The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1854] Food in the Cellar


We have more or less abandoned the cellar, and it is imperative that we return. We paint an image of light, of air, but where is the cellar? Now and then cellars turn up by accident as basements, or as the underground counterpart to an above-ground idea. Perhaps they are the by-product of a retaining wall. But what is our relationship, as architects, to the idea of the cellar?

“But for the cellar, the impassioned inhabitant digs and re-digs, making its very depth active. The fact is not enough, the dream is at work” (Bachelard, 18).

And what about the root cellar?

“I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumac and blackberry roots and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven feet deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any weather. … I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure had disappeared posterity remarks its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” (Henry David Thoreau, _Walden_, quoted in Bubel, 153).

What is our relationship to the vernacular tradition, to the idea of a sustainable … what? A sustainable building? A sustainable city, or landscape? Or is it a sustainable life? It is difficult to know because we are lost, confused about our relationship with the world, confused often by the very architecture that might have helped clarify, unsure of our place in a wider ecology. Vernacular tradition contains a wealth of technical solutions to design problems, but that tradition, just like the entire body of contemporary eco-sustainable technology, is of no use to us before we actively comprehend our relationship to the world. In our wholesale shift away from vernacular tradition we disconnected ourselves from a body of knowledge that contained the means to articulate, in our built environment, the meanings of our existence.

In exploring the root cellar I have fallen in love with this point of contact between the idea in its enormity and the utter simplicity of the thing. The root cellar helps make sense of poetry. Its pragmatic clarity gave me a valuable point of reference in articulating my experiences, and a point of connection between the writings of Juhani Pallasmaa, Don McKay, Gaston Bachelard and others. Without conversations, without the poets and philosophers, without a world-view, we will continue to ignore the implications of the cellar. Without a world-view we risk continuing on as we have, unable to understand the substance of the vernacular tradition, the underlying imperatives of a sustainable architecture. In _Eyes of the Skin_, Pallasmaa tells us, "Architecture … is fundamentally confronted with questions of human existence in space and time, it expresses and relates man's being in the world" (Pallasmaa, 16). It is difficult, if not impossible, to read meanings into patterns of human life that have no expression. It is the architect's responsibility to know, to imagine, to intuit, to anticipate and finally to articulate these patterns and, through architecture, to give them life.

Food. The root cellar is about food, and food comes pretty close to the heart of human experience. Joseph was put in charge of the whole land of Egypt, saying, "They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the grain under the authority of the Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food" (Genesis 41:35). The implications of tapping our relationship with food are enormous. For some, the root cellar is obvious, the food makes sense, but the rest of us, walking confused through the world, our minds muddied with the rhetoric of consumption, we need all the help we can get to imagine again the place of food in our lives. The root cellar articulates our relationship with food, with the earth, the earth into which we dig for survival. The root cellar articulates the relationship between food and architecture. Pick up a carrot and think about where to put it.

The root cellar is pretty simple. There are subtleties and variations, but architecturally there's not much to know. Ice-fishing shacks, the back deck, the shed: these are humble things, everyday stuff that one person explains to the next. In _Root Cellaring_, the Bubels describe various possible root cellars. A few examples are: the common detached root cellar built sideways into a hill; the variation built down into a hole in the ground; the corner of the basement insulated from the heat of the house; a room adjacent to the house below a patio or porch; an insulated cupboard built over a window in an apartment; and an old milk truck buried into the side of a hill with its rear doors accessible. These are different examples, but the principle is the same. A root cellar is a room that is cooled by the winter cold but kept above freezing by the constant temperature of the earth. During the summer the earth and the darkness keep the root cellar cool. Built into the ground, the cellar must be ventilated to exhaust fumes given off by the stored vegetables. This ventilation is nothing more than an intake and exhaust pipe, the air kept in circulation by differences in temperature. The cellar must also be kept relatively humid, which is usually accomplished by leaving the earth floor exposed. Beyond these basic requirements, the rest will depend, largely, on food.

In Tilting, Newfoundland, before 1930, root cellars were built of saltwater logs covered with sod. They were "damp, cool and dark" (Mellin, 197) and were used primarily for turnips and potatoes: root cellars in the pure sense. Cabbages were kept in a separate cellar, called a cabbage house. In most places the root cellar was part of a wider system of preserving and storing food and seeds. However, the root cellar itself can be designed, built and used in such a way as to accommodate both potatoes and cabbages, as well as a seemingly endless list of other foods. In _Root Cellaring_, the Bubels list carrots, potatoes, parsnips, beets, cabbage, leeks, garlic, onions, squash, pumpkins, grapes, cantaloupes, pears, oranges, apples, pecans, walnuts, soybeans, peanuts, sunflower seeds, wheat, and much more, covering everything from vegetables and grains to meat, cheese and eggs.

While the cellar itself is simple, the act of root cellaring requires more elaboration. _Root Cellaring_, one of the few books devoted entirely to the subject, attempts to cover the exhausting range of material connected with the root cellar by highlighting the act of "cellaring." It deals directly with the integration of the object and a way of life; in essence it underlines their inseparability. If you wish to grow your own garden there is everything to know about the soil, the rotation of crops, the importance of the late season for the longevity and flavor of storage vegetables, the advantages and dangers of frost, and the selection of varieties that keep well. Even if you don't have your own garden, you will need to know what you will eat and how much, how to harvest and handle produce destined for the root cellar, how to store the different vegetables, fruits and other foodstuff in their different optimal conditions. You will need to understand the humidity and temperature associated with these various conditions, ways of regulating the space, the importance of ventilation, and the implications of spoilage and smell. Once you have all this stuff in storage there are questions of nutrition: figuring out what to eat when, using recipes that allow you to cook without destroying all the nutrition you so carefully packed away.

The richness of the act of cellaring, the way it integrates architecture with a way of life, really holds it all together. The root cellar can shift from everything to nothing in an instant, a sure and terrifying reminder of the life you have chosen to live, because it articulates the relationship we have with food, and with each other.

“'The gardening' was perceived as … a garden-process rather than a garden-object. 'The gardening' was the place where plants were grown, but also cultivated personal and small group projects of all kinds, and with them, relations amongst people; new desires were becoming” (Deleuze and Guattari, on ECObox, quoted in Petrescu, 46).

Cellaring also articulates our attitudes about which ingredients we use during the year, connecting us with the seasons. "Seasonality has emerged as the mantra of the leading chefs we interviewed" (Dornenburg and Page, 28). The fear for the architect, perhaps, is that almost at the point of conception the object of the root cellar seems to disappear. With all this concern for growing, keeping and eating food, the conversation quickly moves beyond the realm of the physical building, challenging the boundaries of the profession.

“Poets are supremely interested in what language can't do; in order to gesture outside, they use language in a way that flirts with its destruction” (McKay, 32).

As architects, we too should be interested in what buildings can't do. Gesturing outside, the architectural boundaries of the root cellar begin to blur.

Yet we do not have to fear this departure, for its strangeness lies beyond the confines of what Pallasmaa calls our "ocular-centric society."

“The hegemonic eye seeks domination over all fields of cultural production, and it seems to weaken our capacity for empathy, compassion and participation with the world” (Pallasmaa, 22).

Within the architecture of the cellar there lies a vast space of imagination, the realm of the senses. What does the cellar do for the body, for the other senses and for memories, imagination and dreams? The root cellar immediately calls to mind a sense of the earth: the smell, the cool and the damp. We imagine a darkness, a need to find our way, to feel around. The root cellar excludes vision to a profound degree, offering the architect space to explore the realm beyond the ocular-centric space of "detachment, isolation and exteriority" (Pallasmaa, 19). Here we expand our capacity to listen, our poetic attention. We wrestle anew with the challenges of translation, of articulation, in a place that robs so much from the decadent eye.

In the darkness of the cellar we begin to hear the oral wisdom of shared human experience, the humble stuff of handed-down notions of things.

“Contrary to first impressions, the rupture of the living traditions [in the modern period] does not signify a loss or devalorization of the past. … The loss of tradition means rather that the past has lost its transmissibility and that unless one finds a way to recover a relationship with it, it may simply become an object of accumulation” (Giorgio Agamben, _The Man without Content_, quoted in Pérez-Gómez, 188).

Our desire to reconnect with the past is in danger of becoming little more than an accumulation of vernacular technologies, another archive in the Smithsonian. We need to re-establish our relationship with the vernacular tradition, its technology and wisdom.

Imagine this strange unfamiliar world, this lost tradition of the root cellar, as a kind of wilderness. In establishing a relationship with the wilderness, the poet Don McKay contrasts a quote from Neruda:

“And it was at that age … Poetry /

arrived in search of me. I don't know, /

I don't know where it came from, from /

winter or a river” (McKay, 27).

McKay is telling us that this is wonderful and asks, "Why should it not be true?" (McKay, 27). But he contrasts this ‘romantic inspiration’ with ‘poetic attention’, saying, "But ‘poetic attention’ is based on a recognition and a valuing of the other's wilderness; it leads to a work which is not a ‘vestige’ of the other, but a ‘translation’ of it" (McKay, 28). And in this sense of translation, architects have a great deal of work to do. This translation requires an escape from ocular-centric society, a return to the senses, a readiness for this poetic attention, for listening. The architect can be a teller of stories, a translator of memory.

“Of course, thanks to the house, a great many of our memories are housed, and if the house is a bit elaborate, if it has a cellar and a garret, nooks and corridors, our memories have refuges that are all the more clearly delineated. All our lives we come back to them in our day-dreams” (Bachelard, 8).

We need to recover our relationship with the past, with memory.

The zero-energy passive storage of locally grown organic heirloom vegetables is one thing; how do you begin to articulate the question of daydreams and memories, the stuff beyond the simple technical questions? The simple technology of the root cellar, its profound integration with food, place, and a way of life: these are merely a beginning.

“As for the cellar, we shall no doubt find uses for it. It will be rationalized and its conveniences enumerated. But it is first and foremost the dark entity of the house, the one that partakes of subterranean forces. When we dream there, we are in harmony with the irrationality of the depths” (Bachelard, 18).

In the end, the architect must be a dreamer. The root cellar, close to the heart of human experience, can awaken our senses, help the architect to create "a positive experience of space, place, meaning" (Pallasmaa, 32). With wine cellars we have already begun. We need little more than the idea, the mystery of the regulating temperature and humidity of the earth. We need to begin articulating the myth of human experience, begin telling again the story of food.


Bachelard, Gaston. 1969. _The Poetics of Space_. Boston: Beacon Press.

Blundell Jones, Peter, Doina Petrescu and Jeremy Till, eds. 2005. _Architecture and Participation_. London: Spon Press.

Bubel, Mike and Nancy. 1979. _Root Cellaring_. Emmaus: Rodale Press.

Dornenburg, Andrew, and Karen Page. 1996. _Culinary Artistry_. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.

McKay, Don. 2001. _Vis à Vis_. Wolfville: Gaspereau Press.

Mellin, Robert. 2003. _Tilting_. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

Pallasmaa, Juhani. 2005. _Eyes of the Skin_. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.

Pérez-Gómez, Alberto. 2006. _Built Upon Love_. Cambridge: MIT Press.

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