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Cake architecture: the design of desserts

You’d be surprised how influential cakes, puddings and jellies have been on the cities we live in. James Haldane serves up a brief history of the creative dialogue between artisan food and architecture

Taxidermy, séances and hair jewellery – the Victorians’ cultural legacy is a little morbid to say the least. Still it remains the period we must thank for the popularising of the wedding cake among the masses, and for establishing the excoriatingly white and decidedly architectural style that continues to stir bridal passion and pecuniary pain today. The structural analogy between these nuptial centrepieces and building is obvious enough – the batter as an edible concrete, the thick icing a decorative stucco, and the stacked tiers professing a language appropriated from the Classical orders.

The historical link, however, is far from limited to marital puds. Beyond the misfortunes of Hansel and Gretel in the gingerbread house, confectioners’ designs serve as a barometer for timeless debates around ornament and structural honesty. What’s more, like architecture, cake design belongs to that enduring tradition of artistic patronage. As a vehicle for the celebration of wealth, status and taste, it represents ‘conspicuous consumption’ in the most literal of senses. Given all this, you can’t help feeling a little disheartened towards the all too common appearance of Colin the Caterpillar – that mainstay of the office birthday party. Why can’t today’s baked goods offer us a little more food for thought?

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The cake produced for the 1871 wedding of Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s sixth child, typifies the architecturally inspired designs of wedding cakes of the period

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Designs for pièces montées by chef Marie-Antoine Carême

Though cake’s history as a celebratory indulgence dates back to medieval times, it was against the unassuming backdrop of post-revolutionary Paris that it reached its artistic apogee, in a moment of gastronomic hedonism. In 1802, Parisian lawyer turned restaurant critic Grimod de la Reynière professed that ‘cuisine is linked to nearly all branches of human knowledge […]. Chemistry, painting, sculpture, architecture, geometry, physics, pyrotechnics, all are more or less closely allied with the great art of fine dining’. While I can’t speak to the matter of fireworks, Grimod argued that an ‘artist who, in addition to a profound knowledge of culinary art, possesses a fair smattering of all these sciences, should reap great benefits indeed’.

Thus, in the wake of the guillotine’s drop, French high society was able to turn their blades on some rather more obliging targets. Pièces montées, literally translatable as ‘mounted pieces’, were intricate confectionery centrepieces made famous by the architectural vision of chef Marie-Antoine Carême. Working in nougat, marzipan and spun sugar, Carême answered Grimod’s interdisciplinary call by enlivening the tables of formal banquets with miniature castles, temples and pyramids inspired by his research at the Bibliothèque Nationale.

Though shockingly indulgent for a nation set on a diet of egalitarianism, this culinary frippery found great favour with the European elite. Carême’s artistic ‘fusion cuisine’ enabled him to rise from kitchen boy at a cheap Parisian steak chophouse to ultimately cook for Emperor Napoleon and Tsar Alexander. As the original celebrity chef, he also boasts the more dubious accolade of clearing the way for the likes of Ramsay, Oliver et al. In the true spirit of extravagance, Carême’s pièces montées were not intended to be eaten. Though this is not the case with the modern wedding cake, this literal investment in form over function prompts reflection on a number of moral issues for the contemporary glutton.

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Moscow State University, housed in one of Stalin’s Zuckerbäckerstil ‘Seven Sisters’

I’m not referring to calorific guilt, pertinent as it is, but rather to philosophies of construction. For, to return to the matter of wedding cakes specifically, I’d like to take the opportunity for a moment of gratuitous nationalism. While British weddings traditionally centre themselves on a sturdy and entirely structural fruit cake, their American counterparts typically favour a lighter sponge requiring the internal support of plastic piers and – heaven forbid – foam board. For some purists, this structural cheat is equivalent to the practice of adding strong spices to cover taste of putrid meat in the age before refrigeration. Still, with Britain increasingly losing its appetite for dry fruit cake, we’d all better get used to a level of tectonic fakery sufficient to set the Smithsons spinning in their graves.

In the light of all this architecturally informed cake, it would be remiss of me not to mention its inverse – cakey architecture. The first stop on the breadcrumb trail (couldn’t help myself) can only be Stalin’s ‘Seven Sisters’. This septet collection of towers, encircling the centre of Moscow, was erected in the 1940s and ’50s in the Zuckerbäckerstil or ‘sugar baker style’. Deploying technology imported from American skyscrapers, they remix the vertiginous lines of the Empire State Building with plans borrowed from Russian Orthodox churches. They also point the way to the true source material for cakey architecture – the Gothic.

Joyously camp in their powdery brilliance, the crenellations and machicolations decorating Strawberry Hill appear the fresh products of a well-directed piping bag. The house, built by Horace Walpole in 1749, was a precocious forerunner for the 19th-century Gothic Revival in England. Its whitewashed accretions culminate in a crop of finials and chimneys borrowed in style from the great Tudor houses – a demonstration of willful eclecticism to match Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland. Of course the very miscellany of the Gothic style lends itself particularly well to such dressing up, and eventually led to it finding great favour across the United States.

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Horace Walpole’s powdery Strawberry Hill House

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The Wedding Cake House, Kennebunk, Maine

A century after Walpole built his fanciful retreat, shipbuilder George Bourne created the Wedding Cake House in Kennebunk, Maine. Inspired by a visit to Milan’s cathedral and informed by his carpentry skills, Bourne’s design marries Strawberry Hill’s iced appearance with intricately carved wooden fretwork decoration. Nonetheless, one detail betrays his conceit. Nestled under the central lobed arch, behind the hanging pendants, is a clue to the building’s origins. The Serlian window reveals the house’s earlier incarnation in the classicised Federal style previously popular on the East Coast. Regardless of your position on these instances of structural and stylistic fudging, the intertwined histories of cake and building can’t be faulted on their inventiveness and drama.

So how is this long tradition of Carême, Walpole and Bourne being carried forth today? Rather pallidly, I’m afraid to report. While British studio Bompas & Parr have made something of a name for themselves creating edible edifices, such as the Lost London gingerbread windows for Selfridges’ Christmas windows, they remain largely typecast as ‘jellymongers’ to corporate events. So let this be a call to arms, nay to palette knives! As the rise of the foodies continues unabated, can’t we set aside our faddishly ‘deconstructed’ dishes to build something really worth eating?

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Jellymongers, Sam Bompas and Harry Parr

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‘Lost London’ gingerbread window display by Bompas&Parr.
Photography by Ann Charlott Ommedal

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