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The Architect’s Kitchen

The ideally designed building and meal come together in much the same way.

By Emily Refi, AIA

Food, architecture, and love
The first time I considered the correlation between food and architecture was as a grad student in Portland, Ore. I was in a brick-walled, book-lined loft in the southwest industrial district, building a model of a beach house for local architect, John Cava. John was on the phone with his client, a chef, addressing suggested design revisions. The conversation went something like this. ". . . I don't go into YOUR kitchen and tell you that I like raspberries, I like shrimp, and I like mustard, so let's just mix them all up. When I sit down at your table, I give you an idea of what I’m hungry for and trust you to put it all together."
That same year, my eyes were opened to good food and the joy in creating it. A busy graduate student in downtown Portland, many of my meals were ordered from a happy hour menu, frozen in a box, or (pathetically) from the all-hours convenience store located on the same block as the studio.  One evening, I had dinner plans with a studio mate. Rather than going out, he suggested, why not pick up ingredients and cook at his place? I'm sure I looked at him sideways, but skeptically played along. We chopped and stirred while sipping wine with good music in the background. I had a great time, and enjoyed being a creator of food, not simply a consumer.
A few years, and countless home-cooked meals later, that studio mate became my husband. Being out of school allowed us more time to delve into cooking. As my skills sharpened, a fondness for cooking grew and went hand in hand with my tendency of being a compulsive maker. As an emerging architect, I could not help but ponder the food analogy further. Perhaps the softness of natural wood contrasting with crisp metal panel works magically like the salty sweet contrast of dates with bacon. Maybe the unconventional combination of strawberries, balsamic vinegar, and black pepper resonate like reclaimed lumber with delicate cable rail, perhaps with a splash of leather.
Fast forward to 2008: On the coattails of publicity surrounding my award-winning house, I had recently left SRG Partnership to strike it out on my own. My son was born and became the center of my universe. Working for myself allowed me the flexibility to spend more time to snuggle my son and make his baby food from scratch. A concerned new mother, I scrutinized the labels of products I had once considered healthy such as organic fruit-flavored yogurt and granola bars. I was appalled at how much sugar and how little nutrients they contained. No thank you, not for my baby. Baking for my family became a game, a challenge to make delicious creations with whole grains, little or no refined sugar, and laced with vegetables. Favorite combinations palatable to my son and grownups alike emerged. Like a warm pop of orange against a gray concrete wall, a mellow roasted squash highlighted with grated nutmeg and peach can really sing.
The betrayal

If my own food revolutions were first for pleasure and second for the health of my family, the third revolution was out of necessity. I had been suffering through symptoms of smoldering autoimmune issues, and in 2010 I realized the root cause was likely food sensitivities, primarily to dairy. I was later advised by my naturopath to steer clear of wheat and ideally, unfermented grains altogether. My assumptions of what was healthy for me were literally turned upside down.

While food had betrayed me, my husband stood faithfully by my side enduring odd-tasting milk alternatives and complicated combinations of exotic flours. Many a morsel resembling hockey pucks were thrown out with the compost. But there were successes, revelations, and new tricks learned. For instance, like a high performance concrete mix, the symbiotic combination of oily almond flour combined with thirsty coconut flour and a pinch of arrowroot would yield a balance of moisture, body and structure. Not to mention a delicious, tender crumb.
The architect's kitchen

Fast forward to 2012: I have my fingers in many pots. Now a mother of two, I continue to practice architecture and urbanism as a sole proprietor with a focus on sustainable infill projects. I am in a collaborative studio, RED Architecture Workshop, as an outlet for tangibles, visuals and collective projects as well. Soaring exponentially in scale, I jumped on the opportunity to work on The Birch Aquarium addition in La Jolla with another local emerging firm, Dangermond Keane Architecture. I teach and lead drawing workshops. I play the guitar poorly. As always, l think about food a lot. To me, the ideal building would be net-zero energy, crafted with local materials, and free of chemicals that compromise indoor air quality and the environment. It would be deeply rooted in place, in its own urban fabric. Most importantly, it would be beautiful, and occupied by people made a little happier by spending time there. The ideal food would not be much different. It would be healthy and nourishing. It would be lovingly made of local, organic ingredients, and free of inflammatory substances. It would be beautiful, delicious, and enjoyed in the company of family and friends.
This past year, I have seen one built project reach completion. In that time I have probably planned and executed nearly 1,000 meals. My kitchen is littered with recipes jotted down on scraps of paper or the backs of envelopes. Alongside architectural sketches, corners of sketchbook pages are noted with recipe ideas. The time has come to share my notions with design-savvy people coping with food sensitivities, or anyone for healthy and delicious alternatives. My blog, is in the works and will be live this summer, full of musings about architecture, design and food through the eyes of a busy Portland mamapreneur.

This article is excerpted from the June 2012 edition of the Young Architects Forum journal Connection (8 MB download).


Emily Refi. Image courtesy of Snow Dowd.

Emily Refi and her husband Karl in their kitchen. Image courtesy of John Valls.


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