This Is What Happens When Architects Build a Gingerbread City

As part of the team of visionaries behind the dramatic glass Steve Jobs Theater at Apple’s California headquarters, engineering and architecture firm Eckersley O’Callaghan already had its inspiration when it signed on to participate in London’s annual Gingerbread City event this year. The team would build a tiny version of the tech pavilion it designed with fellow firm Foster + Partners out of gingerbread, hard candy and icing.

Photos by Luke O’Donovan

“Our biggest challenge was making the ‘glass’ — boiled sweets — structural wall strong enough to hold the roof and keep shape throughout the duration of the exhibition,” Eckersley O’Callaghan business development coordinator Ailish Hendry says. “We also found it hard to make intricate icing decorations at such a small scale.”
Hendry and her colleagues are among the more than 100 architects and designers participating in this year’s Gingerbread City. The event is put on by London’s Museum of Architecture to spark conversations about architecture and urban planning — and this year to establish a grant-giving fund for projects that serve the public.

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For the 2019 mini city, participating pros created five bridges, a ferry terminal, high-rises, houses, a university, a stadium, a moving train and a selection of London landmarks, all built entirely of gingerbread and candy. Working around a theme of transport and how people will move through cities of the future, the architects and designers also incorporated details such as sustainable mixed-use buildings and converted power stations.
Read on to see more of this year’s incredible edible structures, which will be on display at the museum through Jan. 5, 2020. And learn how Eckersley O’Callaghan and other participating building professionals got into the seasonal spirit by putting their talents to sweet use.
Attention to Delicious Detail

This is the fourth year the Museum of Architecture has hosted Gingerbread City. With the 2019 focus on innovative transportation and sustainability, participants included features that emphasize forward-thinking design.
The city’s Gingerbread Waterfront, for instance, includes natural features aimed at promoting water-based transit. In the Connected Quarter, a variety of housing types aims to reflect a diverse population of residents.

The Research and University District is made up of research institutions, a university and a museum dedicated to the history of travel. The Sustainable Quarter lives up to its name as well: Industrial buildings along the harbor have been repurposed as housing.
London architecture and planning firm Tibbalds Planning and Urban Design was tasked with creating the city’s master plan this year. “It prompts questions about the many things that designers and placemakers have to deal with in creating interesting places that work for those that use them,” Tibbalds director Hilary Satchwell said in a release. “Fast, fun, edible urbanism is a great way into some important discussions about the value of place.”

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The Process

Architect Farran Keenan of London firm AWW says her team took a methodical approach to its gingerbread submission. Its brief was to design a residential refurbishment with a London-style theme.

Looking to its own London Bridge-based offices for inspiration, the team named its gingerbread plot Candy Cane Wharf and filled it with a mono-pitch structure glazed in peppermint and industrial details like dockside cranes, as well as sustainable features. An urban rooftop farm or garden was added early on in the development stage.
“Everyone had their role — the template cutter, gingerbread impressionist and master baker,” Keenan says. “We created a physical model to assess the design and detail in scale.”

Using different tools to create the look of brickwork on the gingerbread took longer than Keenan and her team anticipated. They batch-tested gingerbread and compared different mixes before choosing their construction methods.
Hendry says her team’s process was similarly disciplined. Using their CAD (computer-aided design) expertise made things a lot easier for members as they designed and printed component guides so each piece of gingerbread could be baked to exact specifications.
“Much like a real project, we started with a kickoff meeting to delegate roles throughout the group,” Hendry says. “The better bakers taking on the bigger baking challenges, with others supporting with sketching, figure making and project managing.”
Sugar as Cement

Aside from the complicated logistics the event’s theme and guidelines presented, Keenan and Hendry say working with sticky, crumbly baked goods and sweets instead of the steel beams and glass they’re used to presented its own challenges.
“Gingerbread as a modeling medium is unpredictable,” Keenan says. “The mix ratio must be consistent for each batch, with the same conditions — so the same oven and temperature. It was a science experiment for the first few batches.”
Tips for Aspiring Baker Builders

The Museum of Architecture will offer gingerbread-house-making workshops for the public throughout the exhibition’s run. For those who aren’t able to attend, Keenan and Hendry offer their own insights.

Planning ahead is key, Hendry says. The design and logistics can be trickier than you think, but gingerbread construction can also be a great way to practice creative problem solving.
Keenan echoed those sentiments but also encouraged aspiring baker builders to relax and have fun celebrating the season.

“First and foremost, enjoy it!” she says. “Experiment with design and structure, and don’t forget to sample the materials.”
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