Holy Sandwich! Edible architecture and the Renaissance section

October 15, 2010

by Nicholas de Monchaux
This article originally appeared in 
SANDWICH, a supplement to Meatpaper Issue Thirteen.


IN HIS SURVEY of Renaissance architecture, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, Rudolf Wittkower uses the buildings of Leon Batista Alberti and Andrea Palladio to advance what has become an enormously influential argument about the relationship between a building’s plan, section, and proportion. As it happens, it is also yet another argument for the enduring appeal of sandwiches.

The argument goes something like this: in their celebrated religious buildings, and in divinely proportioned private commissions such as Palladio’s Villa Rotonda of 1567 (Fig. 1), Renaissance architects developed an idealized vision of architectural proportion. When experiencing such a perfect space first-hand, we are only dimly aware of its true qualities. In order to reveal such a building’s mysteries, we need to look at a very particular kind of architectural drawing, extensively deployed by Wittkower himself: the section.

From the latin secare, or “to cut,” the section is a slice through a building or landscape. While such a slice can technically be in any direction, the word is most often used to refer to a vertical cut, allowing the building’s interior to be viewed from the side. When applied to a building like the Pantheon (a model for much of renaissance architecture,) or Villa Rotonda, the section reveals a precisely perfected layering of space and substance that was contained by what might seem to have been an overwhelming or inscrutable façade.

The effect of the well-proportioned renaissance interior recalls the philosophical musings of Mircea Eliade, Romanian philosopher and author of The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion.(1) In this influential text, Eliade argues the architectural quality of these two spiritual conditions. (Profane, not incidentally, comes from the latin pro-fane, or “outside the temple.”) Eliade contrasts our daily movements around the world in plan (from planum, or the bottom of the foot) with the sectional quality of sacred space, in which we are taken out of this mundane reality into a vertical realm of divine harmony — not incidentally the sectional harmony of sacred space found from temple to mosque to chapel.

And what does this have to do with the sandwich? Atypically, we can find the truth in marketing.

Fig. 2.

When you enter any latter-day temple of the sandwich — from a Venetian sandwich bar to the upmarket Pret A Manger in London or New York — you gaze on a revealing prospect. That is to say, an array of sandwiches (tramezzini in Venice, Fig 2), laboriously assembled from a variety of everyday ingredients, centered on bread, and then sliced, diagonally, to best reveal these contents in all their enticing proportions.

As Alberti wrote of the perfect church, the perfect sandwich is “the noblest ornament of a city and its beauty … surpasses imagination.”(2) The more holy the temple of the sandwich — at Katz’s Deli in New York or Louis’ Lunch in New Haven — the more likely these interior proportions will depart from the humdrum plan-based rectangle of their supporting bread to present a rounded, divine section. That the secret truth of the sandwich is revealed on its sectioning would surprise nobody less than a sandwich gourmet. Alberti’s reflection on perfect proportion in building equally applies to the perfect sandwich, which will “awaken sublime sensations … in such a way that every part has its absolutely fixed size … and nothing could be added or taken away without destroying the harmony of  the whole.” (3) And it is only through the cut that this mystery is revealed.

While the sandwich is thought to be at least a century younger than the Renaissance church, its combination of flavor and economy has ensured that it survives into modern life in a way that sectionally proportioned sacred spaces have not. Recent architectural examples reveal, however, that elegant sectional maneuvers are not lost on contemporary practitioners — especially those that derive their inspiration from the sandwich itself.

Fig 3, Fig 4.

Several notable buildings of the past decade — such as MVRDV’s dutch Pavilion at the Hannover Expo 2000 (Fig. 3) and Kengo Kuma’s Asakusa Tourist Information Center of 2009 (Fig. 4) — provide their architectural delight through a series of maneuvers that would be as anathema to Alberti as they are second nature to a short-order chef. Rather than the precise intersection of spheres, the architecture of such buildings instead relies on the stacking of everyday, even profane, elements  — in the case of the Dutch Pavilion, a polder, forest, and windfarm; in the case of Kuma’s Asakusa Center, a vernacular shed  — and their deliberate elevation through stacking, sandwiching, and then cutting. So revealed, as in the most elegant sandwich, is a nonchalant, overlapping grace. ♥


Fig. 1: Andrea Palladio, (1508-1580) I quattro libri dell’architettura. Volume 1, book 2, plate xv: (London edition, 1715) Villa Rotonda.

Fig. 2: Venetian Tramezzini. (Creative Commons image “La Dolce Vita” by Flickr user Lud Wing.)

Fig. 3: Mvrdv, Dutch Pavilion, Hannover Expo 2000.

Fig. 4: Kengo Kuma, Asakusa Tourist Information Center, Tokyo, 2009.


1. Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane; The Nature of Religion (New York: harcourt, Brace, 1959).

2. Rudolf Wittkower, Architectural Principles in the Age of Humanism, Studies of the Warburg institute, v. 19 (London: Warburg institute, University of London, 1949), 6.

3. Ibid., 8.

NICHOLAS DE MONCHAUX is assistant professor of architecture and urban design at UC Berkeley. His work has been published in the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine, Architectural Design (AD), and Meatpaper. He is the author of Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo, from MIT Press.

This article originally appeared in SANDWICH, a supplement to Meatpaper Issue Thirteen.

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