Deconstruction, Architecture, and a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich


Jacques Derrida was supposed to have been an avid filmgoer, but to my knowledge he never published any remarks on film, at least not in translation. He had no special interest in architecture, yet he was obliged to write about deconstruction and architecture because his theories had been picked up by architects, most notably Peter Eisenman and Bernard Tschumi. The first, and still most famous, product of deconstruction and architecture is the Parc de la Villette, to which Derrida made some contributions, although it’s not exactly clear what design elements the philosopher devised.
What, exactly, is deconstructive architecture? Before we get to that question, it might be worthwhile to review deconstruction itself. For that, let’s consider a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

One of the signature dishes served at Alinea, the Chicago restaurant that’s now widely regarded as the best in the country, is a deconstructed peanut butter and jelly sandwich (above). The dish is architectural: the sandwich is presented on a structure resembling a whisk with the loops cut off. At the top of the structure is a single grape, still attached to its stem, dipped in peanut purée and wrapped in brioche. There’s no jelly. Also missing is the conventional notion of a sandwich. It is present by virtue of its absence. Chef Grant Achatz’s presentation is witty and elegant, but is it deconstruction as Derrida described it?

For Derrida, meaning doesn’t arise from nothingness, spontaneously welling up from within ourselves. Rather, a meaning (“I would like another cup of coffee, please”) arises from the suppression of other meanings (“I would like another jolt of caffeine, please.”). Derrida will often preface an essay by saying that the path he will take is only one among many others he could have taken. In the case of Alinea’s deconstructed peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the act of deconstructing takes place from the point of view of a chef. Achatz is playing with ingredients in order to isolate the PB&J’s essential element: the play of sweet and salty. In fact, that’s how the dish is described on the Alinea menu. But this focus on the sensory realm obscures to the degree to which the PB&J, Alinea, even Grant Achatz, are all products of language.

Notice how the act of deconstructing takes place through elimination and substitution. Achatz has substituted brioche for the standard pasty white bread, and eliminated the jelly altogether. White bread and jelly are mediums  for  other flavors, so they can be eliminated as inessential. In addition, the white bread and the jelly are un-chef-like ingredients. They must be suppressed in order to signify “gourmet.” Thus, the essences of “Grant Achatz” and “peanut butter and jelly sandwich ” lie outside the dish, in what has been banished from the plate. The outside is the inside, Derrida was fond of writing, only with an X through the” is,” which I can’t translate into HTML code. The crossed-out “is” is meant to illustrate how being can be represented only by canceling it out.

Interestingly, now that he’s conjured up a deconstructed PB&J, Achatz doesn’t simply drop the brioche ball on a standard white restaurant plate and send it out the door. The deconstructed PB&J can’t stand on its own. It needs a supplement to make it complete. (See ” . . . That Dangerous Supplement . . .” in the Nature, Culture, Writing section of Derrida’s Of Grammatology
.) The apparatus that holds the deconstructed PB&J aloft has no structural function at all. It is architectural, but it is a structure is pure meaning. Achatz introduces difference where no existed before: the plate upon which a peanut butter and jelly sandwich makes no difference. It could be paper, plastic, fine china, whatever. A kid doesn’t care. But in Alinea a sandwich can’t simply be a sandwich. It needs something else to make it meaningful.

Finally there’s the problem of eating a grape suspended from a hook. It’s not immediately obvious how the brioche-encased grape should be eaten. Here the wait staff intervenes. “Eat it like Cleopatra eating grapes,” is the standard instruction dispensed to diners. Of course, no kid has to be shown how to eat a PB&J. What is natural becomes artificial, social, and historical.

What starts off as an amuse-bouche is really something set within overlapping realms of meaning, of absences and presences, that don’t stop at the restaurant door. The front door is marked only by its street number, as if it were trying to be just another nondescript townhouse on Halsted Street. The anonymity of the building calls attention to all of the writing about the restaurant. All of the apparent solidity and presence of the building dissolves into writing.

More on that in my next post on the madness of architecture.


1 Comment

  1. This may be a reach, as I deal with promoting healing and ending sexual abuse in values driven organizations, and I see a metaphor in this. We need to deconstruct the ways we think about ourselves, if we are to see changes in society and in the patterns (e.g., violence/ abuse) we have lived with for so long.
    I’ve written about this extensively. Peace.


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