img(height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="")

Proof of the pudding

Will Wiles

Will Wiles traces his interest in architecture back to family meals as a child

Our food: a materials lab.
Our food: a materials lab. Credit: Istock MSPhotographic

Does anyone remember Ice Magic? Archaeological researcher Rebecca Lambert does, and put that question to Twitter, and now I remember it as well. It was a highly processed chocolate dessert topping made by Bird’s and popular in the 1980s, where it sometimes – as a very special treat – graced the Wiles family dinner table. You poured it over your ice cream, and it hardened into solid chocolate.

What witchery kept it liquid at room temperature? I don’t know, and perhaps I am better off not knowing, but it was magic indeed. ‘An innovation on a par with the bounce on an iPhone screen,’ the architect Sean Griffiths contributed to Lambert.  She goes under the Twitter handle @LadyLiminal1, and had here identified the truly liminal dessert: a ritual of transformation, a play of different states, from which the participant emerged changed.

The magic began with the packaging, a conical plastic bottle with a top that had a wavy lower edge, like a child’s drawing of a snow-capped peak. In packaging terms this was akin to a Venturi/Scott Brown ‘duck’, neatly uniting a functional container, an evocation of its contents and an instruction: pour this on top of something. The alpine feel was a bonus, with its associations of coldness. And if it appeared on the table, you had reached the summit of dinner, and there were no more worlds to conquer. Like Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, you had ascended to modernity and all nature lay at your feet.

The hardened chocolate layer formed by Ice Magic had an extremely pleasing material quality. The crunch as it broke and the spoon sank into the ice cream beneath was as rare and pleasurable as the first footsteps on deep overnight snow. It also had a delightful, although highly artificial, slipperiness in the mouth as it completed its lifecycle and returned from solid to liquid. Combined with its ritual qualities and precious status as most special treat, this was probably what made it memorable.

Sometimes a nice balance of canopy and support emerged, perhaps resembling one of Félix Candela’s thin-shell structures

Besides material pleasure, Ice Magic also provided some material education. It was capable of bringing interesting forms into existence. Economy was key – I can still feel my mother at my elbow, moderating the amount I used. The saddest result was when the bulk of your topping slid into a crevice between ice cream scoops, forming a tasty but shapeless lump. Best of all was when it poured evenly over the top of an iced hillock, and ran down the sides. This was most attractive, and gave the best topping-to-ice-cream ratio if you wanted a bit of both in each mouthful.

But it also had architectural potential. If you were lucky in your pour and careful with your spoon, you could eat the ice cream out from underneath the solidified Ice Magic, leaving behind a neat and delicate chocolate dome. In doing so, you recreated some of the most advanced and interesting buildings of the 20th century. Sometimes you got something that was all legs and no top, and resembled William Pereira’s spidery Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport. Other times a nice balance of canopy and support emerged, perhaps resembling one of Félix Candela’s thin-shell structures, such as his restaurant in Valencia; or, if the ice cream was scooped less tidily, Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK. If the Ice Magic didn’t make it down the sides of the ice cream to form a structural connection to the bowl, you could be left with a complex Zaha Hadid-ish bit of parametric drapery.

As a father, I’m forever telling my children to stop playing with their food, but remembering Ice Magic makes me regret that. Every dinnertime, they get handed a little materials lab with a mixture of differently composed solids and liquids, and endless possibilities. They quickly set to work damming gravy rivers with mashed potatoes and assembling Plattenbau structures from their mini waffles. In thinking only of the peas scattering across the floor, am I stifling the next Pier Luigi Nervi? 

Will Wiles is an author


Is it a bit of a stretch to apply architectural criticism to Ice Magic? Perhaps. But I would like to cite a precedent: William J Mitchell, my late, great predecessor in this spot, once extracted a glorious bit of criticism from different kinds of crisps, and claimed that his ‘Bag of Chips Theory’ told you everything you need to know about architectural form. I trail in that magnificent shadow.