years is that every year I learn anew from the specific focus for that year, and with every year the range and diversity of the topics has grown.” While in the first year the studio engaged with the food industry and food chains on a macro level, the second year focused on agriculture, and the third discussed gaps in the food chain. “As the courses progressed annually, there were clear changes to the food chains we studied, from harvesting and farming, post-harvesting and handling, processing and warehouses, retailers and distirbutors, up to consumers and waste," he says. "In these large categories you could see there were things that were missing or evolving."

Food, as an area of study, raises its own specific issues for architecture, as Shigematsu explains: “With food it is easier to deal with larger global issues, like food shortages or the agricultural system. But food is also a social issue on a small scale – like when one looks at a kitchen or a canteen, for example. So we wanted to look very carefully at what we are doing so as not to end up with research that only portrays the big issues.”  

This was seen in the breadth of the projects that students undertook. One study looked at the impact of 3D-food printers on the kitchen, and another on the changing dimensions and ergonomics of the kitchen: “Those kind of issues are related to our daily lives, not just in terms of global power. I think that the quality of the topic of food lies in its having such a wide range of relationships to our lives.” 

Another student focused on the history of Chinatown in New York, while another looked at how food architecture has evolved – specifically in relation to broiler-chicken houses. “We looked at a very contemporary typology for supermarkets, specifically related to waste and expiry dates,” notes Shigematsu. “Some successful supermarkets and food centres have a small restaurant where they can cook and serve fresh food. Our students developed a more radical version of that.”  

“Maybe the biggest achievement is that we are actually working on a facility called Food Port in Louisville, Kentucky. It is a community centre, a distribution centre and a shared agricultural aggregation centre in the middle of the city. One of the big issues facing the US is that the food system is pushed so far outside of the city that people don’t really have any exposure to food production. Lots of kids in the US think that eggs are laid by cows because in the supermarket eggs and milk are next to each other.” 

Tank _autumn 2016_44Left: Christina Geros and Jina Kim,#Im[migrant], 2014
Food migration is the construction of cultures. As natural resources continue to be degraded, this project proposed to develop new geopolitical regions based on food production and connectivity, and to use new models of agricultural practices to expand food production into deserts and previously non-arable lands.

Right: EJ Kim, Food Train, 2013
The history of food retail is intimately connected to technological developments in mobility, from the supermarket and car ownership, to food-delivery services like AmazonFresh. This project proposed a new type of supermarket that would utilise the subway system in Seoul, South Korea, through the redesign of train cars, platforms and stations.

Tank _autumn 2016_45Left: Tiffany Chen, In[Fresh]Structure, 2013
The physical and organisational structures needed for the operation of the temperature-controlled cold chain and freshness economy places Carribbean islands at a disadvantage, despite their overall agricultural production. This project proposed a floating mobile distribution port in the Caribbean trans-shipment triangle which would also function as a recreational facility for ship employees.

Right: Wesley Ho, Fish Revolution, 2013 
In 2011, farmed seafood production exceeded beef production for the first time. This 2013 project proposed the development of sustainable and responsible aquaculture by using disused oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico to vertically cultivate seafood and produce biofuel at all depths of the sea. 

Projects like the Food Port show the ways in which architecture can bring issues of obesity and nutrition to the forefront and for Shigematsu it is crucial that these projects do make an impact on real life. “The whole point of the studio was to force each student to actually find a client to talk with and to serve with solutions, as if they were a real client. Although nothing was realised – a lot of projects were a little bit on the utopian side – there were lots of interactions with potential clients. One student created a vertical agriculture facility using the disused oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Then he actually had an opportunity to present it to BP.”  

This runs counter to the usual approach of studios, which tend to work in isolation, disconnected from real practice outside of the school. The work influenced the training of the students and, in turn, the work of Shigematsu at OMA, thanks to the transgressions, anomalies and gaps that inspired new initiatives. “Through this process you can actually design a type of building that has never been made: no one had ever built a facility like the Food Port in Louisville, but after we launched it, a lot of other municipalities wanted one. A relevant topic and the right initiative can actually position architectural practice in the business world as much as the intellectual world.” 

The studio has been a basis for a series of collaborations. In one, the law school at MIT had been commissioned by the city of Boston to rethink the legal framework of urban agriculture, and so together with the Alimentary Design studio, it worked on ways to bring farming back into the city. “One student did a project that linked schools into a network that enabled each community to share schoolyards for harvesting crops; it also became a way to educate kids on the importance of fresh food,” says Shigematsu. 

At the core of the studio’s work, though, are the OMA staples of breaking existing connections as a means to reconnect them into a new system, taking ideas and topics out of their silos. As such it inverts the classic relationships between architecture and food, proposing new approaches that build the former around the latter. As Shigematsu puts it, “I often compare these projects to a bento box – like a packaged meal made of different parts. As long as we follow other people’s programming as architects, we cease to really have any new input. I think architects should invent typologies themselves.” §