Food has been for a long time a matter of taste, status and culture. Renowned culinary traditions equated cultural supremacy and, in turn, social and political power.1 Those who had the cultural capital to refine their taste in food were also those who dictated the boundaries of high-culture, architecture included.2 Western anthropocentrism has been steadily defined by these socio-cultural boundaries that have suddenly collapsed under the weight of the crises that are currently affecting our planet.3 Among them, the food crisis stands out as a result of fragile global food distribution and production systems, challenged by the pandemic first, and the Ukrainian war more recently. The need to “reimagine planetary food systems” is precisely at the core of this year’s Tallinn Architecture Biennale (TAB) “EDIBLE: Or, the Architecture of Metabolism” curated by Lydia Kallipoliti and Areti Markopoulou. The Biennale sees architecture as a mediator between global phenomena and individual, even microscopic processes of food provision and assimilation: “like a filter, architecture receives the evolution of territorial networks and geopolitical power struggles and transfers it to the body.”4
Western anthropocentrism has been steadily defined by these socio-cultural boundaries that have suddenly collapsed under the weight of the crises that are currently affecting our planet. Among them, the food crisis stands out as a result of fragile global food distribution and production systems.
At TAB, architecture is not only a mediating device, it also becomes edible for both humans and other species.5 It ultimately emerges as the centre of a larger debate that debunks the anthropocentric and Western foundations of the discipline to date, as the curators value architecture for its “capacity to metabolise, digest and generate resources.”6 Non-human and non-living entities are the central subjects of this ground-breaking Biennale, where bacteria, fungi, animals, and processes become the focus of numerous designs and research projects. In fact, the architects that responded to the curators’ call looked at “shifting webs of life and death as well as alternative forms of matter, including non-human agents”7 sanctioning a definitive turn towards a transdisciplinary, non-anthropocentric, interspecies approach to architecture. The “Metabolic Home” showcased in the main curatorial exhibition is perhaps the clearest example of the new architectural visions that emerged at this year’s TAB, an unintentional manifesto for a new more-than-human domesticity.
Non-human and non-living entities are the central subjects of this ground-breaking Biennale, where bacteria, fungi, animals, and processes become the focus of numerous designs and research projects.
The breadth and scope of “EDIBLE: Or, the Architecture of Metabolism” is considerable, and much will be written, for instance, on the new materials, molecular designs and prototypes presented at the Estonian Museum of Architecture.8 Someone will probably tackle the questions of how we will approach the subject of our fragile “planetary farm” system, along with the management of global waste for a sustainable, decarbonized, localised and circular economy.9 I am afraid, however, that one aspect of great importance might go unnoticed, and it pertains to the cooperative dynamics that emerged in this Biennale. Specifically, the alliances that can be potentially established between humans and non-humans, along with the interpersonal alliances that emerged between the protagonists of this event, the two curators. Two women and mothers of young children tackled the loaded subject of food preparation and consumption proposing an alternative view of domestic and planetary living that goes beyond anthropocentric, consumptive and exploitative precepts. In doing so, they proposed a new approach to architecture while debunking sexist tropes on women, the domestic sphere and food. They have achieved it collaboratively, while their children were shouting and demanding their mothers’ attention, a known effect of remote working during the pandemic. “We held many meetings with our babies. They were looking and spitting at the screens, throwing stuff or pulling our hair” admitted curator Lydia Kallipoliti in a conversation we had on this subject.
Two women and mothers of young children tackled the loaded subject of food preparation and consumption proposing an alternative view of domestic and planetary living that goes beyond anthropocentric, consumptive and exploitative precepts.
Fig. 1 - The Archeology of Architecture and Food Systems, "Edible" exhibition ©Tõnu Tunnel
Although this aspect might seem marginal to an online audience, it felt central during my visit at the Biennale’s opening: the curators presented their work while holding strollers, when needed, they did not refrain from stepping out of their institutional role to calm the cries of their babies. The emphasis on human and more-than-human alliances is also crucial because it underlines major theoretical changes in the ways in which global identity models are shifting, opening towards the natural environment while, unfortunately, women are still largely expected to fully manage their caring role within the family nucleus. The subject of gender, food and the domestic sphere is also explicitly tackled in the main curatorial exhibition. In the section “Archaeology of Architecture and Food Systems” cookbooks and manuals sadly remind us of patriarchal architectural devices implemented in the 20th century (Fig. 1).10
The emphasis on human and more-than-human alliances is also crucial because it underlines major theoretical changes in the ways in which global identity models are shifting, opening towards the natural environment while, unfortunately, women are still largely expected to fully manage their caring role within the family nucleus.
Fig. 2 - Metabolic Home, "Edible" exhibition ©Tõnu Tunnel
A Manifesto for a More-than-human Home
The “Metabolic Home” is “an archetypal program of the house, conceived as a living experiment and stage set whether humans and other species, and their physiology of ingestion and excretion, become combustion devices and integral components of habitation.”11 As such, it contains the seeds of change in the design of domestic spaces, foreshadowing a future of interspecies cohabitation.
The “Metabolic Home” is “an archetypal program of the house, conceived as a living experiment and stage set whether humans and other species, and their physiology of ingestion and excretion, become combustion devices and integral components of habitation.”
Fig. 3 - "Edible" exhibition, plan. ©Sofia Krimizi, Kyriakos Kyriakou (kse studio)
This experimental home occupies most of the curatorial exhibition and is composed of seven installations that qualify each of its rooms, all divided by permeable filters (Fig. 2). Floor signs provide an additional layer to the reading of the exhibition’s space; they not only clarify the function of each room (conventional names such as kitchen, living room and garage are used and written at the entrance of each space), but they also draw connections between rooms and food-related processes (Fig. 3). The curators were inspired by William Stumpf’s 1989 Metabolic House (Fig. 4) whose mechanised design was centred on the management of the bio-waste of a fairly common dwelling. Contrarily, the “Metabolic Home” abandons anthropocentric design solutions by discarding its most exemplary room: the bedroom.
Fig. 4 - William Stumpf, The Metabolic House. Source: https://www.lesommer.fr/art-486-1-19-uk/the-metabolic-house.html
“Each domestic space is part of a larger domestic ecosystem and interacts with the other installations (house parts) in a feedback chain of resource exchanges” that was clearly illustrated in the opening event.12 Specifically, food production, harvesting and the release of nutrients are located in the area named “garden”, inhabited by IAAC’s “Robotic Urban Farmers”. Its upcycling takes place in the garage but, most importantly, food is processed in the beautiful “Post-Industrial Zymological Kitchen” designed by Andrés Jaque a “post-carbon kitchen that operates as an ecological intestine” that “dilutes the boundaries between cooking, eating and decomposing in a continuum of molecular progression” (Fig. 5a, 5b).13 Food consumption takes place not only in the kitchen, but also in the “rewilded” dining space of the “Metabolic Home” reduced to a large landscape-table by Hayley Eber and Mae-Ling Lokko in their installation “Everything’s on The Table” (Fig. 6). This project, which will be the subject of KoozArch’s insights on TAB, challenges the hierarchies of culinary traditions proposing original design solutions that emerge from the couple’s involvement in research and teaching. Food digestion takes place in an “edible” lounge designed by Mitchell Joachim and Vivian Kuan from Terraform ONE. Their “Edible Puffed Rice Clusters” are presented here as interior sculptures, but they are originally meant to replace parts of buildings’ facades “to attract live organisms to the building façade in order to rewild desolate urban areas”.14 Like an ancient roman Domus, the centre of the “Metabolic Home” is a large fountain, “The Friendship WC” designed by the Ecological Action Lab at Cornell University. It symbolises the hydration of all the living species that inhabit this experimental home, and tackles the important topic of plastic production, use and its disposal.
Fig. 6 - Everything's on the table, Metabolic Home section, "Edible" exhibition ©Tõnu Tunnel
Braidotti clarifies that non-anthropocentric relations do not deny anthropomorphism, as the human body and human subjects play an equal part in the metabolic and spatial processes that take place in this newly conceived domestic environment.
While Jaque’s kitchen revolves around the action and metabolism of microorganisms, Terraform ONE’s Rice Clusters envision the inter-action of animals and architectural space, these are just two of the more-than-human protagonists of this home’s metabolic processes. Humans are active agents of this experimental domestic space as well. For example, they are meant to use the cutlery designed in the large dining table, they move and process the food harvested and so on. Their agency and involvement in this peculiar domestic life was exemplified by the performers that choreographed the inhabitation processes that are meant to take place inside the “Metabolic Home”. During the official opening of the Biennale three performers followed the paths designed by the curators, preparing and eating food over, around or within each installation (Fig. 7). Thanks to this performance the “Metabolic Home” achieved what philosopher Rosi Braidotti calls “species egalitarianism” or “cross-species alliances with the productive and immanent forces of zoe, of life in its nonhuman aspect”.15 Interestingly Braidotti clarifies that non-anthropocentric relations such as those exhibited in the “Metabolic Home” do not deny anthropomorphism, as the human body and human subjects play an equal part in the metabolic and spatial processes that take place in this newly conceived domestic environment. Given that the absence of ergonomic furniture sanctions the absence of the human body in this radical domestic space (making it fully “zoe-centred”), humans’ presence can be traced to the temporary use of its spaces by the inhabitants-performers. The latter become, thus, necessary as they complete Braidotti’s egalitarian model of “zoe” and “bios” (humans), establishing a network of alliances that open to a “post-anthropocentric turn”16 in architecture which ultimately begs the question: what are the protagonists of these alliances?
Fig. 7 - Performance at TAB's official opening. Photo by the author.
Interspecies and Women Alliances
The curators’ unintentional manifesto for a post-anthropocentric architecture envisions “an architecture that produces resources, digests its waste and decomposes, radically intervenes and recomposes the extractive, consumptive, and contaminating logic and processes of the built environment. […] Crucially, such an idea needs to be addressed as a creative, multidimensional design problem that reflects the aesthetic and cultural qualities of spaces as productive environments in their full lifecycles: from the moment of extraction to the moment of demolition. How can architecture produce food and be eaten away?”17 The architect-cook prepares an edible architecture in order to nurture both a planet in crisis, and the “sick body” of architecture and humans.18
Conscious of non-human vitality and her agency in establishing entangled relations, alliances with more-than-human agents, the post-anthropocentric subjects is, therefore, both the inhabitant of the “Metabolic Home” and its designer.
The “material and existential entanglements between architecture and food surface in different scales”19 including the visceral scale of the body, and although no clear feminist position was taken at the TAB, its curators acknowledge that “the literal and corporeal ramifications of occupation, maintenance and care have been marginalized”20 in architectural discourse, opening to issues of political subjectivity in the context of architecture and food. In specific, Braidotti identifies the “posthuman feminist subject” as an “expanded, relational self that functions in nature-culture continuum”.21 She explains that “the relational capacity of the posthuman subject is not confined within our species, but it includes all non-anthropomorphic elements, starting from the air we breathe.”22 Hence, conscious of non-human vitality and her agency in establishing entangled relations, alliances with more-than-human agents, the post-anthropocentric subjects is both the inhabitant of the “Metabolic Home” and its designer. This new subject might have also emerged from the numerous debates held during the TAB’s symposium, where the issues raised by the curators were tackled at multiple scales (Fig. 8). Therefore, aware of the unsustainability of global agri-food system and the numerous anthropogenic pressures on the planet’s ecology, the post-anthropocentric architect decides to empower ecologies by animating the inanimate built environment, she also does it by renaturing, rewilding, nurturing living and non-living systems.
Fig. 8 - Areti Markopoulou and Lydia Kallipoliti, TAB2022 Symposium day 1 ©Evert Palmets
They proposed a domestic ecosystem that transcends the still very present anthropocentric debate over unpaid domestic labour and women’s struggles for the redistribution of their caring role, redefining actions such as cooking or caring and extending them beyond the human.
Caring and nurturing become, once again, central to the definition of Braidotti’s subject. “The posthuman feminist knowing subject is a complex assemblage of human and nonhuman, planetary and cosmic, given and manufactured, which requires major readjustments in our ways of thinking. But she remains committed to social justice and, while acknowledging the fatal attraction of global mediation, is not likely to forget that one-third of the world population has no access to electricity”23 or food, I should add. In underlining the gender of this radical subject, a “she” that embraces transdisciplinary practices,24 I cannot stop thinking about the curators of “EDIBLE: Or, the Architecture of Metabolism”. Whether or not they will ever accept this definition, their effort in establishing interspecies and human alliances is undeniable. With their curatorial stance, Lydia Kallipoliti and Areti Markopoulou proposed new architectural paradigms that rethink the relationship that architects and inhabitants have with food. They proposed a domestic ecosystem that transcends the still very present anthropocentric debate over unpaid domestic labour and women’s struggles for the redistribution of their caring role, redefining actions such as cooking or caring and extending them beyond the human.
“I want to highlight that partnership here is fundamental: (parental) responsibility needs to be equally distributed. I think that the model of the mother or the female being the one that has to take care of the child should change.”
“Work-life is such a fake myth”, confides to me Lydia Kallipoliti. “There is no balance: there is struggle and there is beauty” she continues, tackling women’s challenges in pursuing a career while taking care of their children. Her colleague and friend Areti Markopoulou remarks that the Biennale is not their only occupation, that she is “the Academic Director of an institution in Barcelona, Lydia is an associate professor in New York”, hence the difficulties they faced in the past months. Kallipoliti continues by clarifying that “the struggle is that we are asked to do is an impossible job. We have very little support for doing this […] and it requires an incredible toll in the body: not sleeping, overcoming the boundaries of what is possible.” Yet maternity is empowering and inspiring because “the world is so much more beautiful through their (their children’s) eyes, and that makes us persist in the struggle, always” concludes Kallipoliti. A positive remark, potentially in line with the visionary changes brought forward at the Biennale, is finally shared by Markopoulou: “I want to highlight that partnership here is fundamental: (parental) responsibility needs to be equally distributed. I think that the model of the mother or the female being the one that has to take care of the child should change.”
These human alliances are ultimately necessary to the changes that architecture is undergoing: the foundation of post-anthropocentric design and interspecies alliances is egalitarianism, none of it can possibly exist if true equality is not achieved first and foremost among the members of the human species.
During the two days spent at Tallin I saw exceptional women involved in the organisation of the Biennale helping other women, I saw them taking care of each other’s children, but I also saw one husband that was consistently taking care of his toddler while his wife was working. These human alliances are ultimately necessary to the changes that architecture is undergoing: the foundation of post-anthropocentric design and interspecies alliances is egalitarianism, none of it can possibly exist if true equality is not achieved first and foremost among the members of the human species.
In their closing remarks the curators of the TAB admitted that their Biennale was not able to provide a complete picture of the large questions they raised. They hoped, instead, to open a debate that will possibly lead to some answers. This year’s Biennale was undeniably successful in raising several important questions, we hope that we will have enough time to answer them and implement the transformations that “EDIBLE: Or, the Architecture of Metabolism” has rightfully initiated.
Francesca Romana Forlini is an architect, Ph.D, editor, writer and educator whose research is located at the intersection of feminism, cultural sociology and architectural history and theory. She is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the New York Institute of Technology and Parsons The New School in New York, where she teaches Global History of Architecture and interior design. She worked as chief editor at KoozArch, where she is currently a contributor. She was also the head of History and Theory of Architecture at the BArch at the University of Hertfordshire, researcher at Foster + Partners, lecturer and researcher at Middlesex University, Harvard University and the Royal College of Art (RCA). Francesca was contributor and editor at the Giornale dell'Architettura and Oblique, Critical Conservation Vol. 1, and is the director of the book series Stanze. She is a Fulbrighter ed alumna of Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD) and the RCA.
1 See the work of Western sociologists, among which stands out Pierre Bourdieu’s book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (Oxon: Routledge, 2010).
3 Although this might have not disrupted privilege structures, hence the access to food and the conservation of hierarchies of taste, it is undeniable that old models are in the process of being questioned. This Biennale deals precisely with these changes.
4 Edible; Or, The Architecture of Metabolism (Tallinn: Estonian Museum of Architecture, 2022), exhibition catalogue, 15.
5 See, for example, Terraform ONE’s “Edible Puffed Rice Clusters” in the curatorial exhibition.
6 Edible, exhibition catalogue, 15.
7 Ibid, 18.
8 Among the projects presented stand out the “Synthetic Chrystalliedron” by ecologic Studio, “Rootskin: From Soil to Soil” by IAAC and “Eat me, Build me” by Sharon Yavo Ayalon and Lola Ben-Alon.
9 These subjects have been tackled extensively in the numerous symposia held during the opening days. For a full overview check the Biennale’s website.
10 Think, for instance, to the multiple manuals on Home Economics that mushroomed in the twentieth century.
11 Edible, exhibition catalogue, 17.
12 Ibid, 96.
13 Ibid, 99.
14 Ibid, 107.
15 Rosi Braidotti, “Four Theses on Posthuman Feminism” in Antropocene Feminism, Richard Grusin Ed (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017), 32.
17 Edible, exhibition catalogue, 12-13.
18 The subject of architecture’s “sick body” was the focus of Beatriz Colomina’s keynote lecture at the TAB’s symposium. She also recently curated and exhibition on “Sick Architecture” at CIVA, Brussels.
19 Edible, exhibition catalogue, 11.
20 Ibid, 15-16.
21 Braidotti, “Four Theses”, 34.
22 Ibid, 33.
23 Ibid, 30.