Food and thought

Spring 2007 Interaction

When the Clark Center was being planned, some people were skeptical about the space given to the cafeteria. It was too big, they said. Better to give the space over to labs.

No way, others said. Channing Robertson, in particular, was adamant.

"I taught in Switzerland, where it was very common to have a large eating space," he said recently. "People would leave their labs and socialize there. The same was true in Cambridge. In the United States, though, eating places often come after the fact. They're not planned right, they don't fit well, they're in the worst possible space and there's no place to sit properly. So we set aside a large piece of the footprint, and ultimately people bought into the idea."

Robertson, senior associate dean, the Ruth G. and William K. Bowes Professor in the School of Engineering and a former member of the Bio-X executive committee, said then he wanted "a full-service restaurant to serve as a social magnet to enable the serendipity that often is associated with discovery."

Fast forward to today: food is still linked to thought. School of Medicine Dean Philip Pizzo, has made it clear he wants food — lots of it — at the school's new Learning and Knowledge Center (LKC).

"Food and drink will be everywhere," said Maggie Saunders, the LKC project manager. "The classrooms will accommodate this. People are more willing to participate, they're more open, if they can eat and drink."

There will be three levels of food in the LKC: a downstairs café along the Discovery Walk, open during regular hours; an area with vending machines containing the unsold café food in off-hours; and several kitchens (including one just for students) so people can cook 24/7.

Over in the future School of Engineering Center, meanwhile, the director of the Institute for Computational and Mathematical Engineering, Peter Glynn, envisions a kitchen "with a large table," right next to the lounge. That will be the hub, he said.

And at a meeting to discuss the future Arts Path, one participant suggested, not quite joking, that maybe 10 cafés along the way would create artistic buzz.

But though it is hard to object to sharing ideas over food and drink, the mere presence of food and drink in no way guarantees the ideas, or even the fellowship, one campus planner cautions.

"Food CAN serve the purpose, but it's not just about food," said Margaret Dyre-Chamberlain, director of Stanford's Department of Capital Planning. "You have to think about linkages, seating, the surroundings."

Seating was a particularly important issue at Clark. The original plan called for lots of outdoor tables, both on the lawn and on the sky bridges. The long tables in the cafeteria were inspired, again, by European eating customs.

"The problem with round tables is that one person sits down and no one sits down with them," Robertson said. "With the long tables, there's no ownership of the table."

But they can make it difficult to talk in a small group, he admitted, adding that he was pleased the restaurant's new managers recently reconfigured them.

"It looks less like Lompoc Prison than before," he said.

The fortunes of eating establishments are somewhat mysterious. Dyre-Chamberlain said one of the most successful eating events on campus is at the Ginzton Laboratory, where faculty and students have coffee and donuts in a courtyard on a regular basis. Everyone comes. It won't put Stanford on any culinary map, but it works.

She also noted that The 750, the pub in the Graduate Community Center, has grown more popular with its themed events and musical performances.

At her previous job, at Dartmouth, she and colleagues noticed there was one café that seemed to work better than the others. "It was a very interactive space in the arts building, a de facto student center," she said. "A bit funky, near open studio space, so people could watch artists at work, good food, near the student mailboxes and the central campus. It was a place where faculty and students would run into each other." There's no way you can deliberately create that mix.

So food would seem to be an essential but insufficient ingredient for good chemistry. It also draws people from a distance.

"Peets is on the third floor of the Clark Center for a good reason," said Clark Center project director Maggie Burgett. You've got to go a ways to get there. On the one hand, that might be a disincentive; on the other, you'll run into more people. And you've worked up an appetite by the time you arrive.