Niklas Ekstedt starting a fire at Harvard GSD

Curating a Final exam? At Harvard?

Well yes, this was, in fact, what we did. Atelier Slice brought, apart from ourselves, chefs Niklas Ekstedt and Antto Melasniemi, artist Elaine Tin Nyo, architect/artist/pastry virtuoso Savinien Caracostea to Harvard GSD to take an active part in the discussions during the final exams on December 12 – and at the same time use their respective skills within cooking to generate some action in between the talks.

This is the short version of why this happened:

For the fall semester 2013 Atelier Slice was approached for a collaboration with a new studio at Harvard GSD, Alimentary Design. Shohei Shigematsu (OMA/AMO, NYC) and Christy Cheng had the very clever idea to turn the global food industry into a topic for graduate students at Harvard GSD. Why? Well, as Shohei and Christy wrote in their introduction: the global food industry is the world’s largest single economy. It has a turn-around of approximately 15 trillion USD, as compared to the global energy market, coming second with a mere 6 trillion USD.

Enough said: the food industry is one of few things that bring every human being – rich or poor, fat or hungry – together. Seen in that perspective, food involves all aspects of life, from ancient farming to highest contemporary technology – which, of course, also include city planning and urban design.

Shohei Shiegematsu and Christy Cheng introducing the final exam

So, at the same time as food – in the wealthy part of the world – has turned into what once the cinema, music, contemporary art or even sports was – i.e. the great expectation, a media hype and a symbol the Now – it is also the most crucial topic there is on global survival. A world in need is a world searching for new solutions – and through food there really is a possibility to match innovation with global necessities.

It comes as no surprise that there right now are few parallel iniatives opening this topic around the globe. Alimentary Design and Atelier Slice are two of them. So, we were very happy to receive that first email from Christy and Sho. We realized that what they were up to with Alimentary Design in a way had the same aims as we, at Atelier Slice, with different tools and structures, had started to search for in Stockholm: a fusion of the needs within urban development and food production.

It may sound obvious but it really is not. The energy market, to take just one example, is regarded as a single comprehensible economical structure. The global food industry is not. Food is so diverse that it involves people and companies that often do not even realize that they work with the same issues, be they business or politics – nor that they are part of a larger social context.

But food really is everything. Food is the single person putting a seed in the ground as well as container ships transporting asparagus from one continent to the other. Food is being all lost at the supermarket as well as waste industry. Food is organized crime as well as the UN. Food is obesity and starvation. Food is culture, crime and entertainment.

To turn food into the tool for future architects is simply extremely clever. It brings the subject of architecture – and everything dealing with urban development – inside a global structure of urgent possibilities. As the globe quickly is becoming urbanized (only in China 250 million people are scheduled to move into urban areas in the coming years), things need to re-thought. Quickly. The potential is highly interesting, especially since food tends to turn normal views upside down. Just to take just one obvious example: parallel to the world becoming dependent on ever larger global structures and companies – food production call for a revival of the local. So the question is – how does this affect current business models.

With food on the agenda the possible topics to work with – for a student – are, to say the least, enormous. Every topic has a possibility to grasp the entire planet. But food is also very concrete and everyday. It is being home by the stove, in the kitchen or by the bar, as well as out there, saving Africa.

I have always had an almost unhealthy fascination in precisely that, in those bridges between the very large ideas and their concrete outcome. That is at least how I have been acting as a curator within contemporary art. I’ve never been interested in gathering already existing art works. It is more vitalizing to go beyond the current ideas of what exhibition could be together with the artists. Among many other things that resulted in Maurizio Cattelan’s HIM, a kneeling 9 year old boy with the face of Hitler, or in Carsten Höller’s One Day One Day, one show changing exhibitions every day, or David Byrne spending a couple of years developing an old industrial building into a musical instrument with Playing the building. Just to take a couple of examples.

And, of course that was also the idea of bringing in the chefs and the others with a more hands on experience with food inside Alimentary Design. We had our first encounters with chefs such as Niklas Ekstedt, Mathias Dahlgren and Magnus Nilsson (of Fäviken) when the whole studio came to visit Sweden in November.

But now we were back at Harvard and now it was time for action.

So apart from the fun and somewhat surreal feeling of smoking oysters – as Niklas Ekstedt did – during lunch on the yard outside of the Harvard GSD building, the chefs and artists brought in another dimension. Ideas turned into, or related to, action. Savinien Caracostea’s Croquembouche flips classic French pastry into edible architecture. It somehow twisted the whole situation of a final exam at Harvard in a very interesting way. Other students passing by could not help but noticing it, as it was placed right beside the presenting students. Niklas Ekstedt did not only turn the lunch and the evening into a cooking event – but had something relevant to say during each and everyone of the 13 presentations, by being able to relate to his concrete experience of being a chef and running restaurants.

Croquembouche by Savinien Caracostea at Alimentary Design

By bringing the global food industry inside Harvard GSD something happens. And, which is perhaps even more important, it opens up the very idea on what architecture can be. It opens up a process on how to generate content. It vitalizes the very idea of how to approach the production of content.

Food is, as a subject, strangely unexplored. It is so big it is almost ungraspable. And that is why it deeply needs this constant ping-pong between different levels of understanding, between the abstract and the concrete, between an idea of the future and the kitchen. Food is Gilles Deleuze at the stove.

Alimentary Design will continue the fall seasons of 2014 and 2015. There will be books published on what has been and will be achieved. I am pretty convinced that they will have an impact on the global discussion on food, architecture, urbanity, business and innovation. But that is coming. So I don’t want just yet to tell too much of what has actually been achieved by the students during the fall. That would be to tell the specifics a bit too early.

Jan Åman

Photos by Andreas Viglakis