Landscape Futures Super-Trip

I’m heading off soon on a road trip with Nicola Twilley, from Edible Geography, to visit some incredible sites (and sights) around the desert southwest, visiting places where architecture, astronomy, and the planetary sciences, to varying degrees, overlap.

[Image: The Very Large Array].

This will be an amazing trip! Our stops include the “world’s largest collection of optical telescopes,” including the great hypotenuse of the McMath-Pierce Solar Telescope, outside Tucson; the Very Large Array in west-central New Mexico; the Controlled Environment Agriculture Center at the University of Arizona, aka the “lunar greenhouse,” where “researchers are demonstrating that plants from Earth could be grown without soil on the moon or Mars, setting the table for astronauts who would find potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables awaiting their arrival”; the surreal encrustations of the Salton Sea, a site that, in the words of Kim Stringfellow, “provides an excellent example of the the growing overlap of humanmade and natural environments, and as such highlights the complex issues facing the management of ecosystems today”; the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory, with its automated scanning systems used for “robotic searches for variable stars and exoplanets” in the night sky, and its gamma-ray reflectors and “blazar lightcurves” flashing nearby; the Grand Canyon; Red Rocks, outside Sedona; the hermetic interiorities of Biosphere 2; White Sands National Monument and the Trinity Site marker, with its so-called bomb glass; the giant aircraft “boneyard” at the Pima Air & Space Museum; and, last but not least, the unbelievably fascinating Lunar Laser-ranging Experiment at Apache Point, New Mexico, where they shoot lasers at prismatic retroreflectors on the moon, testing theories of gravitation, arriving there by way of the nearby Dunn Solar Telescope.

[Image: The “Electric Aurora,” from Specimens of Unnatural History, by Liam Young].

The ulterior motive behind the trip—a kind of text-based, desert variation on Christian Houge’s study of instrumentation complexes in the Arctic—is to finish up my curator’s essay for the forthcoming Landscape Futures book.

That book documents a forthcoming exhibition at the Nevada Museum of Art called Landscape Futures: Instruments, Devices and Architectural Inventions, featuring work by David Benjamin & Soo-in Yang (The Living), Mark Smout & Laura Allen (Smout Allen), David Gissen, Mason White & Lola Sheppard (Lateral Office), Chris Woebken, and Liam Young.

Finally, Nicola and I will fall out of the car in a state of semi-delirium in La Jolla, California, where I’ll be presenting at a 2-day symposium on Designing Geopolitics, “an interdisciplinary symposium on computational jurisdictions, emergent governance, public ecologies,” organized by Benjamin Bratton, Daniel Rehn, and Tara Zepel.

That will be free and open to the public, for anyone in the San Diego area who might want to stop by, and it will also be streamed online in its entirety; the full schedule is available at the Designing Geopolitics site.

(Earlier on BLDGBLOG: Landscape Futures Super-Workshop, Landscape Futures Super-Dialogue, and Landscape Futures Super-Media).

Future Food Through Future Funding

[Image: An augmented-eating apparatus from “Foragers” by Dunne & Raby].

For a project called “Foragers,” design duo Dunne & Raby—who spoke last month at Thrilling Wonder Stories 2—sought a design-based solution to the urgent problem of future food supplies. “The world is running out of food–we need to produce 70% more food in the next 40 years according to the UN. Yet we continue to over-populate the planet, use up resources and ignore all the warning signs,” the designers warn. “It is completely unsustainable.”

Their eventual proposal was not a new type of grain, however, or a more effective cookstove. After all, they point out, “we have not really embraced the power to modify ourselves. What if we could extract nutritional value from non-human foods using a combination of synthetic biology and new digestive devices inspired by digestive systems of other mammals, birds, fish and insects?”

Dunne & Raby thus suggested the wholesale genetic alteration of the human digestive tract, in tandem with the design and adoption of new technical instruments for obtaining food from the larger environment. The human body could thereafter metabolize a highly diverse range of nutrients, from tree branches to algae-filled pond water.

But is this the direction that future food-system design and research should be going?

Nicola Twilley, author of Edible Geography and Food Editor for GOOD, is hosting an interesting question this week as part of the ongoing Glass House Conversations about this very topic. “The design of food has the potential to reshape the world,” Nicola writes, “let alone what we eat for dinner.”

Food—the substance itself, as well as its methods of production and consumption—has always been the subject of tinkering and design. The color of carrots, the shape of silverware, and the layout of supermarkets are all products of human ingenuity applied to the business of nourishment. Today, food is being redesigned more fundamentally and at a faster pace than ever before. This process is taking place in a wide variety of different contexts, with very different goals in mind, from corporate food technologists re-shaping salt crystals to maintain palatability while combating heart disease, to synaesthetic experiences designed by artist-entrepreneurs such as Marije Vogelzang.

Which leads to the week’s question: “In an era when food justice, food security, climate change, and obesity are such pressing issues, should there be public funding for food design R&D, and, if so, who should be receiving it?”

Should the designed future of food, and food systems more generally, be left to private corporations, to public institutions, to university labs, to individual entrepreneurs, to speculative design firms, or to some unexpected combination of all of the above? Further, what specific lines of design exploration should be explored when it comes to the global food supply, whether it’s genetic modification or new forms of preservation? Finally, how should these advances in food be best funded and pursued?

The forum will remain open until 8pm EST on Friday, December 17; be sure to join in, as it should be a good conversation.

On the art of drinking ice cores

[Image: From the 2006-2007 U.S. ITASE expedition to Antarctica].

Edible Geography has a fun interview up this morning with glacial scientist Paul Mayewski, director of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine. The interview is remarkable not only for its descriptions of the technicality of drilling, shipping, preserving, and studying ancient ice cores removed from landscapes as far afield as Greenland and Tibet, but also for Mayewski’s confession that unneeded ice cores are sometimes melted down and drunk by the scientists.

[Image: From the 2006-2007 U.S. ITASE expedition to Antarctica].

“But, you know,” he clarifies, “it’s not as if we have a lot of ice lying around and we drink the water on a regular basis. We are pretty careful to restrict it to pieces that we know we don’t need for any measurements, and that come from places where they could be repeated if need be. We have to be sure that they’re not valuable to anybody. And we only use them for special events—we don’t drink it very often.”

[Images: From the 2006-2007 U.S. ITASE expedition to Antarctica].

These special events include wedding receptions, where shavings of ancient ice, dropped into water, bubble and pop like champagne, Mayewski explains:

Probably the most exciting thing about it is when you have real ice—that’s where the snow has been gradually compacted and eventually formed into ice, and the density has increased. When that happens, if the ice is old, it will often trap air bubbles in it. Those air bubbles can contain carbon dioxide from ten thousand years ago or even a hundred thousand years ago. And when you put an ice cube of that ice in a glass of water, it pops. It has natural effervescence as those gas bubbles escape. You get a little a puff of air into your nostrils if you have your nose over the glass. It’s not as though it necessarily smells like anything—but when you think about the fact that the last time that anything smelled that air was a hundred thousand years ago, that’s pretty interesting.

Atmospheres trapped for a half-a-million years suddenly freed, as wedding guests inhale these vaporous paleoarchives.

[Image: From the 2006-2007 U.S. ITASE expedition to Antarctica].

The whole interview, though long, is a quick and good-spirited read.

The Mushroom Tunnel of Mittagong

[Image: Shiitake logs on racks in the Mittagong mushroom tunnel. All photos by the author].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

As Geoff mentioned here on BLDGBLOG a few weeks ago, we spent our last full day in Australia touring the Li-Sun Exotic Mushroom Farm with its founder and owner, Dr. Noel Arrold. Three weeks earlier, at a Sydney farmers’ market, we had been buying handfuls of his delicious Shimeji and Chestnut mushrooms to make a risotto, when the vendor told us that they’d all been grown in a disused railway tunnel southwest of the city, in Mittagong.

[Image: The mushroom tunnel, on the left, was originally built in 1886 to house a single-track railway line. By 1919, it had to be replaced with the still-functioning double-track tunnel to its right, built to cope with the rise in traffic on the route following the founding of Canberra, Australia’s purpose-built capital city. The tunnel is still state property: the mushroom farm exists on a five-year lease].

The idea of re-purposing abandoned civic infrastructure as a site for myco-agriculture was intriguing, to say the least, so we were thrilled when Dr. Arrold kindly agreed to take the time to give us a tour (Li-Sun is not usually open to the public).

Dr. Arrold has been growing mushrooms in the Mittagong tunnel for more than twenty years, starting with ordinary soil-based white button mushrooms and Cremini, before switching to focus on higher maintenance (and more profitable) exotics such as Shimeji, Wood-ear, Shiitake, and Oyster mushrooms.

[Images: (top) Dr. Arrold with a bag of mushroom spawn. He keeps his mushroom cultures in test-tubes filled with boiled potato and agar, and initially incubates the spawn on rye or wheat grains in clear plastic bags sealed with sponge anti-mould filters before transferring it to jars, black bin bags, or plastic-wrapped logs; (middle) Shimeji and (bottom) pink oyster mushrooms cropping on racks inside the tunnel. Dr. Arrold came up with the simple but clever idea of growing mushrooms in black bin bags with holes cut in them. Previously, mushrooms were typically grown inside clear plastic bags. The equal exposure to light meant that the mushrooms fruited all over, which made it harder to harvest without missing some].

A microbiologist by training, Dr. Arrold originally imported his exotic mushroom cultures into Australia from their traditional homes in China, Japan, and Korea. Like a latter-day Tradescant, he regularly travels abroad to keep up with mushroom growing techniques, share his own innovations (such as the black plastic grow-bags shown above), and collect new strains.

He showed us a recent acquisition, which he hunted down after coming across it in his dinner in a café in Fuzhou, and which he is currently trialling as a potential candidate for cultivation in the tunnel. Even though all his mushroom strains were originally imported from overseas (disappointingly, given its ecological uniqueness, Australia has no exciting mushroom types of its own), Dr. Arrold has refined each variety over generations to suit the conditions in this particular tunnel.

Since there is currently only one other disused railway tunnel used for mushroom growing in the whole of Australia, his mushrooms have evolved to fit an extremely specialised environmental niche: they are species designed for architecture.

[Images: (top) Logs on racks (Taiwanese style) and mounted on the wall (Chinese style) in the tunnel; (bottom) Wood-ear mushrooms grow through diagonal slashes in plastic bags filled with chopped wheat straw].

The tunnel for which these mushrooms have been so carefully developed is 650 metres long and about 30 metres deep. Buried under solid rock and deprived of the New South Wales sunshine, the temperature holds at a steady 15º Celsius. The fluorescent lights flick on at 5:30 a.m. every day, switching off again exactly 12 hours later. The humidity level fluctuates seasonally, and would reach an unacceptable aridity in the winter if Dr. Arrold didn’t wet the floors and run a fogger during the coldest months.

In all other respects, the tunnel is an unnaturally accurate concrete and brick approximation of the prevailing conditions in the mushroom-friendly deep valleys and foggy forests of Fujian province. This inadvertent industrial replicant ecosystem made me think of Swiss architecture firm Fabric‘s 2008 proposal for a “Tower of Atmospheric Relations” (pdf).

[Image: Renderings of Fabric’s “Tower of Atmospheric Relations,” showing the stacked volumes of air and the resulting climate simulations].

Fabric’s ingenious project is designed to generate a varying set of artificial climates (such as the muggy heat of the Indian monsoon, or the crisp air of a New England autumn day) entirely through the movements of the air that is trapped inside the tower’s architecture (i.e. by means of convection, condensation, thermal inertia, and so on).

If you could perhaps combine this kind of atmosphere-modifying architecture with today’s omnipresent vertical farm proposals, northern city dwellers could simultaneously avoid food miles and continue to enjoy bananas.

[Images: (top) Li-Sun employees unwrap mushroom logs before putting them on racks in the tunnel. The logs are made by mixing steamed bran or wheat, sawdust from thirty-year-old eucalyptus, and lime in a concrete mixer, packing it into plastic cylinders, and inoculating them with spawn. (middle) Fruiting Shiitake logs on racks in the tunnel. Once their mushrooms are harvested, the logs make great firewood. (bottom) The Shiitake log shock tank – Dr. Arrold explained that the logs crop after one week in the tunnel, and then sit dormant for three weeks, until they are “woken up” with a quick soak in a tub of water, after which they are productive for three or four more weeks. “Shiitake,” said Dr. Arrold, in a resigned tone, “are the most trouble – and the biggest market.”]

Outside of the tunnel, Dr. Arrold also grows Enoki, King Brown, and Chestnut mushrooms. These varieties prefer different temperatures (6º, 17º, and 18º Celsius respectively), so they are housed in climate-controlled Portakabins.

[Images: (top) The paper cone around the top of the enoki jar helps the mushrooms grow tall and thin. (second) Chestnut mushrooms grow in jars for seven weeks: four to fruit, and three more to sprout to harvest size above the jar’s rim. (third) Thousands of mushroom jars are stacked from floor to ceiling. Dr. Arrold starting growing these mushroom varieties in jars two years ago, and hasn’t had a holiday since. (fourth) Empty mushroom jars are sterilised in the autoclave between crops, so that disease doesn’t build up. (bottom) The clean jars are filled with sterilised substrate using a Japanese-designed machine, before being inoculated with spawn].

The fact that the King Brown and Chestnut mushrooms only thrive at a higher temperature than the railway tunnel provides makes their cultivation much more expensive. Their ecosystem has to be replicated mechanically, rather than occuring spontaneously within disused infrastructure.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether there might be another tunnel, cave, or even abandoned bunker in New South Wales that currently maintains a steady 17º Celsius and is just waiting to be colonised by King Brown mushrooms growing, like ghostly thumbs, out of thousands of glass jars.

[Image: Temperature map of the London Underground system (via the BBC, where a larger version is also available), compiled by Transport for London’s “Cool the Tube” team].

In the UK, for instance, Transport for London has kindly provided this fascinating map of summertime temperatures on various tube lines. Most are far too hot for mushroom growing (not to mention commuter comfort). Nonetheless, perhaps the estimated £1.56 billion cost of installing air-conditioning on the surface lines could be partially recouped by putting some of the system’s many abandoned service tunnels and shafts to use cultivating exotic fungi. These mushroom farms would be buried deep under the surface of the city, colonizing abandoned infrastructural hollows and attracting foodies and tourists alike.

[Image: A very amateur bit of Photoshop work: Li-Sun Mushrooms as packaged for Australian supermarket chain Woolworths, re-imagined as Bakerloo Line Oyster Mushrooms].

Service shafts along the hot Central line might be perfect for growing Chestnut Mushrooms, while the marginally cooler Bakerloo line has several abandoned tunnels that could replicate the subtropical forest habitat of the Oyster Mushroom. And – unlike Dr. Arrold’s Li-Sun mushrooms, which make no mention of their railway tunnel origins on the packaging – I would hope that Transport for London would cater to the locavore trend by labeling its varietals by their line of origin.

[Images: Shiitake logs on racks in the Mittagong mushroom tunnel].

Speculation aside, our visit to the Mittagong Mushroom Tunnel was fascinating, and Dr. Arrold’s patience in answering our endless questions was much appreciated. If you’re in Australia, it’s well worth seeking out Li-Sun mushrooms: you can find them at several Sydney markets, as well as branches of Woolworths.

[Image: Nicola Twilley is the author of Edible Geography, where this post has been simultaneously published].