Of Mushrooms and Capitalist Ruins

You really should join your local mycological society especially now that fungi are finally getting much overdue attention in the academy and popular culture. The Los Angeles Mycological Society has a book club overseen by Aaron Thompson that’s explored both the biology and our complex social relationship to fungi. The last book we read was one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins.

The book begins with the stories of matsutake pickers in the Pacific Northwest, a heterogeneous group of recent Southeast Asian immigrants, middle class Japanese Americans and white survivalists. Beginning with the pickers and middlemen, she traces the long supply chain of this extraordinarily expensive mushroom, that’s given as a gift in Japan, and shows how these cultures interact with their histories and the environment.

The strength of this book is that Tsing doesn’t shy away from complexity and contradiction. She doesn’t try to tie everything into a tidy narrative. What emerges from this story of matsutake is not a neat timeline but an assemblage, a messy collision of cultures, biology and economics. Tsing’s ethonograpic mosaic mirrors the biology of the fungal world which is itself a bundle of contractions, at times symbiotic at other times parasitic with a complexity that we’ll never be able to fully grasp.

Matsutake, it turns out, thrives in forests disturbed by human activity. Like Kat Anderson’s masterful Tending the Wild, Tsing’s book shows the mistake of considering “nature” outside the presence of human beings. The matsutake economy, it turns out, is just about the perfect story with which to consider the neo-liberal and precarious ruin we find ourselves in. Tsing says,

Without stories of progress, the world has become a terrifying place. The ruin glares at us with the horror of its abandonment. It’s not easy to know how to make a life, much less avert planetary destruction. Luckily there is still company, human and not human. we can still explore the overgrown verges of our blasted landscapes–the edges of capitalist discipline, scalability, and abandoned resource plantations. We can still catch the scent of the latent commons–and the elusive autumn aroma.

Following the matsutake’s long mycelium threads, wherever they lead us, might just be what we need to do right now.

Weekend Linkages: A Geodesic Thanksgiving

A cardboard geodesic dome for your cat

The true costs of driving

Fall flowers: Which marigold is right for you?

Who Needs Windows?

In the chaotic and aging file cabinet that is the inside of my head, there’s a file devoted to an assortment of oddball windowless buildings I’ve run into or heard about over the years. A recent controversy at the University of California Santa Barbara, where wealthy donor and amateur architect Charlie Munger offered to build a mostly windowless dormitory with the stipulation that he be allowed to do it himself, reminded me of this issue.

If ever there was an example of the over-reliance on energy intensive HVAC systems it’s the idea that buildings don’t need windows. I can’t possibly, in a short blog post, round up all the windowless buildings such as phone company switching facilities (like the famous brutalist AT&T switching center in New York above), all those Amazon warehouses, or Los Angeles’ hidden and still functioning urban oil wells.

Our window free tour will visit some misguided office buildings, a Masonic temple and a trade school. So turn on that glaring bank of florescent lights, sit down in a dark cubicle and let’s take a windowless journey beginning with the headquarters of America’s most mediocre chocolate factory.

Hershey’s Chocolate Headquarters 19 East Chocolate Ave. Hershey, Pennsylvania
According to the folks at Hershey’s,

Original plans for the building called for a conventional design with windows and awnings. As the foundation was being dug, Milton Hershey became intrigued with the idea of a windowless facility. Such a design would dramatically increase the efficiency of the heating and cooling systems. At Mr. Hershey’s direction, architect/builder D. Paul Witmer, quickly drew up new plans and construction continued without any delay.

The building was constructed of locally quarried limestone. Construction began in the fall of 1934 and was completed in December 1935.

Unsurprisingly, the Big HVAC Man loved this building. Guess what? They remodeled it and added windows.

Pennsylvania State Archives 350 North St, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Unsurprisingly, windowless buildings seem unpopular with the workers who inhabit them. Here’s David Carmicheal, Director of the Pennsylvania State Archives in a recent news article on moving to a new facility,

“Our current building was state of the art when the IBM Selectric was state of the art, for people who still remember what the IBM Selectric typewriter was like,” says Carmicheal. “And you know in a modern digital age, it just fights us all the time. It’s about 17 stories tall, depending on how you count the floors, and so it takes a long time to go up and down and grab records and bring them down. When people come to use the original records, they sit in our search room and we bring them the records they want, and they sit there waiting.”

There are issues with climate control, exacerbated by the building’s shape. (Monoliths are great for catching the sunlight.) Temperature and humidity fluctuations are bad for old documents. And did we mention the building leaks?

This brutalist building, on the national register, has to stay. Officials are pondering new uses for this hot, leaky and windowless monolith.

Bank of America Building 101 S. Marengo Ave. Pasadena
You just have to love the Google street view of this mid-century relic. It doesn’t get more basic than this–a stone cube for bank workers. A conspiracy theory circulating in architecture Twitter says that this building has no windows so that workers would be more productive. A developer snapped it up and, as I write this post, is in the process of poking windows in it to the dismay of a handful of Pasadena brutalist fans. See a trend here?

Abram Friedman Occupational Center 1646 S Olive St, Los Angeles
Part of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s division of career education, nothing says neoliberalism like a windowless public school with a Harbor Freight sponsorship. That loved and hated purveyor of dangerous, poorly made but cheap tools has their logo right on the (mostly) windowless tower. I’ve long noticed this building but it seems to have escaped the the attention of local brutalism cultists. I can’t find anyone on the interwebs who has ever remarked on how odd it is to have a completely windowless skyscraper school in downtown Los Angeles.

Elysium Masonic Temple 1900 N Vermont Ave, Los Angeles
You need not wear a tin foil hat to know why many Masonic lodges lack windows. I only point out this one for a few reasons: I heard that it was the first completely windowless building constructed in Los Angeles (not sure if this is true), and it contains a very strange mural by Millard Sheets, the artist behind the Home Savings mosaics.

If that weren’t enough the lodge, in order to keep the lights on, transformed the main room into a set for use in film and TV shoots that closely resembles the courtrooms in the Downtown Los Angeles Stanley Moss Courthouse that is also mostly windowless. Regular lodge meetings take place in the mock courtroom.

Abundant Life Building 720 S. Boulder Ave., Tulsa
Prosperity gospel huckster Oral Roberts built this windowless and, cutting edge for the times, cube in the late 1950s to house his TV studio, mail processing center and offices. He wasn’t there long, moving his operation to his new university. By the 1970s the building was abandoned and sits awaiting a new use or, more likely, demolition. Head here if you’d like to see the creepy interior.

I’m sure there are many more windowless buildings that I’m not aware of. If you know of any, or worked in one, please leave a comment.