Outside In

[The soilless fecundity of hydroponic greenhouses near Grants, New Mexico]

I’m walking through a colossal terrarium with row upon seemingly endless row of espaliered tomato plants.  Each meticulously tethered specimen towers over me, bearing perfect fruit beneath a green canopy.  The bio-bionic interior sports miles of conduits, wires, automated moisture sensors and hoses full of optimized nutrient cocktails.   The bare pragmatics of the operation manifest like a Howard Odum diagram made real.  Here the limits to earthen productivity have met their logical architectural resolution.  Masses of vegetation are both liberated and augmented by regional climate constraints.

The scale and productive capacity of contemporary industrial greenhouses are impressive in and of themselves.  But then there are these unique greenhouse cities that have recently emerged.  These odd agglomerations of new standards of engineered efficiency and embedded globalism in which one encounters situations where there is far more architecture dedicated to housing vegetation than the city’s inhabitants and migrant workers.  In places such as the Almería Province of Southern Spain, the scale of England’s Thanet Earth seems miniature.  It’s here that Buckminster Fullers’s unrealized dome over the city has actually happened at a scale larger than even Fuller envisioned.  But it happened without fanfare, deliberate plan or design dogma; territories where vast architectural museums of (post) nature have inadvertently been realized.

As a Guardian article writes about it:

“From the lens of a passing satellite, Almería province is one of the most recognizable spots on the planet. The roofs of tens of thousands of closely packed plastic greenhouses form a blanket of mirrored light beaming into space.

The shimmering surface is [due] to an agricultural gold rush that has turned one of Spain’s poorest corners into Europe’s largest greenhouse. An area so arid and dusty that it provided the backdrop for spaghetti westerns, Almería has made a fortune by covering itself with a canopy of transparent plastic. Above all, it is a monument to the way we now grow our food. Almería, and the area around it, is Europe’s winter market garden, spread across 135 square miles.

Symbols of hastily acquired wealth abound. Farmers glint with gold jewellery. New shopping malls rise above the plastic. Immigrants from as far off as Mali, Colombia or Ukraine offer their toil and their sweat. Instead of trying to sell cars or banks, billboards advertise seeds.

Antonio Moreno, one of thousands of smallholders who have built this plastic jungle, knows how to put fresh tomatoes on British tables in January or courgettes at Christmas. He grows crops that have no direct contact with nature beyond sun, air and water.  Mr Moreno’s plants will never touch soil – they grow from bags filled with oven-puffed grains of white perlite stone. Chemical fertilisers are drip-fed to each plant from four large, computer-controlled vats in a nearby room. He talks proudly of his vats. They hold, he says, potassium nitrate, magnesium and potassium sulphate, calcium nitrate and phosphoric acid. “The plants get exactly what they need, nothing more and nothing less,” he says. “There is no waste.”

Vegetated urbanism under plastic: Edward Burtynsky’s image of the Almería Province of Southern Spain (above) and the same region as viewed through Bing maps (below).

In addition to soilless agriculture, the conversion from glass to polyethylene is one of the key material technologies that has made these industrial prototypes feasible, as they are far cheaper to construct -  like beta or itinerant versions of crystal palaces.  Polyethylene is derived from natural gas arduously pumped from below the earth’s surface,  distilled through a variety of chemical processes, and then reconstituted as a diaphanous overhead statum – another anthropogenic geoshuffle.  As this membrane photodegrades in the sun, mixing itself back into the earth as innumerable and ever-smaller particles, it’s easily replaced.

In the contemporary geography of disjointed and lumpy agricultural specialization and productive teleologies we find it interesting to speculate on why such enclaves occur where they do.  As greenhouses such as these no longer require soil and can perform well within a wide latitude of climates (from the reclaimed Netherlands to Arizona’s deserts), their version of agriculture has the unique ability to float on other determinants, such as economic flows and disparities.  Terroir is lost, or at least somewhat confused in a blended and mobile network of landscape products – like the slight residual taste of a pulse of magnesium and potassium sulphate solution pumped through a cucumber from some other off world.

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2 comments

  1. That’s utterly amazing. Actual square *miles* of greenhouses? Definitely urban agriculture.

  2. (2005 film) Review–”Welcome to the world of industrial food production and high-tech farming! To the rhythm of conveyor belts and immense machines, the film looks without commenting into the places where food is produced in Europe: monumental spaces, surreal landscapes and bizarre sounds – a cool, industrial environment which leaves little space for individualism. People, animals, crops and machines play a supporting role in the logistic of this system which provides our society’s standard of living. OUR DAILY BREAD is a wide-screen tableau of a feast which isn’t always easy to digest – and in which we all take part. A pure, meticulous and high-end film experience that enables the audience to form their own ideas. Written by Anonymous” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0765849/

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