Alcoholic Architecture 14.08.09

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Anyone for a lungful of gin and tonic? Bompas & Parr open a bar serving atomised drink, a new departure in atmospheric design. Sam Jacob inhaled.

Friday night and I'm off for a drink. But because this is the 21st century and an era of uncertainty, that means I'm in an antechamber, pulling on a protective white boiler suit. This is Bompas & Parr's Alcoholic Architecture, a pop-up experimental bar in the heart of London's West End. They explain the concept as a "walk-in cocktail", which though evocative, doesn't really explain what I'm in for.

Once suited, we descend into a basement looking like a forensic team investigating something awful. Through some plastic sheets (and past what looks like a dandy waiter wearing a gas mask) we find ourselves in a room of vapourised gin and tonic. In a fog of alcohol we stand in groups, hardly able to see each other. It seems less like socialising and more like we might be in the decontamination chamber of an unspecified industrial facility.

People are gasping, breathing strangely, acclimatising to the gin and tonic atmosphere. The taste materialises in strange ways, in the back of your mouth, up your nose, then on the tip of your tongue. The sensation is strange: taste without substance that appears and disappears. At moments intangible, then concentrated, as though it were an apparition waxing and waning. You can taste it, but you can't feel it. In the corner, the atomising machine churns out more clouds of intoxicating atmosphere. A soundtrack plays, designed to heighten the effect of immersion - 80s hits played woozily as though you were hearing them through the ears of a drunk, the chink of ice scaled up in volume. With this high-tech array of devices directed at our senses, we might wonder if they have been dulled to the point we must invent freakish methods of imbibing.

Bompas & Parr argue that this is a socialising - or a collectivisation - of the normally individual experience of taste. Taste here, they argue, becomes spatialised as a public realm, scaled up from bodily interior to building interior. In this way the cocktail becomes architecture - an immersive, habitable environment.

Certainly, there is an intersection of concerns between architecture and food. Architecture has spun out from the simplistic notion of shelter to a vast and complex social, cultural, economic and political realm. Food, likewise, is not about basic nutrition, it is nature processed into culture. Food becomes a type of language through its rituals, its visual presence and through its experiential qualities of taste and texture. The ways in which we grow, harvest, process and present food are all steps that take us from the natural to the cultural. And the more elaborate the process, the more beyond-nature we find ourselves. At its heightened points, it becomes a kind of perverse decadence: the against-nature phenomenon of forcing plants and animals into models of culture.

And it's these culinary peaks of freakish anti-nature that Bompas & Parr see their projects as part of. They talk for example of the eighteenth century "Cuccagna Napoletana" - where a mythical land of plenty was interpreted as a vast landscape of food. They reference Marie-Antoine Carême, the 19th-century French chef whose lavish decorative constructions of sugar, marzipan, nougat and so on were modeled on historical architectural references: temples, pyramids and ruins which became centerpieces of Napoleonic banquets. And they also learn from the contemporary experiments of Heston Blumenthal, whose hyper-futurist gastronomy blurs cooking with science in the pursuit of heightened and accelerated sensation.

We might also think of other moments: Ken Kesey's Kool Aid Acid Test, where hallucinogenic punch merged with light and sound to create a collective psychedelic social space. Or the supposed modelling of champagne glasses on Marie Antoinette's breasts, which brings a precise and surreal eroticism to the act of drinking.

What we see here is the delivery mechanism becoming an intrinsic part of the experience. Form moulds and alters its content.

Back in the basement, we are reminded of the atmospheric concerns that led to and followed the smoking ban in bars. These concerns were part of a general atmosphere anxiety that envelops us all. Our noddy suits suggest the imagery of terrorist anthrax attacks, as though we are dressed for a poisoned environment, while the bar's qualities of industrialised pleasure have shades of Brave New World's Soma. It's what might happen if Molecular Gastronomy collided with the technology behind Zyklon B, a kind of revelry in the horror of our circumstances.

PhotographDanPrice RT

Alcoholic Architecture was on Ganton Street, London, in April
www.jellymongers.co.uk

 

 Words

Sam Jacob

quotes story

Taste here, they argue, becomes spatialised as a public realm, scaled up from bodily interior to building interior

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