Fungal Lightning

[Image: The mushroom tunnel of Mittagong, photo by Nicola Twilley, via BLDGBLOG.]

“Japanese researchers are closing in on understanding why electrical storms have a positive influence on the growth of some fungi,” Physics World reported last month, with some interesting implications for agriculture.

These electrical storms do not have to be nearby, and they do not even need to be natural: “In a series of experiments, Koichi Takaki at Iwate University and colleagues showed that artificial lightning strikes do not have to directly strike shiitake mushroom cultivation beds to promote growth.” Instead, it seems one can coax mushrooms into fruiting using even just the indirect presence of electrical fields.

As the article explains, “atmospheric electricity has long been known to boost the growth of living things, including plants, insects and rats,” but mushrooms appear to respond even to regional electrical phenomena—for example, when a distant lightning storm rolls by. “In Takaki’s previous studies, yield increases were achieved by running a direct current through a shiitake mushroom log. But Takaki still wondered—why do natural electric storms indirectly influenced [sic] the growth of mushrooms located miles away from the lightning strikes?”

Whether or not power lines or electricity-generation facilities, such as power plants, might also affect—or even catalyze—mushroom growth is not clear.

For now, Takaki is hoping to develop some kind of electrical-stimulation technique for mushroom growth, with an eye on the global food market.

[Image: Nikola Tesla, perhaps daydreaming of mushrooms; courtesy Wellcome Library.]

It is quite astonishing to imagine that, someday, those mushrooms you’re eating in a gourmet pasta dish were grown inside some sort of wild, Nikola Tesla-like electrical cage, half X-Men, half food-technology of the near-future—underground shining domes of fungal power.

[Image: The mushroom tunnel of Mittagong, photo by Nicola Twilley, via BLDGBLOG.]

The opening image of this post, meanwhile, is from a surreal field trip I took back in 2009 with Nicola Twilley to visit the “mushroom tunnel of Mittagong,” a disused rail tunnel in southeast Australia that is—or, as of 2009, was—used as a subterranean mushroom-growth facility. Imagine this tunnel quietly pulsing with electricity in the darkness, humid, strobing, its wet logs fruiting with directed fungi.

Electrical mushroom-control techniques, or where the future of food production merges imperceptibly with the world of H.P. Lovecraft.

[Image: The mushroom tunnel of Mittagong, photo by Nicola Twilley, via BLDGBLOG.]

Read a bit more over at Physics World.

Brooklyn Super Food

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

I was clicking around on the RIBA President’s Medals website over the weekend and found a few projects that seemed worth posting here.

The one seen here is a beautifully illustrated proposal for an “alternative supermarket” in Brooklyn, New York, that would be located in the city’s old Navy Yard.

Note that, in all cases, larger images are available at the project website.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

Its designer—Yannis Halkiopoulos, a student from the University of Westminster—pitches it as a food-themed exploration of adaptive reuse, a mix of stabilized ruins, gut renovations, and wholly new structures.

He was inspired, he suggests, by the architecture of barns, market structures, and the possibility of an entire urban district becoming a “reinvented artefact” within the larger economy of the city.

The results would be a kind of post-industrial urban food campus on the waterfront in Brooklyn.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

From Halkiopoulos’s description of the project:

The project is a response to current plans which are to demolish the row of abandoned houses to build a suburban supermarket. Once home to high ranking naval officers the eleven structures have been left to decay since 1960. The response is an alternative food market which aims to incorporate the row of houses and re-kindle the consumer with the origin of the food produced and promote regional traditions, gastronomic pleasure and the slow pace of life which finds its roots in the Slow Food Movement NY.

It includes a slaughterhouse, a “slow fish market,” preservation facilities, a “raised tunnel network” linking the many buildings, and more.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

The buildings as a whole are broken down tectonically and typologically, then further analyzed in their own posters.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

There is, for example, the “slaughterhouse & eating quarters” building, complete with in-house “whole animal butcher shop,” seen here—

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

—as well as the “slow fish market” mentioned earlier.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

Most of these use exposed timber framing to imply a kind of unfinished or incompletely renovated condition, but these skeletal grids also work to extend the building interiors out along walking paths and brise-soleils, partially outdoor spaces where food and drink could be consumed.

These next few images are absurdly tiny here but can be seen at a larger size over at the President’s Medals; they depict the stabilized facades of the homes on Admirals Row, including how they might change over time.

[Images: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

Part of this would include the installation of a “raised tunnel network,” effectively just a series of covered walkways and pedestrian viaducts between buildings, offering a visual tour through unrenovated sections of the site but also knitting the overall market together as a whole.

[Images: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

In any case, I really just think the images are awesome and wanted to post them; sure, the project uses a throwback, sepia-toned, posterization of what is basically just a shopping center to communicates its central point, but the visual style is actually an excellent fit for the proposal and it also seems perfectly pitched to catch the eye of historically minded developers.

You could imagine Anthony Bourdain, for example, enjoying the sight of this for his own forthcoming NY food market.

[Image: From “Brooklyn Co-operative” by Yannis Halkiopoulos, University of Westminster; courtesy RIBA President’s Medals].

In a sense, it’s actually too bad this didn’t cross their desks; personally, I wouldn’t mind hopping on the subway for a quick trip to the Navy Yard, to wander around the revitalized ruins, now filled with food stalls and fish mongers, walking through gardens or stumbling brewery to brewery on a Saturday night, hanging out with friends amidst a labyrinth of stabilized industrial buildings, eating fish tacos in the shadow of covered bridges and tunnels passing overhead.

More (and larger) images are available over at the President’s Medals.

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.

The Quarantine Banquet

New Yorkers with a taste for great—and jaw-droppingly creative—food should take note that, next weekend, two quarantine-themed banquets will be held inside Storefront for Art and Architecture, adding a culinary dimension to the ongoing exhibition Landscapes of Quarantine.

[Image: From a previous a razor, a shiny knife meal; photo by Jennifer May for the New York Times. See more photos here].

As Nicola Twilley describes these nights over on Edible Geography, “on Saturday, April 10, and Sunday, April 11, the Brooklyn-based a razor, a shiny knife team will explore the culinary implications of quarantine, preparing and serving a quarantine-themed dinner inside the exhibition itself. Tickets are not cheap but then this will not be just dinner,” she adds; it will “explore the outside limits of the science of cooking, as well as the theatrical, social, and experiential possibilities of a meal.”

Michael Cirino himself explains that “these events are not only for professional chefs or foodies; they are for anyone who loves food, regardless of culinary knowledge or experience. We produce these evenings to effect a communal environment of social interaction, education and fun.” As such, the quarantine dinners will also include live demonstrations of Cirino’s techniques—including a lesson in “interesting applications for an iSi whipper.”

[Image: From a previous a razor, a shiny knife meal; see more photos here].

I would highly recommend reading the detailed rundowns of the quarantine menu both at Edible Geography and at the event listing itself (where you can also buy tickets). Edible Geography points out, for instance, that “if the dinner guests are passengers on a journey through quarantine, then the first course plays with the idea of exposure to disease, and the second course mimics the first step taken on arrival at the lazaretto—disinfection.”

In our initial conversations, I had told Michael that during outbreaks of the Black Death in fifteenth-century Europe, port officials would “disinfect” suspect cargo and mail by dousing it in vinegar and/or subjecting it to cedar or sandalwood smoke: from that seed of an idea, combined with culinary technology, a new edible experience emerged.

There will be “vacuum-sealed plastic bags,” riffing off the idea of separation and containment, and an “encapsulated” dessert course, all prepared by Cirino using the best ingredients on offer (such as dry-aged steak from the finest purveyors in New York City, white truffles, steelhead trout roe, and specially paired wines from Cabrini).

[Images: Photos from previous a razor, a shiny knife meals; see many more photographs here].

The very idea of a quarantine menu is, I have to say, extraordinarily inspired, as it recontextualizes the spatial tactics of quarantine as unexpected new techniques for cooking, and it takes materials and foods that have themselves, at various points in history, been subject to quarantine and treats them as ingredients for a gourmet meal. Further, an elaborate dinner served and plated after-hours inside Storefront for Art and Architecture will be quite a thrill (for photos of what such a meal might look like, check out the dinner for the Storefront re-opening gala a few years back).

[Image: From a previous a razor, a shiny knife meal; see more photos here].

In any case, all proceeds go to a razor, a shiny knife, and the events sound brilliant; definitely consider supporting Cirino’s culinary experiments, as you’ll get a night of cooking demonstrations and a delicious, once-in-a-lifetime meal in the process.

Where does your taco come from?

Like a culinary version of Sourcemap, Rebar has teamed up with landscape architect David Fletcher and some students from the increasingly interesting California College of the Arts in San Francisco to explore the ingredients of your local taco—from pinto beans to the aluminum foil it all comes wrapped in.

Our premise was that a seemingly simple, familiar food like the taco truck taco could provide visceral insight into the connections between the systems we were exploring [in our studio’s investigation of the city]. By thoroughly learning the process of formation and lifecycle for what it takes to make a taco, we would be better able to propose and design a speculative model of a holistic and sustainable urban future. What resulted was a richly complex network of systems, flows and ecologies that we call the global Tacoshed.

This is a participatory undertaking; meet at the Studio for Urban Projects in San Francisco at 7pm on Thursday, February 25, to find out how you, too, can map a taco. Here’s a map.

The Studio for Urban Projects, meanwhile, has a pretty fascinating list of previous endeavors, including Foodshed, Strange Weather, and the awesome Unnatural History of Golden Gate Park. Large parts of what are now west San Francisco were once covered by nomadic sand dunes, a kind of peninsular erg; that granular presence is now only temporarily locked in place beneath the foundations of houses. Every grain you see blowing down a San Franciscan street is this lost geography attempting to reassert itself.

[Image: “There are two basic types of taco trucks,” we read; “the first and most common is the transient truck which is a truck that stops at approximately 20 different locations at 20-minute intervals during an 8-hour shift, typically beginning at 6am and ending at 2pm. The second type is the semi-permanent truck, which is a truck that has found a location that has a density of clientele to sustain it for an extended period of the day, creating a nearly fixed presence in a particular community.” From Polar Inertia].

And I can’t let this post end without calling attention to the excellent—in fact, extraordinary—Polar Inertia, specifically its photo-essay published more than four years ago tracing the taco-truck geography of greater Los Angeles. These dispersed infrastructures might now be quite trendy, but the functional networks things like taco trucks actually form on the streets of our cities are still worth mapping in full.

The Self-Consuming Barbecue Pavilion

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley, originally published on Edible Geography.

In a fantastic hybrid of edible architecture and temporary summer pavilion, architect Caroline O’Donnell has proposed Bloodline, a free-standing, self-consuming grilling shelter.

[Image: Sectional model through the preparation bench, Bloodline pavilion by Caroline O’Donnell; Bloodline is supported by the Akademie Schloss Solitude].

Bloodline is the outcome of O’Donnell’s 2007 fellowship and residency at Akademie Schloss Solitude, a grant-making and residency institution housed in the late-Baroque “Solitude Castle” near Stuttgart in southern Germany.

Karl Eugen, Duke of Württemburg, built Schloss Solitude in 1763 as a private pleasure house—a cross between a party castle, summer retreat, and hunting lodge. Solitude was intended to be more intimate and less formal than his royal palace at Ludwigsburg, like the Trianons were to Versailles.

[Image: Akademie Schloss Solitude, via Wikimedia].

Among the prerequisites for an eighteenth-century aristocrat to achieve relaxation were a natural setting and, perhaps more importantly, minimal interaction with the servant classes. However, since domestic service was still required (aristocratic relaxation did not encompass preparing, serving, and cleaning up after meals, for example), palace architects had to resort to an extremely elaborate set of spatial tricks and distortions to make the servers as invisible as possible. The original design for the Petit Trianon even included a mechanism for raising and lowering the dining table through the floor so that it could be set and cleared out of sight.

According to O’Donnell, “The guides at Schloss Solitude could not understand why I wanted to see the service spaces, and tried to convince me that they were not interesting. I kept telling them in bad German that I was an architect and therefore interested in uninteresting spaces, but that seemed to cause more confusion.”

[Image: The secret service spaces at Ludwigsburg (left) and Schloss Solitude (right)].

What she found, eventually, were a series of awkward and cramped service cupboards and passages, filling in the spaces around the formal, symmetrical rooms. They are the negative space of pure classical order; the banished evidence of domestic effort and bodily needs.

Interestingly, O’Donnell noticed that at Karl Eugen’s main palace, Ludwigsburg Castle, the formal rooms are arranged around the edge, concealing a rabbit warren of service spaces in the interior.

Meanwhile at Solitude, the reverse is true: the cupboards, closets, and service passages are banished to the edge, with the result that seven of the fourteen windows on the perfectly symmetrical south façade actually open onto these deformed, hidden spaces.

[Images: (top) The south-facing façade of Schloss Solitude, in which seven of its windows actually open onto service spaces, rather than public rooms; via. (bottom) The negative spaces into which domestic functions were banished at Schloss Solitude (left); many were used as fire-spaces (right)].

Among the domestic functions concealed in this way was fire maintenance: tiny fire-spaces were used for storing firewood and also enabled servants to stoke open fires while remaining behind the scenes.

O’Donnell explained that when she finally gained access to a fire-space, she noticed “the effects of this small-scale and contorted space on the body,” but she was most fascinated “by this idea of the fire-space as a window, through which the stooping servant had a rare window into the lives of his masters”—and, in some ways, a more complete or privileged understanding of the space of the palace as a whole.

[Image: Bloodline, showing the stacked grillholz cuboid exterior concealing the irregular interior].

So, back to the barbecue pavilion: O’Donnell’s Bloodline proposal would use 360 bags of grillholz (German barbecue wood sticks) as the cladding—enough for a summer season, or ninety barbecues at four bags per cook-out. As July fades into August, and then into September, the pavilion will gradually be dismantled: the architecture’s fiery function will lead it to literally consume itself from the outside in. This is an incredibly poetic literalization of the shelter’s function: architecture parlante at its finest.

The pavilion also plays on O’Donnell’s initial fascination with Solitude’s squished fire-spaces. Bloodline begins the summer as a perfect, platonic cube, but gradually grills itself down to an awkwardly shaped frame that mirrors a section through the original fire-space. In other words, through use, the mini-barbecue palace will reveal its contorted, service-space origins—a slow, season-long process of revelation.

[Image: The pavilion will begin the summer as a platonic cube before being eroded through repeated barbecuing to reveal its hidden fire-space form].

Like Solitude’s original fire-spaces, which servants had to bend down and crawl to enter, the Bloodline barbecue pavilion is only designed to fit one person. And, as in the originals, that one person—the servant or barbecuer-in-chief, depending on how you look at these things—has a unique, more omniscient view.

Ludwigsburg and Solitude castles are linked by Solitudeallee, each palace is also aligned on its own axis of symmetry. When O’Donnell looked at these lines in satellite view, it became clear that there was a third axis, emerging from the forest, which was missing a castle.

Ingeniously, O’Donnell’s proposed site for Bloodline means that our barbecuing hero, standing in front of the grill-window on the southwest-facing side of the pavilion, is the only person in their party who can see that they are actually inside the missing third castle.

[Image: Plotting the axes and intersections of Ludwigsburg and Solitude: O’Donnell explained that “only the forest is missing a castle”].

In other words, while their friends and family relax in the grounds outside the pavilion, eating sausages they haven’t had to prepare, “only the servant (or grill-master) will know the truth,” explains O’Donnell, “although they can sneak others in, to share the secret.”

[Images: (top) Renderings of Bloodline show the grill-window and entrance; (bottom) Bloodline interior, looking out toward the grill-window’s privileged view].

In terms of grilling experience, the barbecue pavilion that becomes a secret, personal castle seems second to none. “After that, the sausages are not my responsibility,” O’Donnell told me. “There are however custom spaces built into the pavilion on the west side for a fire-extinguisher and a fire-blanket, as well as a big vent on the east side that aligns with the prevailing wind and uses the stack-effect to ventilate the space naturally.”

A couple of thoughts immediately come to mind here: firstly, that this is the perfect Father’s Day gift. After all, doesn’t every red-blooded male secretly crave his own barbecue castle: a private space of solitude, unspoken power, and burger perfection? Lowe’s or Homebase could even stock build-your-own kits, for an extra DIY frisson.

[Image: (left) Inside Bloodline (the server has clearly snuck in a few friends); (right) Stacked grillholz will form the façade and the barbecue fuel. The wood sticks’ color even matches the ochre putty exterior of Schloss Solitude].

I’m also reminded, via a link that was (coincidentally?) sent to me separately by Caroline O’Donnell, of Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham‘s theory that cooking is the root cause of human civilization. His basic idea is that the discovery of cooking allowed us to unlock many more calories in food, which gave us more energy for less effort, which in turn resulted in a massive increase in brain size in Homo sapiens (as compared to our primate ancestors).

[Images: Stages of consumption. At the end, all that will remain is the ash bench (bottom right), which O’Donnell plans to leave on site once the summer is over, “as a clue to the missing castle”].

That expanded brain of course led, eventually, to the flowering of the Baroque, in which rococo pleasure palaces were cleverly designed to hide any evidence of cooking facilities. O’Donnell’s pavilion gives cooking its due once again, as over the course of the summer Solitude’s missing third palace is revealed to be a a functional fire-space, rather than the abstracted perfection of a symmetrical cube. Barbecuing German day-trippers will thus be paying inadvertent homage to the role of fire in human civilization.

[Image: Some of O’Donnell’s incredibly complex cut files for fabrication].

Caroline O’Donnell is working with Akademie Schloss Solitude to secure funding for the pavilion: the hope is to install it during the summer of 2011. My thanks are due to her for an incredibly interesting conversation, and also to Nathan Friedman, who has been working on Bloodline with O’Donnell for the past few months.

(Note: This post, written by Nicola Twilley, was originally published on Edible Geography).

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].

London Yields, Harvested

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

As Geoff mentioned last month, London’s Building Center hosted a daylong seminar at the end of May called London Yields: Getting Urban Agriculture off the Ground.

[Image: From London Yields: Urban Agriculture].

The speakers covered a lot of terrain—so, instead of a full recap of the event, the following list simply explores some of the broader ideas, responses, and questions about urban agriculture that stood out from the day’s presentations.

1. Becoming public policy
The event was introduced and moderated by David Barrie, a sustainable development consultant, who framed the day as a collective opportunity to brainstorm ways in which urban agriculture could be moved from mere “sustainable accessory” to become a standard practice of both everyday life and city design. Interestingly, Mark Brearley, Head of Design at Design for London (DfL) and the day’s first speaker, provided confirmation of Barrie’s diagnosis, confessing that food production was a recent add-on to many of their open space projects. Why? “Because people were asking us about it,” he said.

Brearley’s presentation was an overview of DfL’s hundreds of urban regeneration and infrastructure improvement projects; these are, in themselves, interesting but, in aggregate, somewhat exhausting. However, as an office of the London Development Agency, working on behalf of the Mayor of London, Brearley was able to provide a fascinating insight into some of the current institutional priorities that need to be satisfied before urban agriculture can become a standard part of London public policy. For example, DfL’s main interest in food production today is in terms of its “public engagement potential” and their primary stumbling block is how to measure the scaleability of local initiatives. Any London-based urban agriculture projects hoping for a mayoral blessing, take note!

2. Food is a design tool
The second speaker was Carolyn Steel, author of the excellent book Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives. Hungry City traces how food has shaped both the city and its productive hinterland throughout history, from the Sumerian city of Ur to today’s London via the markets and gates of ancient Rome. Steel provides a wide-ranging historical look of food production, importation, regulation, and culture, before putting forward her own intriguing and potentially revolutionary proposition: what would happen if we consciously used food as a design tool to create a “sitopic” city? Steel’s coinage here, sitopia—from “sitos” (food) and “topos” (place)—is derived from her realization that “food shares with utopia the quality of being cross-disciplinary… capable of transforming not just landscapes, but political structures, public spaces, social relationships, [and] cities.” And because “food is necessary,” a sitopian city (unlike its utopian cousin) would remain tied to reality and of universal relevance.

The quotations above come from Steel’s book, however, rather than her lecture; twenty-five minutes was enough time to provide fascinating examples of food’s role in shaping cities and urban life, but, sadly, not enough to explain (let alone explore) further thoughts about food’s use as an urban planning tool. More to come soon, I hope, on this topic…

[Image: Ebenezer Howard’s original scheme for the Garden Cities of To-morrow shows a landscape reimagined in terms of food production and supply. As Carolyn Steel explains in her own book Hungry City, Howard’s plans relied on land reform that was never carried out, and the garden cities of today (Letchworth, Welwyn, etc.) are, as a result, little more than green dormitory suburbs].

3. Partnerships as infrastructure
Anna Terzi, who runs London Food Link’s small grants scheme for Sustain, was the day’s third speaker; she described one of their current projects, demonstrating how key insights from both Mark Brearley’s and Carolyn Steel’s talks might look in action.

Sustain (a nonprofit alliance for better food and farming) is currently poised to create borough-wide institutional change by partnering with Camden Council and Camden Primary Care Trust (part of the National Health Service). This alliance—with its intriguing implication that the National Health Service might be the one institution with the most to gain by promoting urban agriculture—speaks to the impact of creating new interest groups for locally grown food. By partnering with institutions responsible for dealing with established urban challenges—issues such as public health, economic growth, community engagement, waste, and environmental sustainability—groups like Sustain have the potential to take urban agriculture from decorative hobby to investment-worthy infrastructure.

The Camden partnership’s report (still in draft stage) aims to outline a relatively coherent and holistic food program for the borough—a plan that promises to use food to reshape at least this part of the city, in terms of promoting social enterprise, meeting infrastructure needs, and reducing health inequalities.

[Image: A lemon grown in Dulwich; photograph by Jonathan Gales (2008), ©Bohn & Viljoen Architects].

4. Mapping and visualization tools
The last two presentations of the day agreed that successfully producing food in the city requires a detailed resource inventory combined with effective promotion efforts. Mikey Tomkins, a PhD candidate at the University of Brighton, described systematically mapping the rooftops, grass patches, vertical faces, and vacant lots of Elephant & Castle—whereupon he discovered that 30% of the area’s food needs could be met through the cultivation of found space alone.

Architects Katrin Bohn and Andre Viljoen, creators of the uninspiringly named CPUL (Continuous Productive Urban Landscapes), emphasized the need to think about spare inventory in terms of population and three dimensionality (their Urban Agriculture Curtain filled a display window one floor above us). Their research techniques included the accumulation of census data and questionnaires combined with GPS mapping and site visits in order to analyze a landscape’s food production capacity.

Both Tomkins and Bohn & Viljoen also showed several projects intended to help people read the city in terms of food, using tools as diverse as “edible maps” of London and visual analyses of urban agriculture in Havana, to installations and public events, such as the Continuous Picnic. This was a day-long event, part of the 2008 London Festival of Architecture, that included an “Inverted Market” (bring your own locally grown fruit and vegetables to be admired, judged, and then prepared), as well lessons in “Community Composting”; a giant public picnic then spread throughout Russell Square and Montague Place, with connecting corridors between.

Meanwhile, for his Edible Maps series, an example of which appears below, Tomkins targets a new type of urban resident: the “food-flâneur,” who, map in hand, “could start to picture… the grassed areas around housing, the corners of parks, or the many flat rooftops of this quarter of Croydon spring into life with psychogeographic food.”

Another example of urban agriculture as an opportunity for community activation was Croydon Roof Divercity, Tomkins’s collaboration with AOC (previously discussed, along with other AOC projects, on BLDGBLOG here).

[Image: From Mikey Tomkins’s series of Edible Maps, this guide represents the area around Surrey Street car park, site of Croydon Roof Divercity, in terms of inventory and potential yield].

5. Easy, cheap, and somewhat under control
Both Anna Terzi and Bohn & Viljoen recognized the difficulty of maintaining urban agriculture projects, once the initial novelty has worn off. Bohn & Viljoen are currently working on a twelve-step program to prevent relapse, while Sustain are offering ongoing practical and financial support to new food growing spaces in London through their Capital Growth initiative.

Throughout the morning, David Barrie repeatedly registered his concern that urban agriculture needed to be economically viable, not just an upscale $64 Tomato lifestyle choice. Several of the presenters added a layer of nuance to Barrie’s formulation, noting that cheap food has simply had its costs externalized and hidden (Carolyn Steel) and that organizations like the New Economics Foundation are developing the much-needed tools to measure urban-agriculture-created value, such as increased community engagement and environmental sustainability, which is currently perceived as intangible and qualitative (Katrin Bohn). Mikey Tomkins argued against an economics-based one-size-fits-all approach to urban agriculture, explaining that the scale of a food growing project determines its possible benefits. Thus differentiated, food gardening generates educational and quality of life outcomes and should be measured accordingly, while market gardening creates recycling benefits, and urban agriculture can be evaluated in terms of yield.

Finally, the elephant in the room was the degree of coordination and regulation needed to transform London into a food-producing landscape. In an environment where, as Carolyn Steel said, the supermarkets where Londoners buy more than 80% of their groceries refused to participate in consultations with the Mayor’s London Food Strategy, it seems unlikely that sustainable food production and distribution will become the norm without legislative intervention.

In her book, Steel quotes Cassiodorus, a Roman statesman who wrote: “You who control the transportation of food supplies are in charge, so to speak, of the city’s lifeline, of its very throat.” At the moment, Steel tells us, roughly 30 agrifood conglomerates—unelected, and with no responsibility other than to their shareholders—have almost unfettered control over London’s food supply. Until that changes, urban agriculture can’t help but remain “at the artwork stage”—an inspiring, attractive, and completely optional extra.

[Other guest posts by Nicola Twilley include Watershed Down, The Water Menu, Atmospheric Intoxication, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].

The Water Menu

[Image: The water selection at Claridge’s, curated by Renaud Grégoire, food and beverage director].

Note: This is a guest post by Nicola Twilley.

The concept of terroir has its origins in French winemaking, as a means to describe the effect of geographic origin on taste. As a shorthand marker for both provenance and flavor, and as a sign of its burgeoning conceptual popularity, it has spread to encompass Kobe beef, San Marzano tomatoes, and even single-plantation chocolate.

But can water have terroir? What about the influence of the earth on water?

In late 2007, Claridge’s (a luxury hotel in Mayfair, London) caused a minor stir by introducing a “Water Menu.” The list features more than thirty mineral waters from around the world, described in terms of their origin and suggested flavor pairings.

Leaving aside a few obvious issues (such as the environmental impact of bottled water and the sheer economic wastefulness of sending multiple varieties of it to one hotel in England), it is hard not to appreciate the poetry of three-line exotic water biographies.

Take Mahalo Deep Sea Water, at £20 for 71cl, which comes from “a freshwater iceberg that melted thousands of years ago and, being of different temperature and salinity to the sea water around it, sank to become a lake at the bottom of the ocean floor. The water has been collected through a 3000ft pipeline off the shores of Hawaii.” According to the Daily Mail, Mahalo has a “very rounded quality on the palate” and it “would be good with shellfish.”

[Image: The Daily Mail‘s taste test results].

Meanwhile, Danish Iskilde‘s “flinty, crisp style” apparently derives from the Jutland aquifer’s complicated geology, consisting of interlaced deposits of quartz sand, clay, gravel, and soil. The most expensive (and possibly the most exciting) water on the menu is 420 Volcanic from New Zealand. Sourced from the Tai Tapu spring, which bubbles up through more then 650 feet of rock at the bottom of an extinct volcano, it is apparently “extremely spritzy on the palate with a tangy mineral finish.”

Claridge’s has since been joined by the Four Seasons in Sydney, and, according to The Guardian, “a handful of five-star Los Angeles hotels now employ water sommeliers to advise on the best water accompaniment to spiced braised belly pork or fillet of brill with parmentier of truffled leek.”

This same Guardian article goes on to recount the origins of Elsenham Water, which is described as “absolutely pure” and “very earthy—almost muddy,” depending on who you ask. Elsenham was discovered almost accidentally by Michael Johnstone, a former jam manufacturer; it is filtered over a 10-year period, in a confined chalk aquifer, half a mile below his abandoned jam factory and a neighboring industrial-sealant plant. Now, staff in white coats and hair nets fill up to 1,000 bottles daily “from an acrylic tank connected to pipes running into a hole in the ground.” Each bottle, priced at £12 for 75cl, is then polished by hand before it leaves the building.

According to Michael Mascha, former wine critic and author of Fine Waters: A Connoisseur’s Guide to the World’s Most Distinctive Bottled Waters, “water is in a transition from being considered a commodity to being considered a product.”

There is an undeniable Wild West gold-rush type of excitement to the idea of drilling for water in geologically auspicious locations. However, Mascha’s comment also implies that we might even begin to see the engineering of gourmet water products.

Loop tap water in a closed pressurized system for twenty years, through thick beds of pure northern Italian dolomite, and enjoy the lightly acidic result with chicken and fish. Better yet, blend it with water forced through a mixture of Forez and Porphyroid granite chips sourced from southwest France, stacked in a warehouse outside London to mimic in situ geological formations, to add a citrusy top note reminscent of Badoit.

A final spritz of oxygen ensures a silky mouthfeel—combined with the right designer packaging—and the burgeoning ranks of water connoisseurs will be lining up at your industrial plant for a taste.

[Previous posts by Nicola Twilley include Atmospheric Intoxication, Park Stories, and Zones of Exclusion].