Over Labor Day weekend, San Francisco hosted a blow-out celebration of the Slow Food movement, and architects showed up for the party.
Hailed as the largest festival of American chow in history—some called it the “Woodstock of food”—the event was the offspring of Slow Food, the 19-year-old organization that has become a global force for sustainable food culture. Showcasing local tastes, products, and agricultural innovations, the first-ever event drew more than 50,000 visitors to venues throughout the city.
As they hungrily sought out California merlot, charcuterie, and sauerkraut, visitors also found fresh architecture in the form of pavilions built pro-bono by fifteen local firms, tapped by organizers to integrate gastronomy with green design.
Participating architects varied from giants like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which designed a “soap box” for farmers to share stories, to smaller practices like Stanley Saitowitz | Natoma Architects, which contributed a bread pavilion, complete with baking area and museum. Also pitching in were socially-motivated firms like SMWM, which built a water station made from recycled water bottles, and also developed the event’s Civic Center master plan. Other participants included David Baker + Partners, who with CCS Architecture designed the festival’s outdoor vendor stalls and eating area, and Jensen Architects (designer of the welcome pavilions), Winslow Architecture (wine pavilion), and Ideo (compost exhibit).
Most of the temporary structures were erected inside a 50,000-square-foot pavilion called Taste, located at Fort Mason, the cultural center on San Francisco’s northern waterfront. There, the reigning design mood was one of critical earnestness. Architect Cary Bernstein designed a charcuterie pavilion, for instance, that displayed the history of meat production through paintings and photography, to educate visitors about the interdependence of food and health. With photomurals of ranches and graphics of chicken feed, Bernstein illustrated the principle that “whatever the animal eats, we eat.” Her pavilion was designed with re-use in mind; even the artworks were re-purposed for permanent display in local restaurants.
Events at other venues reiterated this holistic theme. At City Hall Park, Mayor Gavin Newsom devoted over a quarter-acre to a “Victory Garden,” designed by John Bela, co-founder of the artists’ and designers’ collective REBAR. Modeled on the homegrown vegetable gardens tended during World War Two, the pleasantly unmanicured space demonstrated small-scale food production, particularly backyard farming within the city limits (a movement that will get a boost this year when the group Victory Gardens 08+ gives away 15 free starter gardens in San Francisco).
The scale and enthusiasm for this first-time festival—all major events were sold out well in advance—were not only a testament to a growing respect for environmental interdependence, but to architecture’s role as part of the conversation.
Landscape architect Kevin Conger, of CMG, who assisted with the City Hall garden, noted that “getting our food production closer to the consumer is essential, both so we understand where food comes from, and also so we reduce the carbon footprint of production and shipping.”
Beyond backyard gardens, Slow Food’s use of green materials—reclaimed lumber, hay bales, recycled berry crates, bundles of native California tule reeds—showed that good design can be an essential part of our low-carbon diet.