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clover food lab

Because you can’t eat architecture

Clover Harvard Square is a new fast-food restaurant.

There’s more to the story than this. But the space, which opened in late 2010, works because Jinhee Park AIA and John Hong of SsD architecture + urbanism, and Ayr Muir and Rolando Robledo of Clover Food Lab, never lost sight of that simplicity. 

If you’ve frequented Clover’s Boston-area vegetarian food trucks—the first of which opened at MIT in 2008—the restaurant’s unfussy white minimalism and its openness to the street will be familiar. That’s because SsD has worked with Clover from the beginning to design (and, sometimes, fabricate) the components of its trucks, where the business was born. Starting with decommissioned cargo vehicles that were strategically cut to create windows for light, ventilation and food service, and retrofitted into a compact kitchen, the Clover trucks are low energy and low key, with exterior whiteboards to keep the changing menu up-to-date. The trucks don’t call attention to themselves as “designed” objects, in keeping with the company’s focus on providing delicious and inexpensive fare without being in your face with either branding or buzzwords such as “sustainable,” “local” or “organic”—although the food is generally all these things.

The restaurant is more polished than the trucks. The double-height space at the front is overlooked by a bridge-like mezzanine for overflow seating. Drawing you into the restaurant and under this bridge, the back wall is lit by a clerestory window (or, at night, by spotlights) and covered by wires upon which ivy plants are beginning to grow. When the ivy fills in, it’ll give a colorful nod to the restaurant’s location at the edge of Harvard’s campus, while taking the edge off the algorithmically positioned wire hardware—currently the only feature that suggests high design.

But a visit to the restaurant still gives an impression of sharing a semi-industrial workspace.  Yes, there are artistically assembled fluorescent lights, but they hang on the (white-painted) concrete waffle slab ceiling alongside exposed pipes and ducts. On the mezzanine, the existing concrete floor—cracks and all—has simply been cut back to carve out the bridge from what had been a full second level. On ground level, the floors are left as the rough brick that seamlessly extends inside from the sidewalk. All this reuse of existing materials and structures adds up to considerable savings—a must for a business that started with a single truck just over two years ago. But the design is also part of Clover’s ethos of pragmatic (rather than preachy) sustainability, do-it-yourself innovation and a desire to break down barriers between food production and consumption. 

Placed at the front of the restaurant, the kitchen’s openness to the dining room and street is the most obvious architectural means through which these barriers are broken down. This is supported through the restaurant’s operation: A staff member takes orders just inside the door, with an iPod touch. This process is confusing for the first-timer and could have been better accommodated by spatial cues, but it’s intended to allow (or mimic, for the cynical) social “interaction” rather than just a “transaction” with a cashier behind a counter. The enormous communal dining table, dominating the dining room with its rustic surface of red oak, fosters mingling among customers. 

The key to Clover’s approach is that customers are seen not only as guinea pigs for its constantly changing menu but also as collaborators. When the restaurant first opened, a hand-painted message on the wall read: “We will screw something up. We’ll screw many things up. Tell us when that happens. If you have an idea that will improve us, please speak up. We’ll thank you.” This attitude fits with SsD’s design philosophy: Principal Park commented in response to an email inquiry that “we think it’s obsolete to think of the ‘client’ as someone that purchases a service and of an architect that supplies. …There is a much closer collaboration, there is no ‘us’ and ‘them.’” 

Involving restaurateurs and staff, architects and builders, and customers, this experiment is about more than seasonal menus of local food and the design of spaces to accommodate them. As Park observed, “Minimalism in art worked to provoke and resituate relationships, while in architecture, minimalism has become more or less another style.” With Clover, SsD used its signature minimalism for more than aesthetics: Park described the aim was nothing less than “re-orient[ing] peoples’ relationship to food culture.” By keeping the design clean and without obvious branding, by making the space transparent to the street, and by leveraging a palette of existing and found materials, the space puts the focus where Clover wants it: on a straight-forward and social process of food production and consumption. With its strategic interventions, Clover Harvard Square is not a design object for fetishizing. It is, more significantly, one modest experiment in changing our material culture of food. It is a new fast-food restaurant.

Lian Chikako Chang has a PhD in history and theory of architecture from McGill University and is currently a MArch I student at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She loves tennis, gardening and food.

Photograph by Abigail Neal.

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