December 4, 2012

ENGINEERING THE WORLD:

The Coldscape (Nicola Twilley, Fall 2012, Cabinet)
  
More than three-quarters of the food consumed in the United States today is processed, packaged, shipped, stored, and sold under artificial refrigeration. The shiny, humming stainless steel box in your kitchen is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak--a tiny fragment of the vast global network of temperature-controlled storage and distribution warehouses cumulatively capable of hosting uncounted billions of cubic feet of chilled flesh, fish, or fruit. Add to that an equally vast and immeasurable volume of thermally controlled space in the form of shipping containers, wine cellars, floating fish factories, international seed banks, meat-aging lockers, and livestock semen storage, and it becomes clear that the evolving architecture of coldspace is as ubiquitous as it is varied, as essential as it is overlooked.

J. M. Gorrie, a Florida doctor, was awarded the first US patent for mechanical refrigeration in 1851, with a device intended to cool cities rather than popsicles. Held back by heavy opposition led by the powerful natural-ice trade, not to mention the technical challenges that made early coldspaces risky as well as expensive propositions, artificial refrigeration for food only snowballed in the first half of the twentieth century, alongside the invention of plastic wrap and the introduction of self-serve supermarkets. Its story is central to every aspect of our national postwar narrative: the widespread entry of women into the workforce, the rise of suburban living, and the reshaping of the American landscape by the automobile. Gradually, at first, but now completely, in the United States--the first refrigerated nation--and then beyond, a network of artificially chilled warehouses, cabinets, and reefer fleets have elided place and time, reshaping both markets and cities with the promise of a more rational food supply and an end to decay, waste, and disease. 


Despite the efforts of industry bodies, government agencies, and industrial archaeologists, this vast, distributed artificial winter that has reshaped our entire food system remains, for the most part, unmapped. What's more, the varied forms of these cold spaces remain a mystery to most. This guide provides an introduction to a handful of the strange spatial typologies found within the "cold chain," that linked network of atmospheric regulation on which our entire way of life depends.


These are spaces in which a perpetual winter has distorted or erased seasonality; spaces that are located within an energy-intensive geography of previously unimaginable distance--both mental and physical--between producers and consumers. Artificial refrigeration has reconfigured the contents of our plates and the shape of our cities--it has even contributed to the overthrow of governments, as anyone familiar with the rise and fall of United Fruit can attest. Perhaps most bizarrely, although their variations in form reflect the particular requirements of the perishable product they host, coldspaces have, in turn, redesigned food itself, both in terms of the selective breeding that favors cold-tolerance over taste and the more fundamental transition from food as daily nourishment to food as global commodity.


Welcome to the coldscape: the unobtrusive architecture of man's unending struggle against time, distance, and entropy itself.

Posted by at December 4, 2012 12:50 AM
  
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