On paper, and in photographs, London duo Bompas & Parr come across like the twin love-children of Gilbert & George and Heston Blumenthal: their burgeoning brand pairs a heady, Zeitgeist-nailing confection of foodie couture and experiential art with the timeless image of a pair of irreverent young men on a mission. Their signature projects include Alcoholic Architecture, a walk-through cloud of vapourized gin and tonic, and Architectural Punchbowl, a one-off event involving the flooding of a building with over four tonnes of a Courvoisier-based cocktail. Their favourite building material is jelly. And, having collaborated with the likes of Lord Foster and Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, their star is clearly in the ascendant. Their egos, however, are not. A brief conversation with Sam Bompas, in anticipation of their appearance at the 2011 Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, reveals a thoughtful, egalitarian manifesto, one that prizes inclusivism, education and exploration, and social and culinary history, and that juxtaposes refined theoretical concepts with bald experience and sensuality.
The concurrent experience of food and architecture is central to Bompas & Parr’s work, from jelly models of buildings like St Paul’s Cathedral to walk-through installations “where food actually becomes a spatialized, inhabitable realm,” as Bompas puts it. “We began making architectural forms in food and now we work with food on an architectural scale,” he says. “A good example of this is our recent Ziggurat of Flavour, a vast pyramidal structure where people inhaled the equivalent to a piece of fruit just by moving through the space.”
This kind of large-scale experiential architecture of food is not without precedent, and Bompas speaks reverentially of trailblazers such as Alexis Soyer, “a Victorian version of Jamie Oliver … [who] also created the world’s most fantastic restaurant, which included ice caves with stuffed foxes, mirror chambers … and a grotto which you had to go through a waterfall to enter,” and American millionaire George Kessler who, for a banquet in 1905, flooded the forecourt of London’s Savoy Hotel, stocked it with fish and swan, and served food to guests from “a silk-lined gondola illuminated by four hundred Venetian lamps and decorated with twelve thousand carnations. The dessert was served from the back of a baby elephant.”
While Bompas & Parr find inspiration in these outrageous culinary experiences, they’re not interested in the level of exclusivity. “We want to cut the Gordian knot of pretense [around food and art] and create experiences that everyone can enjoy.” Case in point: the Artisanal Chewing Gum Factory, a pop-up “micro-factory” in a London shopping centre, allowed visitors to make their own gum by mixing obscure flavours like iris, white truffle, curry and beer yeast. Participation cost as little as £2.50, lines stretched for miles and kids made up a significant proportion of patrons. The presence of these malleable young minds was particularly exciting for Bompas. “Most of our installations have alcohol so are off limits to kids,” he says. “They went wild for the factory, though, with many bullying parents to let them come along.”
This does, of course, raise the obvious question: are Bompas & Parr chefs? Architects? Artists? Educators? Entertainers? Their Wikipedia entry carries the parenthetical qualifier “jellymongers”, and Bompas is happy with the ambiguity. “Boundaries are a lot of balls,” he says. “We see all cooks, artists and architects as direct competitors … For us there’s no point in worrying about whether we are artists, cooks or whatnot. The important thing is putting a smile on people’s faces, by hook or by crook.”