Sunday, 12 January 2014

Contemplating a visual dictionary of pastry folds

Recently I discovered the joys of pre-made puff pastry. Despite what might seem to be my penchant for studying long laborious cooking techniques, even I find it too time consuming to make puff pastry dough from scratch for every occasion. Somedays you just want to eat a tart and you want to eat it NOW. For me the consolation is at least knowing how exactly puff pastry works. Puff pastry is puffy because the dough has many hundreds of layers of butter dispersed throughout, through a long laborious process of folding, rolling, and resting the dough. When the pastry is baked, the butter melts and boils, steam lifts the layers of dough which cook into crisp pockets of air, and the pastry rises.

Unlike other doughs, puff pastry does not involve leaveners or yeast so the entire rise of the pastry is down to the layers of butter in the dough. Resting is required to relax the gluten strands and working in cold temperatures on all surfaces is important so the butter won't melt while you're rolling it in.

Asparagus, Spinach, and Mozzarella Tart

Heat some oil and garlic in a pan and wilt spinach into it.
Cut pastry into squares, and place layers of mozzarella, asparagus, and spinach in the center of the pastry and fold in.
Bake at 200ªC for about 15-20 minutes.

Asparagus, Spinach, and Mozzarella Tart with a side of Shepherdess' Balls
(Potato+Celery+Lentil balls made from leftover Vegetarian Shepherd's Pie)

Interesting discovery: Real Buffalo Mozzarella will produce a huge amount of liquid when baked in a tart like this, unlike some of the supermarket housebrand Grated Mozzarella packs, which I've gotten used to cooking/baking with. I was rather alarmed at first to see all the water coming out from the good/expensive mozzarella cheese. I checked the packaging on Sainsburys' Grated Mozzarella and it seems that the addition of an anti-caking agent (potato starch) may be responsible for the lack of water and (favourably) chewy texture of their Mozzarella which the veggie eaters in the house have commented has quite an uncannily "meat texture".

When I have more time I should like to explore and design a more comprehensive visual dictionary of pastry folds and other dough techniques. This is the result of one pomodoro's work on the idea...

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Tasty Wheat and Soya Protein: Tivall Burgers

In my continued exploration of food-grade protein design, yesterday we tried: Tivall Vegetarian Burgers. I obtained this from Whole Foods on High Street Kensington (where they did not have Quorn, but they did have a number of other "meatless" meat-alternatives. This Tivall Burger is also the same brand of veggie burger patty that is used in the jewish shops around Stamford Hill.

Name: Tivall Vegetarian Chargilled Burgers ("Chargrilled burgers made form lightly seasoned soya and wheat proteins").
Ingredient list: Rehydrated Soya and Wheat Proteins (72%) (contains Gluten), Onion, Vegetable Oil, Egg White Powder, Salt, Yeast, Pea Fibres, Potato Starch, Flavourings, Stabilizers (Sodium Alginate, Guar Gum), Malt Extract, Onion Powder, Garlic Powder, Spices, Calcium Phosphate, Vitamin C, Vitamin B3 (Niacin), Zinc Oxide, Ferric Diphosphate, Vitamin E, Vitamin B5 (Pantothenic Acid), Vitamin B6, Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), Vitamin B1 (Thiamin), Folic Acid, Vitamin B12.

According to William Shurtleff & Akiko Aoyagi's "History of Soybeans and Soyfoods in the Middle East", in an 1995 Interview in SoyaScan Notes, Daniel Chajuss (of Hayes General Technology Co. Ltd, who has done a lot of work on Soy in the USA and Israel) said that Tivall is one of the 3 major manufacturers of meat alternatives in Israel (The others are Soglowek (aka Zoglabeck/Zoglovek/Zoglowek) and Shamir Food Industries Ltd with 50% of the Israeli (non-export) market. He suggests that Israeli consumers (even non-kosher and non-vegetarians) buy these vegetarian products because they are convenience products, and kosher diners automatically stay kosher by eating vegetarian food.

As for the interesting part, the interview also mentions the origins of Tivall - traced back to a Dr Michael (Micha) Shemer and Saul Katzen. Saul Katzen was the first person to make meat alternatives from extruded soy flour in patty form, but the soy flour product (fines from non-toasted white flakes sifted out prior to alcoholic extraction) was apparently not tasty enough and also gave people some intestinal gas. The soy flour was bought from Chajuss' company, and Chajuss apparently urged Katzen to buy soy protein concentrates instead of soy flour and run the concentrates through extrusion equipment. Although Katzen had the equipment, he stuck to soy flour because he felt that soy flour was less wasteful. Chajuss believed that the use of soy flour led Katzen's company into bankruptcy which was very sad, and for a long time before it happened Chajuss had been giving Katzen a lot of soy flour for free.

After that Michael Shemer came onto the scene, having left University of Illinois, he worked for Miles Laboratories which had purchased Worthington Foods, working on a citric acid project. When he was fired by MIles in the late 1970s he joined an Israeli company named Pedco which made many kinds of food products, and Shemer developed new processes for making meat analogs. In 1983 Tivall, a company located on a kibbutz in northern Israel bought Pedco. It had been established and incorporated solely for the purpose of purchasing Pedco and its activities. Dr Shemer was granted several international and israeli patents on his processes which use reducing agents to soften gluten, but it is speculated that Tivall no longer uses the Shemer patents, instead using a 1956 Hartman/Worthington patent which is now in public domain - and which is what the other company Shamir is also using now.

Tivall's vegetarian 'meat alternatives' apparently start with wheat gluten and use a reducing agent such as sodium sulfite or ascorbic acid (low pH) to make the gluten soft. A 1956 patent issued to Warren Hartman and assigned to Worthington Foods describes how to soften gluten by adding soy flour or soy protein. Their recipe seems to be a matter of food chemistry. Perhaps not as high-tech or exciting as I had expected but interesting to know exactly what I'm going to be eating.

Tivall Burgers with Mash topped with Fried Capers

We tried both frying them and baking them to see which would turn out better. I would say that baking them is infinitely better, frying does not impart the usual "browning" effects you might expect on them, but instead dries the insides of the patties out. Baking is extremely optimal. These patties were probably made to be baked.

The texture and the taste of these are excellent. So far, they have truly surpassed my expectation - complex and with a good bite to them. I would certainly eat this again - I think I even prefer these over normal meat burgers.

Next - for the sake of food exploration and SCIENCE - I will endeavour to try all the other Vegetarian/Meat-free Burgers including the Quorn Burger and Linda McCartney Vegetarian Quarter Pounder Burger. I was also interested in trying other meat-free burgers from UK supermarkets' own housebrands such as Tescos, Sainsburys, Asda, and Morrisons - however! It seems that from my preliminary research that Tivall is apparently already the key supplier of meat-free alternatives for all these UK supermarket house brands! The sources seem flaky so I will have to dig a bit deeper. I would like to verify this and to see if there is a difference in products between the large retailers here. Tivall is apparently also very well established in many other countries in Europe, supplying some of the largest retailers in Netherlands, Israel, Germany, Sweden and Italy.

See also:
Tasty Mould: Quorn, Tempeh, and Huitlacoche

"Biggest Drain Cover I Have Ever Seen" turns out to be "Not A Drain Cover After All"

Today at Markfield Park we saw what I thought must be the biggest drain cover I had ever seen in my life.

The plate bore the words:

For human scale

Later whilst looking up "GIANT DRAIN COVERS" and other desultory diversions online, I learnt that it had not been a drain cover I had seen, but a weighbridge!

W & T Avery Ltd. had been a British manufacturer of purely mechanical weighing machines since the 18th century. They had a foundry and produced all sorts and sizes of mechanical weighing scales. A weighbridge is apparently just a very large scale that is mounted onto a concrete foundation and can be used to measure entire vehicles and their contents. Presumably this must have been used to measure the coal for Wood Brothers' Beam Steam Pumping Engine which was used to pump sewage and water as part of the Tottenham sewage treatment works and pumping station from 1888 onwards. The engine has been restored in the building behind (Markfield Beam Engine Museum) and there are apparently STEAM DAYS on special designated days...

Friday, 10 January 2014

DNA Extraction from Strawberries

Three strawberries lovingly squished by hand to break down the cell walls of the strawberry.
Strawberries are octoploid, meaning that they contain 8 copies of each chromosome.
Human cells are diploid, meaning that they contain 2 copies of each chromosomes.

To half a cup of (cool) de-ionized water add 2 squirts of fairy liquid, 1 tsp of salt, the strawberry pulp, and a small splash of pineapple juice (a few drops). Do not stir. Well you can slosh it about a bit, but don't stir it.

  • Detergent acts as a lysis buffer which breaks open the membrane enclosing the cell and the nuclei membranes within the cells.
  • Salt makes the DNA precipitate (solidify and appear) when the alcohol is added later.
  • Pineapple Juice contains an enzyme known as bromelain which is a protease, meaning that it breaks apart proteins.

DNA is thus released into the solution.

Without stirring, filter the liquid. Reserve just a small amount of the liquid.

(Because if you have too much liquid in your final cup you might find you don't have enough alcohol to go around. And you need as much alcohol as the filtered liquid for this. And god knows you probably only have a finite amount of alcohol.)

Add the same amount of isopropyl alcohol to the liquid. Do not stir.

DNA precipitates when in the presence of alcohol, which means DNA is not soluble / does not dissolve in alcohol. Fish it out with a stick.

Strawberry DNA can now be transferred to an Eppendorff Tube for storage. This 'spool' of DNA is actually a mix of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) and RNA (ribonucleic acid), so the entire process can also be described as nucleic acid extraction.

Thanks to Raphael Kim and Johanna for guiding us through this and other experiments in the workshop.

All notes above are mine own, do let me know if there are any inaccuracies on the role of each ingredient or step.

Urban Lichen, or maybe just "The City of Gum"

Yesterday after two continuous days of thinking about mould, on the way home I saw these ubiquitous splotches on the ground. In Singapore you often see black spots, which I find are usually either tar or dessicated slugs which have perished in the godawful heat. But in some parts of London I often see a lot of white spots. If I had to make an educated guess I would say they could be either paint splotches from the nearby whitewashed buildings, or lichen, or perhaps chewing gum. But what are they? I am not too sure. I am inclined to think that these are paint or plaster spots because lichen might not find it easy to colonize the pavement (which must presumably be regularly cleaned), and besides the obvious fact that pedestrians must be constantly disturbing the lichen, other factors such as low rainfall, pollution and dust surely also reduces the likelihood of lichen growth. But even if it is not actually lichen, I would like to refer to it as a form of "Urban Lichen".

White Spots on council slabs along Cromwell Road

Close ups

So what causes the streets of London to be covered in these white spots? Does anyone know? These were near Cromwell Road outside the Natural History Museum.


George tells me it is actually just chewing gum. Whilst I am loathe to scrape up this unhygenic material examine it in further detail (which is the next logical progression), I fear his speculation may be right. I find the notion hard to accept at first - I mean, WHY IS THERE SO MUCH GUM IN THE FIRST PLACE? HOW CAN THERE BE SO MUCH GUM BEING SPAT OUT ON ONE SINGLE ROAD? AND SO WELL SPACED OUT? - but... perhaps that is the Singaporean in me (the sale of chewing gum is illegal in Singapore). Are the streets full of unknown people's old wads of chewing gum?


Addendum 2:

Is it possible to extract high quality human DNA from very old chewing gum? Is it also possible to determine age and ethnicity from there?

Codex Borturini

Yesterday while doing research on Huitlacoche (Corn Smut) I ended up trying to find the Florentine Codex (before 1519) to find any images or reference in which Corn Smut was supposedly mentioned. This reminded me that once I did get to see the Borturini Codex in Mexico City at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, which has been the most amazing archaeological museum I have seen up to this point in my life.

The Codex Borturini is named after one of its first European owners, Lorenzo Borturini Benaducci (1702-1751), which seems a strange way to name a historical codex through all of antiquity, but I guess the name remains as its only reference. It is also known as "Tira de la Peregrinación” ("The Strip Showing the Travels"). It was painted sometime between 1530 and 1541 and is a pictorial depiction of the legendary migration of the Aztecs from the island of Aztlán to the Valley of Mexico. No thanks to the Spanish these old codices are an important primary sources for our present understanding of Aztec culture.

The Codex is produced on one continuous sheet of fig bark that is accordion-folded into 22 pages - but it seems to end prematurely with a rip in the middle of page 22 without an indication of whether the pictorial tale was complete or not at that point. The line drawings are not coloured in but they are still very fantastic - I had not expected such an ancient travelogue to look quite so - whimsical?

You can see a small version of all 21.5 plates on the spanish wikipedia entry for Tira de la Peregrinación, but here are some selected images I took when I saw it last year.

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Tasty Mould: Quorn, Tempeh, and Huitlacoche

Many vegetarians probably have heard of these protein alternatives (Quorn and Tempeh) but I find it surprising how it is not actually common knowledge what sort of process has gone into the invention and production of these popular vegetarian protein foods. I am not a vegetarian, but I have been very interested in cultivating fungi and soy-product production methods. I think a useful starting point for my research would be to find out how these interesting vegetable proteins are made.


This is a piece of quorn from the dinner I had yesterday

In the 1960s it was believed that there would be a shortage of protein-based foods by the 1980s due to the growing world population. This did not happen. The saprophytic fungus (mould) known as Fusarium venenatum was discovered growing in Marlow, Buckinghamshire in 1967. Saprophytic means that it obtains food osmotically from dissolved or decaying organic material such as soil. For a decade it was originally misidentified as Fusarium graminearum (which alarmingly, is another mould which is considered a serious plant pathogen, producing mycotoxins in cereal crops). (Source) Through a joint venture between Rank Hovis McDougall and Imperial Chemical Industries, a particular strain of the fungi known as Fusarium venenatum, PTA-2684 was produced, after a ten year evaluation program to select and produce the best mycoprotein product for human consumption. Mycoprotein is the name of the product itself, derived from PTA-2684, in which the ribonucleic acid (RNA) content of the fungi has been reduced.

Oxygenated glucose syrup (the food-grade carbohydrate substrate) is poured into a fermentation vat and inoculated with a pure culture of F.venenatum spores (axenic fermentation). It is oxygenated so that the F.venenatum can respire, and excess CO2 is removed from the vat. Nitrogen is added in the form of ammonia to simulate the production of protein, and vitamins and minerals are added to improve the growth of the fungus. The temperature of the vat is kept at a constant to ensure the optimal growth of the fungus. It can grow very fast, doubling its mass every five hours. Finally it is treated with heat to remove excess levels of RNA as excessive DNA or RNA can result in uric acid (from the nucleic acids) being metabolised in the human body when the quorn is digested (which can eventually result in gout).

The hyphae (long, branching filamentous structure of the F.venenatum fungus) have a high length-diameter ratio and are morphologically similar to animal muscle cells, making it suitable as a muscle fiber replacer. Its nutrient profile is favourable and 100g of mycoprotein typically contains about 11.25g of protein, 6.258 of fiber, 3.258 of fat, 2.5g of carbohydrate, and 85kcal of energy."

Food grade specifications of Mycoprotein (Source):

The two partners RHM and ICI invested on patents for growing and processing the fungus and other intellectual properties in the Quorn brand. The product was named after the village of Quorn in Leicester. Sainsburys agreed to stock the brand in 1985, which was its big break into the UK market - and later expansion into the Europe and North America market. All the Quorn in UK and Europe is produced in Marlow Foods' factory in Stokesley.

In 2002 Marlow Foods was told by the British Advertising Standards Authority to delete the claim that it was a "mushroom protein" unless it "also gives equal prominence to either the ingredient's fungal origin or explains its technical origin as a mycoprotein, found naturally in the soil but then put in a glucose medium and fermented." (Source)

Searching on the internet yields images of advertising for Quorn back in the early 2000s with the description of Quorn as a "mushroom protein". Perhaps it would be useful to try to discern the difference between Mushrooms and Fungi here. Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of fungi, and only certain types of fungi produce mushrooms. Technically speaking if a mushroom is a banana then a fungi would be the banana tree, so if we call a mushroom a fungi that would be a bit like calling a banana a banana tree instead. A slightly confusing thing is that the word "Fungi" comes from the latin word "Fungus" which literally means mushroom. But when we say fungi today it should mean things like mould, yeast, mildew, mushroom. I haven't put Lichen in the list because they are technically composite organisms consisting of a fungus and an algal species capable of photosynthesis growing together in a symbiotic relationship.


Tempeh [Image Source: Ivan Lian on Flickr]

Tempeh is usually made using the mould known as Rhizopus olligosporus. The Rhizopus genus fungi are very common and include the common mould you see on top of spoiled food (Rhizopus nigricans is the common bread mould). Rhizopus olligosporus is the main mould used because this mould has the "strongest protease and lipase activity which are ideal for breaking down the soybean's abundant proteins and fats), combined with the weakest amylase activity, making it excellent for producing tempeh from cereal grains or grain-soy mixtures.

To produce Tempeh, whole soya beans are first soaked and dehulled because the soya hulls are fibrous and not digestible for R. olligosporus. After that the beans are cooked, and then inoculated with R. olligosporus. Eventually the incubated beans and R. olligosporus will turn into one whole cake with the white mycelium (the vegetative mass of hyphae produced by the fungus) binding all the beans together. It seems that tempeh could also be made on other starchy beans but the traditional bean used for Tempeh is soy bean.

I could not find how tempeh was originally made or how it was invented. No story about how a tea leaf fell from a tree into someone's glass of hot water, just some rumors about indonesians leaving a bunch of cooked soybeans out until they got moldy (but tasty). There is a book written in 1985 titled "History of Tempeh and Tempeh Products (1815-2011)" by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi and this very comprehensive account of tempeh does not quite elucidate its very first origins, only the scientific attempts by western/japanese scientists to identify and define the mould that is used to create tempeh. Where did the the mould come from then? Where did the indonesians get the mould in the first place? Was it all a matter of trial and error, or of leaving their beans out and hoping the right mould would come along and infect their soybeans? Surely there was a slightly more organised history to this fermented bean product? The term itself "tempeh" originates from Central Java and is not derived from the Chinese which also have many soy foods which usually start with the prefix tau/tao.

What makes it harder to find out more about the traditional origins and methods of producing tempeh is that scientific research on methods of producing tempeh through the years - particularly that of the method by Martinelli and Hesseltine (1964) in which partially cooked, inoculated soybeans are incubated in a perforated plastic bag and frozen after incubation - is apparently responsible for influencing methods for producing tempeh commercially in Java as well as in smaller domestic quantities in homes today.


Corn Smut [Image source: International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center on Flickr]

I'm also morbidly fascinated by Corn Smut or Huitlacoche, a terrifying corn dish I once ate in Mexico. It was introduced to me as the "mexican truffles" at a posh hotel restaurant, and my friend Luis had waxed lyrical about the amazing taste of these "mexican truffles", but I was still very shocked when I cut open my omelette and saw these unholy white-grey corn tumours slowly oozing out in a puddle of little black spores. They had a rather... um... "interesting" cheesy taste but their visual appearance, to the uninitiated, is admittedly hard to get over.

Corn smut is apparently one of the oldest plant diseases to be illustrated in drawings - first being figured in the Florentine Codex which was prepared soon after the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519 (cue an hour's futile digression into looking up aztec codices...). The Aztecs also apparently consumed them and painted them in early murals.

[Image Source: Tania De la Paz on Flickr]

Ustilago maydis is a dimorphic fungus which grows in two ways: one as a single-celled haploid form on dead plants, and another as a parasitic, filamentous fungus which invades a living plant. It is a plant pathogen which affects seeds and flowers of cereals, wheat, corn, and grasses - and mainly corn, which is an important staple crop in Mexico. The Ustilago maydis relies on other plants like corn in order to complete its lifecycle.

When corn is infected, the normal kernels of corn on the cob are replaced by grossly inflated tumors which are the palpably swollen and enlarged cells of the infected corn plant, along with fungal threads and blue-blackish spores on the inside. Eventually the spores or teliospores burst out and fall off the corn, spreading in the wind. When it is being cultivated for human consumption, it is harvested before the teliospores burst out and becomes too mushy. Huitacoche has a short lifespan and has to be consumed within a short bracket of time. Although I am not sure if people eat it specifically for nutrition, when infected, the corn does have an increase in lysine which is an important amino acid for humans.

It is hard to decide whether the U.maydis is a detrimental or positive parasite for farmers. It can cause severe crop loss, yet in Mexico the swollen corn tumors are popular luxury foods. Farmers have been known to intentionally infect their crops with the fungus by scratching stalks of corns at their base with infected soil. It significantly increases the value of their corn when it is turned into corn smut, and it seems it is being researched as a solution for generating potential employment and income for farmers living in rural areas that already traditionally grow corn but are facing economic difficulties.

The etymology of huitlacoche is also particularly interesting. It comes from the Nahuatl word "cuitlacochin" which is thought to be from the Nahuatl words "cuitla" (excrement) and "cochtli" (sleeping). This is significant to the Nahuatl excrement does not only have the significance of waste but is often considered to be a distillation of food and wealth - for example, the Nahuatl word for "Gold" is teocuitlatl which is from "teotl" (god) and cuitla (excrement). I have always found this conjunction of waste/consumption and wealth/power to be of fascination to me.

Mould + Food = PROFIT???

The makers of Quorn seem keen to brand it as a mushroom-related product rather than as something that comes from what is basically mould from soil. Could it be because mushrooms are more palatable than mould? Most of my instinctual revulsion towards huitlacoche is that it looks like a mutated mouldy cob of corn - mainly the terrifying mouldy spores that burst out of the cells. Those who know my food idiosyncrasies will also know that I absolutely cannot consume blue cheeses or anything that is conspicuously mouldy, and am extremely cautious around fermented foods (especially dairy) that are meant to be intentionally sour (I am still very nervous about sour cream and vinegar). I see the presence of mould and a sour taste as possible indicators that a food has gone bad and should be disposed of. Logically, I can understand that they are not dangerous and perhaps even nutritious, but the fear of such foods (and of being sick because of consuming them) is a completely a physical reaction for me. I guess the idea of eating mould or a "waste" product, and even treating a "waste" product as a delicacy, is physically revolting/appalling even if I can identify it as being quite ideologically interesting.

In "The Accursed Share", Bataille writes, "On the whole, a society always produces more than is necessary for its survival; it has a surplus at its disposal. It is precisely the use it makes of this surplus that determines it: The Surplus is the cause of the agitation, of the structural changes and of the entire history of society." According to his theory of consumption, the accursed share is this excess portion of the economy that is destined to be spent in one of two ways: (1) to be spent as luxurious without gain (in the arts, in non-procreative sexuality, in lavish spectacles and monuments or (2) in outrageous and catastrophic outpourings (war, sacrifice, religion; a sacrifice so great that it even threatens the prevailing system).

Corn smut is a blight on corn and can lay waste to the entire crop if not controlled, so in effect it is a luxury in corn-centric Mexico where corn is the most important staple crop and is usually cherished and protected in most other circumstances. The corn plant is intentionally sacrificed through infection by the fungi, which kills the corn and makes it eventually no longer able to reproduce as corn. The infected corn cannot be used as staple crop; by being useless it is free, not subordinated to the normal demands of useful production; its price rises to that of a luxury good. Perhaps I am saying this only because its appearance makes me not exactly want to put it into my mouth - so I like to think that people came to love its taste because they associate it with luxury. Although I suppose in reality not everyone might be governed by such complex rules... what if for the most part people actually, really, really, just like the taste of it?

Bataille on the sacrifice: "The victim is surplus taken from the mass of useful wealth. And he can only be withdrawn from it in order to be consumed profitlessly, and therefore utterly destroyed. Once chosen, he is the accursed share, destined for violent consumption. But the curse tears him away from the order of things; it gives him a recognizable figure, which now radiates intimacy, anguish, the profundity of living beings."

Some Burning Questions that may never be answered

Quorn: What were the circumstances under which they discovered the soil fungus that was to be used to make quorn? Were the researchers simply looking all around nearby natural environments close to their laboratory for stray cultures of mould? Where exactly did it come from, and where can i find this mould in nature today? Did they really study 3000+ fungi before selecting this particular fungus? Is there more of this fungi in the world today because it is being so intensively cultivated and examined in labs today?

Tempeh: How did the first tempeh get made? How were tempeh starter cultures consistently put together before western and japanese scientists started investigating it and meddling around with it? Was it really just some human leaving out some old beans and them getting infected with fungi and people discovering that mouldy soybean cake was tasty?

Huitlacoche: What was the motivation behind the first human who decided to eat huitlacoche? Why would anyone eat a horrific looking corn - driven to it by hunger or desperation or madness? Does the revolting appearance add to the frisson and people's overall enjoyment of huitlacoche?

Friday, 3 January 2014

Architectural Fictions and Technical Utopias: Paul Scheerbart - The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White (1914)

After the meal, they went by automobile to the Orchid Hotel. It was situated close to the sea and had beautiful terraces.
"Don't you have a wish?" asked Edgar.
"Yes," responded Clara, "I would like to eat oysters."
"Of course we could do that," replied the architect, "but I thought you would express architectural desires."

Paul Scheerbart, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White, pg 96.
I think I've found my new favorite writer for the time being - the amazingly prolific and frustratingly much-untranslated Paul Scheerbart! Yesterday I eagerly received my copy of The Gray Cloth in the mail (so much that after carrying all our mail upstairs I seized upon the wrong package and excitedly opened one of George's similarly-sized packages instead).

Whilst researching about building facades last month, I got interested in finding out what would be considered the first fully double-skin facade building in the world. It was obvious there had to be some break in history, some turning point - the entire idea of additional glazed glass facades must have been a kind of design feature that people had to get to grips with. Even when Peter Ellis designed Oriel Chambers in 1864 in Liverpool, one of the first few buildings to make extensive use of glazed curtain wall construction.

Oriel Chambers (Source: Flickr)

With huge, bright iron framed oriel windows - it only received morbidly scathing reviews in its time - The Builder described of it: “The plainest brick warehouse in the town is infinitely superior as a building to that large agglomeration of protruding plate-glass bubbles in Water Street known as Oriel Chambers;” and even Charles Reilly, Professor of Architecture at Liverpool University described it in his book (Some Liverpool Streets and Buildings in 1921) as the "oddest building in Liverpool, at once so logical and so a cellular habitation for the human insect." It seems people just did not like the looks of it. Poor Peter Ellis designed another similar building on 16 Cook Street to even more withering reviews and was never to design another building ever again, decidedly only working on civil engineering projects thereafter. Yet today Oriel Chambers and 16 Cook St are regarded as having laid the groundwork for modern architecture.

So far it seems as if the honour of the first ever fully double-skin facade building goes to a certain Steiff Factory built in 1903. Designed by Richard Steiff, a teddybear designer, it was one of those architectural outliers before its time - "a pioneer work of industrial building without any immediate succession" (Fissabre & Niethammer, 2009) - designed to be bright for functional reasons, and not even signed off by an architect.

The Steiff toy factory in the illustrated catalogue of the Eisenwerk München AG in 1905 (Source: The Invention of Glazed Curtain Wall in 1903 - The Steiff Toy Factory / Anke Fissabre, Bernhard Niethammer / RWTH Aachen University, Aachen, Germany / Proceedings of the Third International Congress on Construction History, Cottbus, May 2009)

A useful post on facadesconfidential notes that it could not have signed off by an architect because no architect at the time would have considered it "a respectable facade solution". It was from this that I was intrigued by the mention of Paul Scheerbart; another speculation cited by facadesconfidential for why the double skin facade did not take off with the Steiff Building in 1903 was that: "The glass guru of the time, the poet Paul Scheerbart, would not write his very influential "Glasarchitektur" until 1914."

Turns out, Scheerbart did not only write an actual theoretical book on coloured glass and Glass architecture, but even wrote a novel on Glass Architecture. A NOVEL! AN ENTIRE NOVEL! And exactly one hundred years ago! Its German title is "Das graue Tuch zehn Prozent Weiß: Ein Damen Roman" or The Gray Cloth with Ten Percent White: A Ladies' Novel.

A photo of Paul Scheerbarts by Wilhelm Fechner, 1897.
Even the photograph of the man seems so curious. Why is his head off-centre? Was the space above his head left intentionally empty? What manner of a pose was he even trying to strike, and what was cropped off! All the questions that may never be answered!

Around midday, when the sun became visible outside, there was some commotion in the exhibition hall. The splendor of the colored-glass ornament was so enhanced by the sun that one was at a loss for words to praise this wonder of color. Many visitors shouted repeatedly, "Delightful!" Wonderful! Great! Incomparable!"
While the exclamations were repeated over and over, better-educated visitors found these and similar words quite distasteful. Fortunately, the exclamations stopped as soon as the sun crept back and there remained nothing left of it to see.

Paul Scheerbart, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White, pg 3.

My impressions of it from a quick first read are that it is most delightfully shouty and full of moments of passionate, idiosyncratic glass/architecture/engineering/archaeology-related rhetoric, along with perfectly timed comedic moments of dumbfounded silence. I should not have imagined it possible to write such a thing before I read this. The novel is about a Herr Krug, a famous Swiss architect who impetuously marries a beautiful pianist, Clara Weber, on condition that she sign a marriage contract - agreeing that she will always wear gray with ten percent white, out of respect for his magnificent glass architecture. Clara agrees, but this is not to say she is a wallflower and a mere foil for Edgar Krug's desire for power and the realisation of his ultimate architectural fancies; she can pull her own creative weight as well - the vibrations of her music is what makes people sit up and admire the delicate glass structures around them. The two cruise around the world in an airship, as Herr Krug constructs more and more fantastical glass architectures in exotic locales, warring with clients' tastes and budgets, and architectural context (flatly refusing to construct glass obelisks on top of the pyramids out of his respect for ancient architectural monuments). They dine on the finest cuisine, visit the most astounding natural sights, and socialize in high society, with their wedding even becoming parodied in a movie made as a spectacle for "European audiences" (producing a hilarious scene in which Herr Krug stands up and informs them he was actually born in Europe). I quite enjoy the dialogues between the figure of the hero-architect and others who question his architectural fictions, all of which is delicately presented within the novel as fictions within fictions. Commenting on an incident where Herr Krug blows up after a female artist from an artist colony convinces Clara to wear ten percent plaid instead of ten percent white, Clara says:

"My husband has such an inconsiderate, progressive nature that one must forgive his stubbornness. He is really consistent like a true hero in a novel. The name Edgar sounds too fitting for a novel."
"Oh!" shouted her husband, "precisely because it sounds so much like a novel do I go to a lot of trouble to veil what is like a novel in me!"
"Oh yes," then shouted Miss Amanda, "with your wife's gray cloth, isn't that true?"

Paul Scheerbart, The Gray Cloth and Ten Percent White, pg 102-103.

Ah! I should only hope that one day I should be able to write an equally engrossing architectural novel.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

The Unknown Language

“The dream: to know a foreign (alien) language and yet not to understand it: to perceive the difference in it without that difference ever being recuperated by the superficial sociality of discourse, communication or vulgarity; to know, positively refracted in a new language, the impossibilities of our own; to learn the systematics of the inconceivable; to undo our own “reality” under the effect of other formulations, other syntaxes; to discover certain unsuspected positions of the subject in utterance, to displace the subject’s topology; in a word, to descend into the untranslatable, to experience its shock without ever muffling it, until everything Occidental in us totters and the rights of the “father tongue” vacillate – the tongue which comes to us from our fathers and which makes us, in our turn, fathers and proprietors of a culture which, precisely, history transforms into “nature”.”

Roland Barthes, Empire of the signs, pg 6.

I came across a copy of Barthes' Empire of the Signs lying about in the house which George had picked up from the nearby charity shop; the portion above was what convinced me to read the rest of it. Although mainly described as an colourful account of Barthes' attempts to read "Japan" or what "being japanese" entails whilst not knowing how to speak Japanese, what Barthes describes seems applicable to so many other encounters with foreign languages. I find that this passage accurately articulates my motivations for (so far abortively) learning new languages (including that of Chinese). Although Chinese is technically my "mother tongue" and it was compulsory to study it for 12 years of our education, due to an apparent lack of use over the years, today I do not know Chinese grammatical rules except by the vaguest of internal intuition and I rely on a dictionary to furnish me with the names of even the most basic of household items. However with whatever vestigial characters I can recall or pick up along the way, I do delight in the occasional epiphany of the combined significance of Chinese radicals/characters and what I take away from that in understanding the same word in English. I think that most recently, in a rather similar way, George has been trying to learn Chinese characters by decomposing them into radicals and trying to make sense of what these combinations mean.

Which reminds me of a show I really like, the Japanese anime "Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei" (さよなら絶望先生 / So Long Mr Despair). I rarely watch anime but the premise of the first episode was compelling enough - it plays on the notion of kanji characters being easily decomposed into their radical parts or recomposed into characters which have different sounds and meanings. The titular Zetsubou Sensei or Mr Despair (絶望先生) has a family name 糸色 which when written horizontally (instead of vertically as chinese/japanese/korean script is commonly written) looks a lot like the word 絶 - which is the same as the Chinese character 绝 (jue), which for me means something broken, lost, ended, beyond or going right past the end of no return... 絶望 is thus to lose all hope, and despite his constant rejection and resistance against being called this name, obviously his name spells out his personality in the show...

From "Sayonara, Zetsubou Sensei"

To go back to the excitement of discovering there are different shades of meaning in languages - basically what I mean is that for me my interest is in learning the foreign word in order to understand how it is similar or dissimilar to the same word in another language; all whilst recognising that difference without absorbing its values and ideals into one's own. On one hand I suppose it is a way to excuse oneself for being a little too lazy or fixed in one's ways to master and internalize a whole other language, but then again, perhaps this is all I really want out of the second (or third, or fourth) language experience - not to speak it but just to be able to produce a theoretical construct of a foreign language/logic?

And in a way it is not just foreign languages which are of interest to me but also alternative forms. I like to think I want the same from maps or data. Like for example, in Moretti's Abstract Models for Literary History, he posits an experiment in which text is quantified as data points, from which models of literary forms can be drawn, such as in the style of "graphs from quantitative history, maps from geography, and trees from evolutionary theory" - which looks really interesting in that it "challenges existing interpretations, and asks for a theory", which in the end is also a problem in itself…

"I had found a problem for which I had absolutely no solution. And problems without a solution are exactly what we need in a field like ours, where we are used to asking only those questions for which we already have an answer. ‘I have noticed,’ says Brecht’s Herr Keuner, ‘that we put many people off our teaching because we have an answer to everything. Could we not, in the interest of propaganda, draw up a list of the questions that appear to us completely unsolved?’

Franco Moretti, Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for a Literary History, pg 26