Category Archives: Food & Shelter

these two are supposed to be fundamental to human existence. an integrated solution might be a good idea.

Waste in Venice

Waste was one of the ‘fronts’ Aravena identified in his opening statements for the 2016 Venice Architecture Bienalle. wasteBy now we’ve all either seen or seen images of the exhibition entrance features – you know the ones. 

You’ll probably also have been told those installations were made from 10,000 sq.m of plasterboard and 14 km of metal studs from the previous Biennale – the one curated by you know who.

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What Aravena has done is turn old waste into new waste and, in the process, make it represent waste as well. He’s also wasted his time and ours. The plasterboard might have been more reusable if it hadn’t been cut into tiny pieces, as might those metal studs if they hadn’t been bent. If this is the best the best of architecture has to offer, then sooner or later we can expect to see the aestheticization of waste as architectural ornament. It was sooner than I expected, for immediately outside was another example of someone arranging stuff into a pointless representation of waste. What does it mean? What does it do? Why did they do that? It’s more cutting-edge contentless content. 

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Aestheticizing something by making its representation more important than the thing itself is one of architecture’s many dysfunctions stemming from the belief it’s an art. Art however, is much better at aestheticising raw materials because what it does it take materials and uses them to represent something independent of those materials. It also adds value, albeit a highly subjective one.

At the Prada Fondazione in Milan is an exhibition of works by Edward and Nancy Nienholz who assemble found objects into rather disturbing collages.

This most definitely is art. Something new and having a different kind of value has been created. Their intention was never to reduce some global oversupply of disused carnival paraphenalia. Elsewhere at the Prada Fondazione, unwanted art is being repurposed into new art.

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The Pirelli Hangar Bacocco in Milan currently has an exhibition titled Architecture as Art. [Grrr.]

One of the works on display was this ‘architectural’ space made out of shredded books. You could climb it and find a space to – what else? – read a book.

This isn’t a response to some global surfeit of shredded books but nor does it pretend to be one. Who knows what will happen after? Perhaps it’ll become part of a permanent exhibition somewhere, or perhaps it’ll be reconstructed elsewhere from different trash at some later date.

The fashion industry is currently attempting to come to grips with recovering fabrics (at the level of fibres) and remaking them into high-value garments. This is good in that arable land can be used for things other than growing cotton but it’s bad if the main object is to maintain a high churn ratio at a marginally lower environmental cost we will all hear about. Getting more wear out of clothes is a sensible idea. Geting rid of the concept of fashion and its obsession with trends and novelty is a better one.

Outside Hangar Bacocco is a temporary pavilion built out of the packing crates artworks arrive in. It will be eventually dismantled and its pieces distributed to where they can be put to use.

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The pavilion is a structure with a limited degree of utility and no small amount of artistic/architectural pretension but there is at least a plan to use it for something else afterwards. It’s a better way of doing things. Its designers understand that the best way to generate less waste is to give things a purposeful next life and prevent them from becoming waste in the first place.

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This thinking is evident at the Austrian pavilion at the 2016 Architecture Biennale.

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The first room contains piles of posters depicting refugee housing projects at three locations in Vienna. In the second room is a large display table that, after the Biennale, will be divided into three parts for re-use at those locations. There’s an exhibition website and a comprehensive exhibition newspaper.

The Austrian pavilion isn’t the only one having this it’s-not-waste strategy. The Portuguese pavilion contains hardly anything and is in a building that, after the biennale, will be repurposed (for its original purpose) as housing. The exhibition has stopped the building from being waste.  

The space is sparse, the only installations some projection screens, models of the projects shown, and plinths with handouts. Maximum effect was extracted from next to nothing, mainly due to the engaging films of Siza talking to the occupants of three of his housing projects.

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Rural Studio is the only US ‘practice’ to have be invited to exhibit at VB’16. Having never worked outside of Alabama in their twenty years, they must have been bewildered at having been invited to exhibit. They chose to show The Architectural World two things. The first was some videos of who they are, what they do and why they do it. These videos were presented in a small theatre delineated by suspended bed frames and with stacks of insulation panels as benches. The Theater of the Usefull, they called it. 

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Rural Studio used the money they’d been granted to purchase things that, after the Biennale, were to be given to the Assemblea Sociale per la Casa association that provides shelter for the homeless in the Venezia-Mestre-Marghera area. Again, this eliminates waste as a concept and also happens to do maximum good. Besides being a simple and honest thing to do, it’s consistent with the Rural Studio ethos. It’s also worth noting that, compared with some of the more high-profile set pieces, it was all done with zero freight/air miles.   

The same connection between medium and message was there in the German Pavilion I mentioned in the previous post. The visual content of the exhibition was just posters and text on the walls, supplemented by a book and a comprehensive website that’s also a database/resource of housing projects. Again, this is low-impact, low-cost, and you learn stuff. The furniture is not custom designed and made.  

The little pavilion at Hangar Barocco, Rural Studio’s Theater of the Usefull and the Austrian Pavilion at the Biennale are preventing resources from becoming waste by planning for a degree of utility for different people further down the line. This isn’t the case with Aravena’s installations. I’m curious. Didn’t Koolhaas have had a refuse management plan? Does all that stuff just lay around until someone decides to throw it away? Or did Aravena say, “no, don’t throw it away – I have a point to make”? We’re definitely being asked to reflect upon the amount of waste a bienalle generates and I most definitely am. Aravena’s just kicked the can two years down the road to when this waste might well be in our faces again as something useful. Or it might not.

Not that it matters. You can probably learn more about waste management from just walking around Venice.

  • The buildings are designed and made to last. Their life-cycle is set at Forever.
  • People and what they do fit into the buildings available.
  • New buildings are never frivolous.
  • There is none of the aesthetic churn characteristic of architectural activity elsewhere.

On a different level, every day and night enormous quantities of food and drink are produced and consumed yet all the waste just seems to magically disapppear.

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VESTA (Venezia Servizi Territoriali ed Ambientali) is a limited company of Venice Municipality and is responsible for drinking water supply, urban and industrial wastewater treatment, waste collection and treatment, public and private cleaning, management of green areas and cemeteries, and environmental reclamation work. Veritas is responsible for rubbish collection.

  • Dry waste and wet waste is placed in tightly closed bags of any kind, that can be given directly to the rubbish collector or left near the outer door of your building between the hours of 6-8 am.
  • Paper, cardboard, tetra-pak is placed into paper bags tied with string and collected on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
  • Glass, plastic and cans are placed in plastic bags marked with blue stickers and collected on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.

Collection, management and recycling are all good but some there are also cultural factors that work to limit the amount of waste and prevent things from becoming waste in the first place. These are things we’re currently rediscovering.

  • Footpaths in Venice have very few wastebins yet there is no litter. If people need a drink or something to eat, they sit down somewhere and order it. People don’t generate trash as they move throughout the city.
  • Restaurants purify and gasify their own water in refillable bottles.
  • Fabric tablecloths and napkins are the norm.
  • Much of what you eat will have been cooked from raw, unprocessed ingredients that have never been wrapped, packed, bottled or canned.

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Venice is of necessity a water supply and waste management hotspot. This year the city will be hosting the Water Technology and Environmental Control Exhibition & Conference September 21-23.

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Since 2006, Venice has also hosted the biennial International Symposium on Energy from Biomass and Waste.

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One hot topic is the generation of energy from lagoon agla caused by inadequate waste management in the first place. Tackling the same problem from the other end, organic waste from the many kitchens and restaurants is collected and sent to a mechanical-biological stabilisation plant at Fusina not too far away.

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What happens there you can read about here.

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Further reading:

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Misfits’ Guide to VENICE

First, make your way to Fondamenta Zattere and see Ignazio Gardella’s Casa alle Zattere built 1953–1958.

To say it pre-empted post modernism is to do it and Gardella a disservice for, with this building, Gardella did nothing more (or less) than respond to what was already there, continuing a tradition rather than proposing something new. Better than intellectual, it’s intelligent and caring.  

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Then take the #8 from Spirito Santo to San Marco (S. Zaccarhia) and change to the #4.1 for Redentore. Look back cross the Giudecca Canal at where you just were and try to work out how he did it.

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Proceed to the social housing designed by Aldo Rossi and Alvaro Siza.

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The building by Siza was never completed, a third building by Rafael Moneo was never begun. If you go before November 27 you’ll see the Portuguese exhibit for the 15th Venice Biennale. Go on in.

The dual theme is social housing and housing refugees. The simple exhibition consists of four movies of Siza talking to residents of projects he designed. It’s moving. The installation has prompted the completion of Siza’s building. It’s an example of an architecture bienalle changing things. 

After that, walk west along Giudecca Island and you’ll eventually encounter this social housing project designed by Gino Valle. The walkway is a joy. The usual images you’ll find of this development don’t do it justice.

Giudecca has layers of housing, much of it social and none of it trivial. You’ll see some examples of prefabrication that I’m guessing are from the 1970s.

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Next to them you’ll find later sophistications. 

You’ll see some old buildings that are solid and decent but were never grand.

Mixed in are some more recent buildings, all of them decent. 

All in all, Giudecca is a nice place. It has a nice feeling, people going about their lives, walking dogs that won’t fit into handbags. 

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Despite its abundance of social housing, Giudecca Island is not down-at-heel. There’s a strong sense of community and the people who live and work there are proudly self-reliant. They appreciate the historic centre of Venice but don’t depend upon it. They have Palladio’s 1592 Church of the Most Holy Redeemer, Chiesa del Santissimo Redentore, Il Redentore which is magnificent. 

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The Cipriani Hotel and an outpost of Harry’s Bar are also rather classy.

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Back across the canal now and in the Giardini bienalle exhibition grounds, you’ll see the German pavilion, originally built in 1909 but in 1938 remodelled into a piece of “Nazi architecture”. Over the years, it’s has various temporary alterations for different bienalli. In 2013, France and Germany actually swapped pavilions to show the idiocy of accommodating thoughts about art in pavilions identified by country. The same could be said of architecture in 2016 if it weren’t for Germany. Its exhibit, Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country is the definite result of national borders and a national government – specifically, the government’s 2015 decision to allow one million refugees into the country. The entire exhibit is available online, including a database of housing projects.

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One unreported-from front is the battle to prevent architectural representation getting more attention than architectural reality. The organizers are doing their bit to help. They maintain that “the open pavilion is not the architectural equivalent of the goverment policy statement of winter 2015-16”. Unfortunately, architectural metaphor is irrepressible because, with buildings, there’s always something external to generate it. A few holes in some walls quickly become a “less formal” “opening out” “towards the south” “enabling the discovery of new qualities previously hidden”.  Well-placed and well-proportioned openings offering light and breeze and a lovely view through trees across water shouldn’t have to be anything more.

Outside the main exhibition space at Giardini there’s this quiet corner.

The day was warm, the plants lush, the fountains tinkling and the concrete a heavy presence with its wilful curves. I liked it, but only the day after did I find out it was by Carlo Scarpa, an architect I’ve never really known much about or whose work I’ve ever felt much drawn to. I’d always thought there was too much happening, and couldn’t see why every surface and every join needed to be celebrated. I still don’t, but I’m less resistant than I was. Scarpa also designed the Venezuelan pavilion at the Giardini venue.

This too, I’d walked through the day before, wondering why every surface had to be made into an event yet still not putting two and two together. Scarpa was starting to get under my skin.

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In Piazza San Marco is Scarpa’s Negozio Olivetti (Olivetti Store) from 1957. I only got as far as the entrance as the girl at the desk didn’t have change for my €100 note. 

It was a stunning entrance floor though. It’s glass mosaic tiles have irregular shapes and sizes and are set in relaxed regularity. It’s beautiful. 

From what I could see, every other surface and junction was beautiful as well. Relentless taste. Aurisina marble, rosewood, African teak … It’s also very Venetian. It’s too well-mannered to be vulgar, but still it bludgeons you with design, materials and craftsmanship. By comparison, the Barcelona Pavilion is tawdry.

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I remembered passing a poster for an exhibition of Scarpa drawings at the IuaV University of Venice so I made my way there.

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I was intrigued by the sketches for the Masieri Memorial.

Agelo Masieri admired the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright. He and his wife travelled to the US in 1952 to ask Wright to design a house for them on the Grand Canal. While there, Angelo was killed in a car accident and the project became one for a memorial. There was much resistance to having a ‘modern’ (as in ‘arrogant’?) architect like Wright design something for a site that’s not only on the Grand Canal but looks south along it from S.Toma to Accademia. Permission was refused, but the design has been imagined, vizualized and LEGO’d anyway.

Scarpa completed the project but, even then, the Palazzo Fondazione Masieri didn’t open until 1983, four years after Scarpa’s death.

I’d passed the building several times without noticing anything special. I later learned the City Council made Scarpa retain the original façade and exterior. It was closed when I visited but, apparently, the facade is detached from the floors and the interior completely gutted and new materials introduced. I believe it.  I couldn’t resist a quick google. I see what they mean by detached facade. 

Notice in this next image how the downpipe highlights the symmetrical part of the facade, suggesting we disregard the additional bit on the right? Even if there weren’t a conservation order imposed, I’d suspect this downpipe is original for where else could it go? The midpoint of the gutter is the most practical but least-wanted place for it’d visually split the building in two. The corners of the building aren’t great either for practical reasons of gutter slope. The downpipe is in the best place it can be even if it means the roof must extend so its gutter can bypass the chimneys. Personally, I think architecture has more serious things to concern itself with than asymmetries and inflections as visual entertainments, but I’m re-reading Complexity & Contradiction in Architecture anyway. If you’re Venturi, this minor functional element is doing something of crucial importance. I doubt its architect, whoever it was, gave its placement a second thought.

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The building isn’t widely known, probably as punishment for having prevented there being one more Frank Lloyd Wright building in the world. We don’t know if Angelo Masieri’s house would have ever been approved and built. The redesigned proposal is known as the Masieri Memorial for that is what his widow asked it to be. The Scarpa remodelling is known as the Palazzo Fondazione Masieri for that is what it is. It’s site is still unique and the view from its windows still the same no matter who designed them and who didn’t. If the Olivetti Store is anything to go by, the interior is stunning and I’ll get around to seeing it someday. What I took away with me was a renewed awareness of the importance of safe driving.

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A sweet little house close by. Its owners and architect would probably have preferred a symmetrical facade but quite liked how it turned out anyway. I do too.

Nice people, good music, de-lish fish.

• • •

The Dacha

One response to urban lives characterised by work and routine is to take a break from it all. Some people retreat to their country or weekend houses, others perhaps book a hotel or have a timeshare in some foreign country. Urban living in Russia is also characterised by work and routine but Russians don’t do any of the above if they want a break from it. They go to their dacha.

The Russian word dacha (дача) is usually over-translated as country house, implying something grander than usually the case. It was once the case however, for dacha date back to the empire era. The name is said to have the same Latin root as data – that which is given – although the giving was done by a feudal landlord to people in favour. This is Utkina Dacha, the land for which was granted in the middle of the 18th century to Agafokleya Poltoratskaya and her husband Mark Poltoratsky as reward for their involvement in opera productions.

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Here’s a pre-revolution dacha I’ve mentioned before. It was designed by Simon and Leonid Vesnin before and completed a year after Greene & Greene’s 1908 Gamble House.

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As with most country houses and summer weekend houses, the historic dacha treated nature as nothing more than something refreshing to look at.

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The general population was only allowed to have dacha in Khruschev era in the 1960s. Land for this new breed of dacha was gifted by companies, from land that could be used for little other purpose.

Dacha use land that would otherwise be wasted. 

Power companies, for example, gifted land close to or below the high-voltage power lines that criss-cross the country. Railways would gift land near their tracks. Other institutions and companies might purchase land from companies such as these and distribute it. A belt of dachas follows motorways and train lines out of every major city. Dacha are rarely more than an hour away by major transportation route.

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Access is generally by train, but the trains are not commuter trains but non-express intercity trains.

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Dacha can of course be accessed by vehicle but since they exist on land that can often be used for no other purpose, the roads to access them allow for the honest use of off-road vehicles.

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The convenience of accessing dacha is what makes them work.

And work they do. The initial function of these working dacha was food production because of shortages of foodstuffs back then. Vegetables didn’t care if they were close to railway or high-voltage lines. Working dacha are in the countryside, are used on weekends, and people do retreat to them but it is wrong to think of working dacha and historic dacha as the same. 

This gifting of land for practical reasons had a political slant. In 1962 Soviet armed functionaries brutally suppressed local food riots in the event known as the Novocherkassk massacre. Giving people land shifted the onus on food production back to them. They could devote their energies to feeding themselves than rioting. In English we call this killing two birds with one stone. In Russia they say kill two hares in one shot (убить одним выстрелом двух зайцев). This history of food production is why 50% of all Russians and populations of the former Soviet Union have a dacha.

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The production of food is still a major activity. This has two important consequences.

50% of Russians still have a strong connection with Nature. 

The pattern of occupancy of dacha reflects the growing season rather than the season. The cultivation that takes place is not gardening but the growing of food to eat and share. Wild strawberries are a bonus.

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50% of Russians still have a strong connection to food production. 

The economic necessity to grow one’s own food has relaxed somewhat but it was never as if people returned to the city with a week’s worth of groceries. Economic benefits aside, it is a satisfying use of time and energy to grow vegetables as a leisure activity, and extremely satisfying to eat them afterwards,

along with all the drinking of berry-infused beverages that that entails.

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A serious amount of food is nevertheless produced. *

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Peak dacha probably occurred sometime immediately post-1990. The country moved away from apartment+hut and towards suburban house+garden. Nearly every family who desired a dacha could have one. There has been a marked drop-off in field surveying for new dacha plots.

This map shows the distribution of dacha around the central Russian city of Yekaterinburg. Pink is dacha largely within the 60km radius ring road (orange) but the geometry also follows high-voltage lines and railways, particularly to the south. New suburban development is in yellow and follows roads more closely than railways.

Yekaterinburg dacha belt

The working dacha is free from the tyranny of architecture.

Working dacha are pure vernacular. More often than not, the buildings are self-built from salvaged or recycled materials. There is a limited demand for inexpensive transportable and prefabricated structures as these lose their appeal above a definite economic cutoff. The feeling is Why spend all that money on something you can build yourself?

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Amongst a mosaic of huts, you’re therefore likely to see a converted bus or perhaps a railway car. Interiors are a composite of objects  valued for their continued utility.

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The working dacha has no need for architecture. Architecture offers nothing that could improve upon its vernacular intelligence and its handmade, salvaged or ad-hoc imperfections. It is liveable, practical and viable on the personal and social levels and sustainable on the ex-urban level and, as a consequence of that, the urban level.

The contemporary dacha is reverting to its historic origins as a summer weekend house for relaxing. Architects are getting involved. Owners of architecturalized dachas do not need or want to grow their own food and are unaware of themselves being cultivated by architects. You may have seen this one: “A family with two kids wanted a quiet retreat from the everyday busy life in the suburbs of Moscow.”

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This architecturalized dacha is a weekend house as we know it. Nature is nothing more than something to look at. When the dacha becomes architecture, all that is useful is lost.

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The working dacha and the architecturalised dacha are the results of opposing forces that can never be resolved. Downmarket and sensible occupy the opposite end of the spectrum to upmarket and folly, and are nourished by different atmospheres.

Fortunately, the working dacha is unlikely to disappear anytime soon if 50% of the population has one. This is a good thing because the city apartment + country hut combination has a lot more going for it than attempts to directly fuse urban living and Nature. 

1. The suburban house and garden

Working dacha are not primary residences but suburban houses are. The suburban house began with good intentions. This new housing product made possible by the convenience of train travel, took people just far enough out of the city so they could commute back to it. (In one of those twists of history, the unreliability and expense of privatised train travel in the UK is now making them less viable.)  The first suburban houses put more distance between them and urban tenements and less between the country estates further out. They were a perfect product for their times.

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One of the attractions of the suburban house was the affectation of landowner abilities and rights to grow things. Another was to not have to do it to survive. Plants such as the hybrid tea rose were grown not for sustenance but for pleasure in that abstracted cultivation known as gardening. For many people however, gardening is a chore when combined with commuting and a day job. Suburban gardens rarely live up to their historic expectations.

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Land with much potential to enhance life becomes a nuisance, and its capacity to produce either ignored or activelly suppressed.

Perhaps worse is its further abstraction into the world of ‘landscape gardening’.

2. The apartment+allotment

In the UK, an allotment is a piece of land initially allocated to the urban poor to grow food and feed themselves. The system began at the beginning of last century and, to some extent also makes use of land that cannot be used for any other purpose. These allotments are on the periphery of the factory land.

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Although beneficial in many of the same ways as dacha, there are two main failings. The first is that, at  the plots aren’t large enough. The standard size is said to be 250 sq.m which is about the size of a doubles tennis court. If continuously and intensively cultivated it might feed a family of five. (Refer to misfits’ architecture: Caories/m^3) The current average area is 154 sq.m.

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The larger problem is that habitable structures are prohibited. The land may be otherwise unusable land close to railways or liable to flooding but it is too close to the city. Allowing habitable structures could much to promote a different way of living. The British apartment+allotment has many of the advantages of dacha but does not go far enough.

3. Agricultural urbanism

Agricultural urbanism, community gardens, rooftop gardens and verge gardens are a new invention. The shared aim is to produce food on underused land in cities. Community gardens and window boxes provide visible veg. Rooftops can also be pressed into service but the shared goal of these approaches is the reconnection to food, a change of attitude and the awareness that food has to be grown somewhere by someone.

Using land leftover from inappropriate urban form is a good thing but there’s something slightly surreal about verge gardens. These are vegetables I’d definitely want to wash thorougly beforehand, even if I didn’t know that some plants are very good at absorbing and concentrating environmental toxins. Sunflowers, for example, excel at absorbing radioactive isotopes 90Sr and 137Cs. As for the plants, I can’t help thinking they would prefer to be somewhere else.

4. Vertical farming

If we want serious yields and not just herbs, garnishes and a warm fuzzy feeling then verge gardens and window boxes aren’t going to cut it. We need to upscale. Urban vertical farming has been proposed and there’s also much to recommend it. It’s battery farming for plants and, if nutritional value doesn’t suffer, then there might be a place for it. The problem is that food is still grown by someone else and comes from somewhere else, albeit via a shorter distribution system. There’s still serious infrastructure, investment, and numerous middlemen presumably taking their cut.

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5. Tall buildings in parkland

Like the architecturalized dacha, growing food is something other people do. The tall building vision was all about aesthetically modified nature – parkland. Sunlight and fresh air and open space are good. Another good thing about them is that they can be used for many things at once. It is a waste of sunlight, air and land to grow plants such as grass for visual amenity value only.

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Skyscrapers aren’t about to be placed in farmland anytime soon but, if they do, it’ll happen in China where (I forget the actual statistic) something astounding like 50 fifty-storey apartment blocks need to be brought online every week to accommodate net population increase. If land is better suited to growing food than buildings, and if buildings are better suited to housing people than plants, then the vertical village is the logical consequence.

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None of these attempts to fuse the spaces occupied by plants and people have all of the advantages the apartment+dacha combination has. Those advantages arise from connecting the two types of space rather than attempting to fuse them.  

An urban apartment and a dacha complement each other beautifully. A weekly trip to the dacha to check and maintain the plants seems to fit their cycle as well as ours. It must be psychologically healthy to take a train out of town in the opposite direction to usual, to be in a rural or semi-rural environment and do different things that have their own satisfaction and rewards, and in one’s own time. I can only imagine that, at weekend’s end, one goes back to the city and sees afresh and appreciates anew the things that apartments, cities and infrastructure have to offer.

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If they were lived in full-time, dacha would be a sustainable and resilient way of life very close to what we would call off-grid living.  

  • Dacha  use land that would otherwise be wasted
  • Dacha  use existing infrastructure
  • Dacha recycle and reuse and are an ecological and sustainable use of resources
  • Dacha are used to grow food
  • Dacha have an absence of architecture

When dacha are not lived in full-time, the apartment+dacha combination is a very useful urban unit and additional benefits arise from them being separate yet linked by a short train ride. 

  • Dacha provide the population with sustaining breaks of environment
  • Dacha respect the production of food as a noble human activity
  • Dacha teach an appreciation of Nature that involves working with Nature

By offering a break from full-time urban living, dacha balance it, complement it and thus help sustain it.

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Further information:

An excellent glimpse into the world of the dacha is here on https://russianotes.com. I loved the opening sentence: “Summer passed very quickly, as it usually does in Central Russia”, and this image.

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See also: 

misfits’ architecture: Home Grown
misfits’ architecture: Calories/m^3
misfits’ architecture: Vertical Farmwash
misfits’ architecture: Food and Shelter

The Passivehaus Diet

“Man’s own metabolism is a renewable energy source which he can use freely as long as he exists. It is obvious therefore that it should be exploited for the heating of buildings.”
V. Korsgaard

One defining criteria of a passivhaus is 10W/m² maximum power to maintain 20°C internally when it’s -10°C outside. Within a passivhaus, the heat contributed by the human body is just one of the many energy transactions that occur.


We eat, we heat. The amount of that heat can be quantified – given certain assumptions.

metabolic rate

(1)

This tells us the body generates heat to compensate for heat lost to the environment via metabolic processes a.k.a. living. When it’s colder, our bodies make more heat to make us feel less cold. Putting some clothes on is a good idea.

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http://collections.infocollections.org/ukedu/en/d/Jsk02ce/1.html

It’s a good idea because more, thicker and fitted clothing ‘keeps the cold out’ by slowing the rate of heat loss. This site explains the following graph in more detail.

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When it’s hot, evaporative cooling driven by sweat and air movement prevent the body from overheating and fewer, lighter, and looser-fitting clothes are a good idea. Around the world, vernacular architectures have developed as extensions of these principles and also keep people dry and safe. This is what makes them buildings and not clothing or fashion.

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The ideal state of a Passivhaus is for energy losses to equal energy gains. The breakdown of that balance changes according to the season and the day, as people come and go and do whatever it is they do.

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Variation is not only inevitable but desirable. Imagine you’re in your passivhaus about to sleep or have a nap. You and the world are in thermal equilibrium but still you pull a cover or throw over yourself. This suggests your body is more comfortable when it’s allowed to find its own equilibrium.

The delicate energy balance inside a passihaus is easily upset by people coming and going, opening the refrigerator door, cooking stuff, eating stuff and doing stuff and none of these inputs is constant. Human metabolic heat generation is the least understood, least quantifiable and least controllable of all those inputs. It’s not all bad though. At least it means we’re alive.

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http://collections.infocollections.org/ukedu/en/d/Jsk02ce/1.html

The rate of metabolic heat production fluctuates according to what we eat and the time of day. It can work with or against the passivhaus heat balance but, as a general rule, it helps that we tend to not want to eat cold things in winter or hot things in summer. It’s also convenient that our core body temperature falls at night to lower the point of energy balance.

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To be honest, I was hoping to discover some research into “Optimising human diet-related metabolic heat generation in passivhaus environments” but no. Instead, in those dark corners of the web where sites have names like 10 Common Golf Swing Mistakes, I found much advice on how to lose weight by ‘boosting your metabolism’. In principle, this will generate metabolic heat as a by-product so, with that disclaimer …

7 High Metabolism Foods

  1. Garlic – we’re not surprised. We know garlic is good. The Romans did.
  2. Strawberries – apparently because they contain anthocyanins, but the science is sketchy.
  3. Green tea – we hear this a lot, but if it has any effect at all, it’s because of the caffeine. This has been studied in more detail, here for one.
  4. Beans – anything with fibre in is meant to make the body ‘work harder’ to digest it. This sounds logical but evidence to support it is thin on the ground.
  5. Hot peppers – as with garlic, we knew this. Capsaicin is responsible. The mechanism is disputed but the endorphin rush – that chilli high – is fact.
  6. Lean meats – again the science, such as it is, is that proteins take longer to digest.
  7. Water – water is necessary for many metabolic reactions but what we really want to know is if drinking excess water initiates further metabolic reactions.

It’s not much to go on, but it’s a start.

• • •

The burning question is can we and our passivhaus work together by a diet of steak and chips? The answer is yes and no. Any heat we would generate from metabolising them would be more than negated by the amount of heat required to rustle up those proteins, fats and carbs. Cooking is all about artificial heat imbalances that can be sudden and intense or low yet prolonged. Cooking is not what you really want to be doing in passivhäuser.

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Fortunately, steak can be delicious raw.

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– as can some veg, but the list of ingredients for this Raw Potato Salad suggests potatoes aren’t one of them.

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We don’t much like potatoes uncooked – or unaccompanied. Ketchup isn’t tricky to make but it does require several ingredients not always available.

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It also involves heat expenditure. Unless we’re prepared to be raw foodists or pre-fire Paleos, we may as well just heat our passivhaus directly if we’re going to cook anything ‘gently over a low heat for 10 to 15 minutes until softened, stirring every so often.’ 

  1. Once we finally work out what’s best to eat in terms of metabolic heat production, we’ll need to deduct any energy added to make it palatable by cooking it.
  2. If we’re going get holistic about it, we’ll also have to to factor in the amount of energy required to produce those ingredients. It’s often claimed rearing livestock is a grossly inefficient use of land. Given the proportion of the world’s population that already subsists on grain, this is probably true.
  3. We also can’t ignore the energy used to get that food to us. It’s a contemporary British Christmas tradition to calculate the number of air miles clocked up by the ingredients for a traditional Christmas dinner.
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And let’s not forget the energy required to preserve food between its delivery and consumption.

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The Sub-Zero Pro 48: ‘A monument to food preservation’

There are many ancient methods for the long-term preservation of food long but again, it’s a mixed bag. Salting meat or fish doesn’t require additional energy but smoking it does. As for preserving foodstuffs short-term, Australia’s Coolgardie Safe and Russia’s Khrushchev Refrigerator (Хрущевский холодильник) require zero energy input, the former performing better with a slight breeze and the latter performing better in winter. As you’d imagine.

Our food preservation method of choice is refrigeration, but it’s gentler on your passivhaus if you allow meats and vegetables to reach room temperature before any frying, boiling or roasting takes place. Even if we consider only the energy used for cooking, balancing that factor within the passivhaus environment will require superhuman levels of awareness and self-control we simply don’t have.

We’re going to have to invest in heat recovery systems to claw back some of the heat that would otherwise be exhausted to outside. It smooths things out a bit and we can feel easier about eating cooked food and showering with water not cold.

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Heat recovery systems alone are insufficient, and simple thermostats that average out extremes rather without doing anything to reduce them are pointless. We need a computerised control system such as at the Princess Elisabeth Antarctica (zero-energy) Antarctic research station. The station is a mostly closed environmental system and its energy balance can be closely monitored and controlled.

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This is an interesting and useful development because the allocation of energy involves a Degradation Of Lifestyle – i.e. the user might have to wait. This is something we find difficult to comprehend but, if there has to be energy demand management, it is a very intelligent and fair way of doing it.

Energy demand management is happening right now in the world in conflict-ridden places where electrical and/or petrol supply is irregular and could easily be part of our future should energy supply become intermittent or limited.

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• • •

I began this post wondering how the human metabolism could be better integrated into a passivhaus but – hands up – I’m no more enlightened. But if we were more enlightened about the heat our bodies contribute to our environments we might make better use of it and maybe even generate it more efficiently.

Using metabolic heat in buildings isn’t a new concept – it’s just something we’ve had no need to continue to be aware of. Both Europe and America have histories of housebarns using the metabolic heat of livestock as underfloor heating in winter.

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• • •

  1. Passivhaus Designer’s Manual
  2. Passivhaus Technical Requirements
  3. http://www.andrewkimblog.com/2014/02/straight-talk-on-fats-metabolism-and.html
  4. http://darindines.com/2013/06/02/gordon-ramsay-steak/
  5. http://passiv.de/former_conferences/Passive_House_E/energybalance.html
  6. Avoid the hassle – fuel-up before heading home!
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The Shameless Skyscraper

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Before anything’s even been said in this BBC news report, the title “Flatpack Skyscrapers” makes this building sound like something cheap and mass-produced, and definitely not something handmade and of quality and classy like, say, William Morris wallpaper. We’re not even past the title and already we’ve encountered the reaction to the very same Industrial Revolution that was supposed to make useful things less expensive and more available. 

Despite the report being bandwidth-hungry for no good reason, it somehow manages to describe the work of a certain Mr. Zhang who’s making headlines because he and his team can erect buildings faster than anyone else on the planet. I say “erect” because most of the work is done offsite and, once the foundations are in place, site work is limited to assembling the pieces at a rate of about three floors per day. Mr. Zhang’s integrated system for building design and construction has many advantages.

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  • It’s faster than conventional design and construction and so the benefits of the building are available earlier.
  • It’s less expensive. The shorter time until the building is providing a return-on-investment means that total financing costs are less. This should also, in theory, free up more capital to provide more buildings.
  • It’s safer to build than conventional construction. Prefabricating parts of the building complete with services offsite should, again in theory, be safer and allow for higher quality.

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Now, for many, being cheaper, faster and safer isn’t good enough. This article, for example, raises doubts about the theory with regards to safety, timing, funding, and need. The main objection seems to be that it will be in the middle of farmland.

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Even if renders could be trusted to reliably depict future realities, the argument seems to be that skyscrapers are ok in Manhattan where the economics of land necessitates tall buildings. This doesn’t mean those tall buildings are any more necessary – a question that’s being raised now the new slew of superslender supertalls is casting superlong shadows across Central Park.

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The “need” argument seems to be a form of veiled prejudice. Shanghai isn’t Manhattan either but it doesn’t attract this prejudice because it looks like more like a city than say, Dubai, another attractor of the same prejudice.

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The potential problem of cashflow needed to maintain Sky City One is mentioned, as is the problem of supplying it with food everyday. These things do need thinking about and I hope someone has.

But what if that farmland stayed farmland and some of Sky City One’s residents farmed it? We don’t know – we’ve never actually given it a try. It could just be a viable way to live on this planet. Why shouldn’t those green spaces be productive farmland instead of the traditional lawns and parkland? The supposed reason for the existence of tall buildings was land pressure in cities such as Chicago and New York meant people had to work closer together in this new thing called office work. Food was missing from the equation. Perhaps, just perhaps, it might be a good idea to sort out food and shelter at the same time, and then see how office work can fit in?

The Western press has been predictably negative regarding this project. The usual social angst about non-millionaires living in tall buildings is mentioned. The fact that windows will be non-operable is mentioned even though this is standard for buildings that height for it lessens wind resistance. Me, I’m actually not too keen on some of the apartment plans.

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This next image implies they’re thinking about mixing uses on each floor. Horizontal mixing of use in vertical buildings could be a good idea.

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After all, our horizontally organised cities have always had some sort of vertical mixed use.

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http://queaprendemoshoy.com/habia-rascacielos-en-roma/

No, the biggest crime of this building and the one I suspect is really driving the negativity and criticism is summed up in the statement “Its blocky glass and steel form may be unlikely to win any architectural beauty awards”. Sky City One’s crime is to not do the twisty, growy thing like Gensler’s latest for Shanghai.

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Or the bright and shiny future thing like Foster’s vertical city proposal for offshore Tokyo.

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Or do the symbolic climbing, striving, aspiring thing like skyscrapers have done since way back when.

Instead, Sky City One is what it is and no more or less than the processes that made it. It is totally free of metaphorical and allegorical baggage. It has an existential beauty

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Vertical Farmwash

When we have an architecture that fulfils no shelter need, it’s no surprise we get vertical farm proposals that satisfy no real food requirement.

Vertical farms are not going to look like this. Ever.

Instead, they’ll most likely look like this if they don’t already – sheds providing conditions suitable for plants to grow. Plants being plants, those conditions will be different from how and where we might like to see plants grow.

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This next image is taken from “The Living Skyscraper: Farming the Urban Skyline” by Blake Kurasek. Chives, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, spinach and peas are all good and yummy but the only metric that matters is the nutritional content this structure delivers per cubic meter. If we’re not going to evaluate vertical farms according to that metric, then they’re nothing more than very large window boxes dreamed up by architects to show how visionary they are. vertical-garden-970x970Visionary. I’d forgotten the architect’s name so I bit my tongue and held my nose and googled “Belgian visionary architect”. Got it in one. Please understand I did this not because I believe Vincent Callebaut to be a visionary architect but because I thought that’s what he probably calls himself.

balanced dietBut isn’t Dragonfly just the bees’ knees! For those who want numbers, it has 132 floors and is 600 metres high which is pretty big. Its TWENTY-EIGHT fields FFS will produce fruit, vegetables, grains, meat and dairy. Here we have a nutritionally-balanced press release but unless we’re told its nutritional/calorific performance per cubic metre then it’s all meaningless architect PR. As for the image, “dragonfly” nailed it in one.

o-DRAGONFLY-570Dragonfly can be easily dismissed as media blather but this next proposal is sickeningly overladen with earnestness and, because of that, the more sinister. I get the feeling this proposal cost zero to produce. Interns in the corner probably had to pay their way by generating some “fresh thinking” for the content generator to feed into the media machine.

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The concept is to cram as many competition-winning clichés into a proposal as possible. What’s not to like?

  • It’s a vertical farm. (On-trend; socio-enviro-planetarily a good thing)
  • It collects and stores rainwater at the top. (Rain is good. Collecting and storing it is good.)
  • That captured water is allowed to trickle down. (Ingenious use of gravity.)
  • Layers of plants use it. (As Nature intended.)
  • Leftover water finds its way to the fishtank. (We should eat more fish.)
  • It’s built out of bamboo. (Rapidly renewable resource, recyclable as flooring or furniture or whatever you want to make of it; strong if you use it with the intelligence of a Vladimir Shukov [although the vertical members suggest this is not the case here])
  • It’s circular. (Sunlight comes from more than one direction; bamboo likes a circle)
  • It has a vertical wind turbine. (As it must; to power the elevator.)

This proposal maybe has 150 sqm. of growing area  sufficient to keep a west London Italian restaurant in basil for a month. If it were to be fully and continuously cultivated with the right crops it might just provide sufficient calories and nutrition to sustain the life of three adult humans having an average body weight of approx. 70kg.

So, to conclude, whenever you see another concept design for a vertical farm,

  1. Make a quick assumption of its growing area (for you will not be told).
  2. Divide it by 50 sqm. and you’ll get an idea of how many lives it will sustain. 
  3. Make your own decision as to what the concept design was really intended to do.

• • •

One last thing. 

  • If this project were a patent, it would be difficult to determine what problem is being solved and the inventive step requiring protection. In any case, it’s not possible to patent a natural process and the water cycle is one of those. (Rain falls – thanks to gravity – and – thanks to gravity again – waters plants before finding its way – thanks to gravity – to the vast and purifying ocean with the little fishies and is evaporated etc.)
  • Notwithstanding, this proposal was submitted to a 2015 architectural competition and awarded a prize. It must therefore embody some way of thinking our new architectural media overlords wish to encourage.
  • First of all, winning a prize in an architectural competition does not mean a project is any good. It is merely recognition of the project’s aspiration to kill off any useful idea before it becomes too entrenched in society and no longer the domain of architects. After all, we do not need (or, increasingly, expect) architects to produce things of use.
  • The easiest way to kill off a good idea is to represent it. To aestheticise an idea is to neuter it, kill it, divert all attention from the good it was once intended to do. 
    1. Functionality came to be represented in inverse proportion to something actually being functional. This principle is alive and well in the field of design. It’s its raison d’etre.
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    2. Architecture started going down the same route as soon as a house came to represent a machine for living in yet still be handmade from concrete and stucco.
    3. Architecture became about the feeling of “space” at the precise moment people were at last on the way to being provided with a minimum amount of the stuff.
    4. Architecture became about “the play of light” at exactly the same time problems of quantity of light were being solved by dwelling layout, orientation and glazing area.
    5. Architecture (PJ, specifically) almost immediately aestheticised the social benefits of Modernism into The International Style.
    6. Post-modernism. Taking CJ’s story as the parable he believes it to be, Post-Modernism never replaced Pruitt-Igoe with anything better – it just killed the desire to.
      Here’s Pruitt-Igoe in 2014.
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    7. More recently, some commentators pointed out with Jencksian glee that some green roofs weren’t all that green after all, so damning sustainability and its useful attitudes and goals. We became used to this and now no longer care if green roofs aren’t green. More to the point, we no longer care if they are. Mission accomplished. This is the process in action.
    8. We know we’re facing the sinister front-line of architect backlash when we see the phrase “Concept design for …” heralding some lame, award-winning proposal.

We can now add vertical farmwash to greenwash and, thinking back, spacewash and lightwash. This list will grow as fast as misfit architects can come up with socially beneficial ideas challenging the existence of Architecture Inc.

It’s Not Rocket Science #10: Integrated Sanitation and Nutrition

1969: Apollo 11 photographs such as this one were a new way of looking at Earth and making its inhabitants feel special, if a little isolated.

earth-in space

They also heightened awareness of our planet being a self-contained bubble and in the early 1970s, something called “environmental pollution” was identified as a bit of a problem. See here for a brief history of polluting the planet. We’ve come a long way.

Syncrude Aurora Oil Sands Mine, north of Fort McMurray, Canada.

1971: The movie Silent Running was set

in a future where all flora is extinct on Earth. An astronaut is given orders to destroy the last of Earth’s botany, kept in a greenhouse aboard a spacecraft.

Woooo man, that’s heavy!

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But it’s good people began to think about the long-term consequences of this thing called pollution. Silent Running is “a sci-fi classic”. It’s also dire. It’s future scenario is nowhere near as dismal as the movie itself. Everything about it is bad: the premise, the casting, the acting, the plot, the costumes, Bruce Dern’s facial hair, Bruce Dern’s hair, the mysterious ubiquity of gravity and, well, hell, it’s technical consultation in general.

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The lead spaceship is the Valley Forge, it’s very name a metaphoric minefield. Imagine arch-metabolist Kiyonori Kikutake’s Expo ’70 Expo Tower recumbent.

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Recycling was in the air already it seems – and just as well.

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1973: With the First Oil Crisis, the mood was gloomier but more real. Professor Frank Bowerman was technical consultant for the movie Soylent Green.

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With the world ravaged by the greenhouse effect and overpopulation, an NYPD detective investigates the murder of a CEO with ties to the world’s main food supply.

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Professor Frank R. Bowerman was

former director of environmental engineering programs, at the University of Southern California, and former president of the American Academy of Environmental Engineers and the American Academy for Environmental Protection. 

They named the mother of all landfills after him, but that’s another story.

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We don’t know the content of Professor Bowman’s technical consultations but, given the theme of the movie, they’d have had something to do with an integrated waste and food cycle. [SPOLIER ALERT!]

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These next people do it better, with fewer ethical problems but a lot less drama. It’s one of those occasional things that give one hope.

What’s not so encouraging is that it was 1988. The kids in this movie are maybe in their mid-30s now. I hope they made it. I haven’t heard much about the non-technology lately.

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I think the reason why is that although we might say we’re concerned about food miles, shitting into a bioreactor is just too close for comfort. We say “Waste is a Valuable Resource” but we really don’t understand what it means to walk the walk. No matter how artificially it’s produced, we prefer the feelgood factor of a bit of homegrown and are going to endless lengths to keep the dream alive.

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We’re simply too emotionally attached to eating plants to have time for scum like algae.

Since 1974, the United Nations has strongly supported Spirulina “as the best food for the future”,[44] and established the Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition in 2003.

Ever heard of it? I hadn’t either.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, both NASA (CELSS)[46] and the European Space Agency (MELISSA)[47] proposed Spirulina as one of the primary foods to be cultivated during long-term space missions.

What happened? They found out how to make coffee in space, and how to heat up pasta. Here’s a brief history of food in space. One of the first off-planet misdemeanours we know about was when the crew of Gemini III snuck a corned beef sandwich on their spaceflight. 

2014: “Interstellar”. 

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A group of explorers make use of a newly discovered wormhole to surpass the limitations on human space travel and conquer the vast distances involved in an interstellar voyage.  

Now why would they want to do this? Yep, Earth’s screwed. Again. It’s food is running out. The wheat is blighted, the okra’s out. Every able body is needed to help grow corn. Movieweb.com tells us that

part of the space exploration that takes place in Interstellar happens because we are in need of new soil to grow crops. 

 

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But CORN! They’re growing corn FFS! Old habits die hard. If they die at all. Here’s the nutritional data for maize – “corn” if you like.

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Here’s a corn yield calculator. Do the mathematics and it’ll be clear

IT’S. NOT. GOING. TO. WORK.

Those first photographs of Earth from space made people think of our planet as “Spaceship Earth”. It was a good thing. But if spaceship food is nutritionally adequate but in culturally comforting shapes, colours and textures, then the future of nutrition on earth (as well as architecture, FWIW) doesn’t look that promising either. If ever somewhere (other than Earth, that is) needed an integrated sanitation and nutrition system it’s the International Space Station. Instead, everything gets frozen and compressed and brought back here.

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Even if we accept that we’re only going to pay attention to high and expensive technology instead of the simple and inexpensive things that not only work but do some human good, the International Space Station is not setting a very good example for Spaceship Earth.

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