Thanksgiving is about family, friends, football and food. For many of us, it's a holiday to spend at home, whether ours or someone else's, with much of that time spent in the kitchen and the dining area.
Or perhaps you choose to avoid stuffing turkeys, washing dishes and coping with leftovers, instead making Thanksgiving a dining-out experience.
Whatever your choice, what better moment than Thanksgiving weekend to consider the relationship between food and architecture?
We spend a significant portion of our lives buying, preparing and consuming food -- and then cleaning up the mess afterward. Eating can be intensely pleasurable and often a highly social act pursued either casually or formally. Sometimes, as is this weekend, eating is a celebratory event, a shared ritual that transcends mere relief of hunger or satisfaction of the palate.
For centuries, architects have designed places just for eating -- refectories in monasteries and schools, banquet halls in palaces, dining rooms in private homes, commercial restaurants -- intended to be visually appetizing. Ideally, such spaces foster sociable behavior, inspire conversation or even invite contemplation. They also can seemingly enhance the flavor of food.
I lived for four years in Baker House, the serpentine-plan dormitory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology facing the Charles River in Cambridge, Mass. Designed in the 1950s by the great Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, Baker House is Aalto's only building in the United States. Today, I could draw a fairly accurate sketch of the skylighted, two-story Baker House dining hall, but the food served there was utterly forgettable.
In St. Petersburg, I was a dinner guest one evening in the beautifully restored banquet hall of one of the city's 18th-century palaces. I enjoyed the meal but recall more vividly the setting, the grand proportions of the space, its tall windows overlooking the vast palace gardens, its glistening crystal chandeliers and baroque ornamentation. Except for our clothing, the scene differed little from a banquet scene of 200 years ago.
By contrast, I vividly recall indulging in a "rijsttafel," a 14-course Indonesian meal, but remember little about the restaurant in Amsterdam where I spent nearly four hours eating it.
As an invited dinner guest in other people's homes, I usually have eaten well but not always come away with positive feelings about the place in which I ate. Dining areas today are sometimes cramped because they are just that -- areas, not rooms. In many modern apartments, the dining area is an adjunct to the living room and often too small to be gracious. To make matters worse, dining tables and chairs, often sized to accommodate Americans' increasing bulk, are thus often too big for the available space.
This is symptomatic of continuing American trends in social behavior and residential design. The amount we eat has been increasing, but busier schedules and ever more casual lifestyles have decreased the amount of space and time devoted to a traditional dinner at a traditional table. In many newly built houses, traditional dining and living rooms have shrunk while so-called "great rooms," appended to or encompassing the kitchen, have grown dramatically. Communal family activities and informal entertaining, including eating, tend to occur in the great room, which facilitates impromptu "grazing" in the kitchen.
When architects are involved in a home's design, dining spaces are more likely to get the treatment they deserve, as architects and the people who hire them tend to still believe in aesthetically and spatially celebrating the ritual of eating. Favorable treatment means not only providing adequate room dimensions but also worrying about placement of windows, orientation to views outside, natural and electric lighting effects, materials and details, dining room furniture and cabinetry, and relationships to adjacent spaces, including kitchen access.
But architects can really strut their stuff more publicly, and potentially with more flamboyance and greater profit, by designing the interiors of upscale restaurants, cafes, bistros, pubs and specialized bars.
A few decades ago, both the cuisine and architecture of most Washington eating establishments were unremarkable. Today, with less motivation and time to cook at home, Americans tend to eat out more frequently, for both personal and business reasons. Thus, restaurant owners now spend millions of dollars to design, build and start up new eateries.
To achieve a desired look and "branding" imagery, the designer may be asked to compose and coordinate everything: architectural layout, surface materials and colors, graphics, construction details, lighting, furniture, wall decorations and even tableware.
As anyone who regularly dines out knows, the aesthetic results vary greatly -- gaudy, kitschy, overwrought, vernacular, antique, spare or minimal. And of course, themed eateries abound -- tonight shall we try France, Thailand, Mexico, Afghanistan, Italy or Japan?
The dining ambience achieved also can vary greatly, from reposeful to frenetic. Some places are so noisy and reverberant that patrons can't carry on a conversation with dining companions across the table. Others are so solemn and hushed that you feel compelled to whisper whenever you speak.
But back at home, the enjoyment of eating somehow depends much less on the architecture we inhabit. Indeed, we may be quite happy just knowing that the power has not gone out, the microwave and remote are working, and the nearby refrigerator is well stocked -- even if it's mostly with Thanksgiving leftovers.
Roger K. Lewis is a practicing architect and a professor of architecture at the University of Maryland.