Sa(l)vaging the Forest

“When Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb, it is said, the first living thing to emerge from the blasted landscape was a Matsutake mushroom.”

- Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World

A Tibetan town named Shangri-la in Southwest China went through an extremely intensive period of logging during the 60’s, but its forests would ultimately be left, damaged and abandoned after the logging ban which would follow. However, from this once relentlessly exploited landscape, the Matsutake mushroom would emerge. As one of the world’s most valuable mushrooms, the rarity of appropriate growing conditions makes them extremely difficult to find, and the symbiotic relationship with their host trees is too sophisticated for humans to control, so as to render them essentially non-cultivable. These mushrooms only grow in disturbed landscapes; in footprints, or else as a result of animal grazing, and in scars left by logging activity. These disturbances, in a conventional sense, thus create a spectacular scene of collaborative survival between the human and non-human, providing the ideal conditions for the thriving growth of Matsutake Mushrooms, and their host trees.

The project, developed within the context of the Royal College of Art, aims to rethink the idea of nature conservation through unconventional means - using architecture in the form of human and nonhuman disturbance as a productive principle for ecological preservation. The design intervention begins with seven sites in or near the forests of Shangri-la, which provision for their inhabitation of the matsutake pickers as well as a mushroom sorting and shipping centre. Depending on their contexts, these seven sites can be categorized into three typologies: the ones in the forest, the ones in the pasture, and the ones close to the farm. They are strategically allocated to combine with local logging, grazing and farming patterns, setting up the conditions for a near-constant, and ecologically productive disturbance of the forest. People log in the forest, keeping the forest thin; animals graze in the forest, eating the forest litter and spreading spores that land on their noses and feet; and fresh Tibetan barley sustains the humans who subsist on this landscape, with dried stores sustaining the animals when everything else dies in winter.

This is the basis for a set of built proposals which attempt to align their metabolism with the cycle and seasonal patterns of the year; its architecture emerging, aging, dying and re-emerging with the trees, the Matsutake, and its surrounding context.

KOOZ What prompted the project?

FZ Led by my design tutors at the Royal College of Art, Cooking Sections, I began to explore the built environment and the constantly changing landscape under the consequences of the financialisaton of nature. I have always been interested in food and the culture of dining, and I learned about Matsutake mushrooms from a Chinese food documentary called A Bite of China. It fascinated me how the local forest was protected because of the symbiotic relationship these mushrooms have with their host trees, and how the price of the mushrooms increased significantly once they are shipping aboard. I then read the book, The Mushroom at the End of the World - On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins by Anna Tsing, which talked about how certain human and non-human activities (what might be seen as “disturbances”) have accidentally created the emergence of new ecologies out of the ruins, such as Matsutake mushrooms.


KOOZ What questions does the project raise and which does it address?

FZ What is nature? And what defines a “natural” environment? We tend to protect what we believe is more valuable as “natural” (i.e. comparing the commercial value of a tree in the Hyde Park and a tree in the Amazonian forest) and diminish the rest. Those trees in the matsutake forest only became “valuable” after the mushrooms appeared, considering the area used to have the temporary forests that created some of the richest biodiversity before it went through an intensive clear cut.

For a long time, humans believe we “manage” nature because our existence is more significant than others. The project investigates in the “more-than-human” Anthropocene and looked at co-dependence between human and non-human. Rather than overruling nature, the architecture here creates a new form of eco-system, and we as humans are just one part of it.

KOOZ What is for you the role of the architect within the age of the Anthropocene?

FZ I have been working as a co-editor for a digital publication called Feral Atlas, the More-than-Human Anthropocene, with anthropologists Alder Keleman, Jennifer Deger and Anna Tsing, the author of The Mushroom at the End of the World. This project has made me realize the significance of interdisciplinary collaboration for architects, such as with natural and social scientists. Feral Atlas (FA) studies how human-made infrastructures, industrial or imperial, has created out-of-control effects which FA refers as “feral ecologies”. I found it extremely important for architects to be aware of the spatial impact the architecture we design would create. It concerns me that nowadays, many architectures seem to reply solely on high technology to solve environmental issues rather than investigating in the core matter. Say, instead of trying to constantly boost the efficiency of greenhouses and industrial farms, we should be aware that the crowding of plantation in a concentrated area has made the pathogenic fungi to be nurtured and spread so much more easily, hence creating diseases that infect plants and humans. I believe the design solution would be very different when architects realize that changes needed to be made to the system we live in, and it’s our responsibilities to act on it.


KOOZ What is for you the power of exhibitions as those of 'Broken Nature at the Triennale of Milan', 'Nature at the Cooper Hewitt Design Triennial' and the next Architecture Biennale 'How will we live together' curated by Hashim Sarkis' in a collective awakening?

FZ Interestingly, Feral Atlas has recently participated in similar exhibitions, such as this year’s Istanbul Biennial and Sharjah Architecture Triennial. It is encouraging to see how art and architecture are shifting its focus towards the Anthropocene, but it also shows how urgent we ought to respond actively in the current era of environmental and ecological crisis. Art has the power to grab people’s attention and encourage them to not turn away from horrible stories that are happening around us. This is the reason why Feral Atlas, as a research project, chose to present itself as a digital, interactive website, and I think exhibitions like the Broken Nature is trying to do the same.

KOOZ Where do you see the relationship between architecture and the natural environment developing?

FZ To me, it is important for architects to look back and study the way our ancestors built, lived and interacted with nature. Some indigenous architecture and farming techniques have proven to be extremely intelligent and efficient, and there is no reason why we cannot re-apply them in a modern context. There should also be more architectural projects emphasizing non-humans.

KOOZ What is for you the architect's most important tool?

FZ Mapping. It shows a critical thought process and links the obvious with the unseen. It also provides an important analytic foundation for design interventions to emerge.


Feifei Zhou graduated in architecture from the Royal College of Art, London, in 2018, receiving the Dean’s Prize. Her research and design work focuses on ecological and cultural preservation through architectural interventions. She is currently a guest researcher at AURA: Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene, working on a digital publication entitled Feral Atlas, the More-than-Human Anthropocene.

21 Nov 2019
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8 minutes
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