Democratic Design and the Future of Food Markets

Jeffrey Liu is a designer, writer, and third year Master of Architecture candidate at the Yale School of Architecture. Jeff holds a B.A. in Architecture from Princeton University and has worked in Taipei and Los Angeles. We explore how architecture might foster social equality by discussing his design for a ferry terminal and market.

GS: When I ask you about architecture school, it always seems like you’re working on a creative new project. When you approach a design, how do you balance the demands of the client and community and your personal vision?

JL: There is an inherent authoritarianism in designing spaces for other people to inhabit, as your design dictates how people will live in these spaces. This is a moral issue that architects struggle with constantly.

Architecture is easily made subservient to power: as complex structures that require great economic means to build, buildings often reflect the desires of the powerful entities that fund their construction.

Today, many are challenging a tradition of architectural modernism, in which architects historically sought to impose their rigid forms and ideal forms of living upon the lives of the inhabitants.

The question of defining a democratic design arises. How do you design space that incorporates the input of the community that will be using these spaces? How do you allow for people’s input without overly pandering to their needs and surrendering your own authorship?

Often, architects don’t dictate the economic terms of their projects. We fight back in little spatial ways…ways to make spaces more public through their connections to their context. Does the space originate naturally from the street or is it blocked off? Views are another big thing. What if everyone can see everyone else on literally the same platform?

One food-themed assignment really interested me–the ferry station and food hall. So how have you implemented these ideas about democratic design into this project?

I’ve recognized that the act of cooking has been made into a spectacle, especially through the explosion of food media. Even through something as simple as Din Tai Fung’s glass kitchen where you see people making dumplings. So I tried to invert that relationship between spectator and spectacle to make it more participatory.

12.14 Incubator FINAL.MaterialID
From Liu’s Design: Kitchens and patrons and observe each other through glass.

The building was set up with glass kitchens day-lit from above. It was an entirely open plan with these glass divisions where you could see people cooking.

On the market level I was playing with staging, which is inherently sectional. After all, the vertical location of a platform relative to another is how you stage something. You raise the platform when you want to stage it. In this building, each kitchen is both a stage and a place to watch from. People consistently transition between being an audience member and a participant.

12.4 Market View FINAL Compressed
Liu plays with staging so that kitchens, produce, and entertainment all attract eyes.

It’s a democratic approach to deciding who receives patrons’ attention. Instead of the architecture being the spectacle and imposing a type of monumental power, the architecture actually elevates the cooking and spectacles that happen in the space.

Do you have any last thoughts regarding your combined interests in food and architecture?

A building is both a physical image and a space of social exchange. Similarly, food organizes a type of sociality but also is a physical object through a menu or a storefront that projects a message and a type of propaganda. The reason I’m so interested in food is because it’s a powerful aesthetic experience. It’s something that’s responding to a direct bodily need, it’s one of the most base, primal sensory experiences that we have. And I think that as an architect you’re essentially designing sensory experiences.

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