“White Fungus” by Bruce Sterling (2009)

First published in “Beyond #1,” Sun Architecture, 2009.

White Fungus

As I was explaining to you last time, I named the boy ‘Vitruvius.’ I was younger then, and maybe a little too proud of my architecture degree. It was one of the last, full, cum-laude degrees from a major European university.

After I graduated, the Education Bubble burst. Universities were noble institutions nine hundred years old, but their business model had failed. Their value chain had been de-linked. Their unique value proposition was declined by the consumer. Globalization had routed around the Academy.

Maybe you can remember how people used to talk back then. We were impotent in our long emergency, but we were wonderfully glib.

So Petra and I, and baby Vitruvius — “Rufus” for daily use — went home to the Eurocore. The world was in turmoil, but I was young, I was strong, I had training. It was time to make a go of my architectural career.

I wanted to build in the place where I grew up. Our home was not Brussels, or Lille, or Luxembourg, or any of the formal venues in the Eurocore that were legal, historical cities. My home was that nameless locale that my professors called “white fungus.”

White Fungus was the edge-city. Semi-regulated, semi-prosperous, automobilized expanses of commercial European real-estate. Mostly white brick, hence the name. White Fungus had paved the region, while city planners were bored, or distracted, or bought-off.

We were natives of White Fungus. After eight years in school, I understood architecture, but White Fungus was what I knew.

There were six huge, civilization-crushing reasons why the white fungus could not survive. First, the energy problems. Second, the weather crisis. Third, the demographics. The elderly people in charge of our law and finance were hiding in gated enclaves. They still had the votes, they held the official positions, but they pottered around in their shabby-genteel misery, terrified by the weird turn the world had taken. They lived in a computer-game where they pretended to have incomes, pretended to obey laws, and pretended to lobby non-existent world governments. We were their children. So we pretended to read their emails.

The world financial crisis was world-smashing factor number four. I’d like to explain that financial crisis. Nobody can do that. Let’s just say that a 19th-century method of mapping value no longer fit the networked reality of the 2020s. Money had tried to cover too much of existence. Money was over-stretched, like an abacus that fails to do advanced math. The Euro was long gone. Tiny national currencies made no more economic sense than local newspapers.

I tried to explain some of this to Petra, including crisis number five, which was our huge public health crisis, and also world-crisis number six, which, frankly, I’ve forgotten now. Number six was a major issue at the time.

I explained that the lives that our parents had led had no further relevance for us. We were a modern European couple with a child, yet we were beyond help. No “man on horseback” was going to save us. No authority had coherent answers for our woes. I had every piece of music recorded in the past 200 years inside a backup the size of a match-head. But computers were not sources of wealth for us.

Moore’s Law had smeared computers around the planet, with silicon cheaper than glass. The poorest people in the world had cellphones: cellphones were the emblems of poverty. So we were badly off. We were worse off than former Communists in 1989 missing their Nomenklatura. We didn’t even have the ability to begin to define what had gone wrong with our existence.

We would have to architect some other order. Another way of life.

This was not what Petra perceived as our marriage bargain. We were two children of privilege with arty instincts. Our worst problem should have been picking the storage units for last year’s couture. We also had a baby, a bold act Petra now regretted.

Our young family’s safety and security was supposed to be my responsibility. There were better places in the world than White Fungus; why not flee there, why not rush over and emigrate? Petra could see those cities just by clicking on her screen. London, New York, Barcelona, these ancient cities still existed, they hadn’t vaporized. They were, however, visibly panicking as the seas rose at their docks, washing in boats full of the rootless and hopeless.

Petra had a screen; I had a screen; everybody in the world had those screens. Any city that looked like a lifeboat would surely be besieged by émigrés. I knew that. We were safer in White Fungus, where we belonged. There we were humble, nameless, and steeped in massive urban failure, which was our heritage.

The truth was that I was born a regional architect. I wanted to build where I lived, in the locale that had shaped me. The ruins of the unsustainable were the one frontier fully open to the people of my generation. Our great challenge was not the six great bogies that we feared so much. It was our own bewilderment, our learned helplessness.

As things worsened by fits and starts, Petra tossed in her recurring nightmares. She was sure that the lights would go out all over Europe. We would freeze and starve in the dark. We were doomed to a survivalist dystopia, with leather-clad science-fiction savages picking meat off each other’s thighbones. I could not convince Petra that there were no savages in our world. In the 2040s, everybody from the Abidjan slums to the Afghan highlands was on the Internet. The planet was saturated, networked from the bottom-up like the mycelial threads of white wood- rot. So we could access anything, and yet we could solve nothing.

Unfortunately, my brilliant theoretical framing could not assuage her primal fears. Our marriage failed as fully and glumly as our other institutions. Petra left me and the boy. She fled to the south of France. There she became the girlfriend of a French cop. This gendarme couldn’t protect her, any more than I could, but his jackboots and body armor made him resemble security.

Rufus and I moved in with my father. That seemed to work for a small while — then my father left us, too. He left us to engage in European politics, which he considered his duty. Sooner or later, my father assured me, our turmoil would return to a coherent European order, with a tax base, a social safety net, designer parking meters, and regulation low-flow green flush toilets. In stark reality, Europe was swiftly becoming a giant half-mafia flea-market where even Denmark behaved like Sicily.

In Brussels, the full repertoire of our golden civilization was still sitting there, on paper. All the codes, the civil rights, the human rights, the election rituals, the solidarity, the transparency, the huge regulation. Yet Brussels itself, as a badly overloaded urban entity, was visibly imploding. The surreal emanations from Brussels sailed right over the heads of the population without encountering the least resistance from the fabric of reality.

Despair is a luxury for a single father. I was rich in self-pity, but one fine day, I forgot about that. I had lost so much that the fabric of my new existence had a lively, parametric texture: it was like sand dunes, like foam. Rufus was beginning to walk, to talk. Rufus was never my burden: Rufus was my client. He was my strength.

My goal was to map the structure for his needs.

Food, of course. Young children are very keen on the idea of food. Where to get food? Like most European politicians, my father imagined that European cities were frail, artificial constructions, cordially supported by European yeoman farmers — the sturdy peasantry who pocketed the EU tax grants. This perception was untrue. Except for a few small-town hucksters clowning it up for the food-heritage industry, there were no European peasants. The reality was massive agro-business technicians organized in state-supported conglomerates. They enjoyed regulatory lock-in and vertical monopolies through big-box urban grocery chains.

That system no longer functioned. These apparatchiks were all broke. The rural zones of Europe were, if anything, worse off than the cities, which at least had some inventive options.

Logically, industrial farmers should move into places like White Fungus and industrially farm the lawns. Derelict buildings should be gutted and transformed into hydroponic racks. White Fungus was, in fact, an old agricultural region: it was ancient farmland with tarmac on top of it. So: rip up the parking lots. Plant them.

Naturally, no one in White Fungus wanted this logical solution. Farming was harsh, dull, boring, patient work, and no one was going to pay the locals to farm. So, by the standards of the past, our survival was impossible.

The solution was making the defeat of our hunger look like fun. People gardened in five-minute intervals, by meshing webcams with handsets. A tomato vine ready to pick sent someone an SMS. Game-playing gardeners cashed in their points at local market stalls and restaurants. This scheme was an “architecture of participation.” Since the local restaurants were devoid of health and employee regulations, they were easy to start and maintain. Everything was visible on the Net. We used ingenious rating systems.

People keenly resented me for this intervention. My coldly logical scheme was about as popular as Minimalism. I did it anyway. I designed the vertical racks for the outsides of old buildings, I designed the irrigation systems, and I also planted the webcams to deter the hordes of eager fruit thieves. I performed this labor in my “free time,” because the need to eat is not a “business model.” However, my child was eating fresh produce. All the children were eating. Once other parents grasped this reality, I received some help.

No mere fuel crisis could stop movement on the roads of Europe. The Romany came into their own in these surreal conditions; suddenly, these stateless, agnostic hucksters became the genuine Europeans. The gypsies still looked scary, they were still chiseling us, and they still couldn’t be bothered to obey the law. But demographically, there were hordes of them. They roamed the continent in booze- fueled bus caravans, which spat out gaudy mobile marketplaces. The Romany bartered anything that wasn’t nailed down. They were saving our lives.

At this point in our epic, Lillian appeared. Yes, Lillian. I must finally talk about her now, although Lillian was an issue I’ve been avoiding for years. Lillian never seemed like a major issue, even when I tried to make her into one. Still, she was what she was.

Lillian was the first true citizen of the new White Fungus. Lillian was native to White Fungus in the way that Cubism was native to Montparnasse.

Certain people have an ability to personify a place, to become an instantiation of it. There are Cockneys more native to London than a chimney-pot, and Milanese more Milanese than a glassed arcade. Lillian had that quality. She was the White Fungus in its mushroom flesh.

White Fungus never lacked for vagrants, interlopers, and derelicts. We even had a mafia and some amateur terrorists. After all, Europe was suffering six major forms of turmoil. That meant that troubled, evil people shared our daily lives. These wretches were not primitive or ignorant people; they were net-savvy and urban, just like us. So every one of these marauders had some beautiful rhetorical justification. They were “entrepreneurs.” They were “community organizers,” or “security forces,” or even “rescue personnel.” The worst of the lot were religious zealots eager to abolish all things “secular.” The second-worst were Marxists “critically resisting” something long dead.

Lillian never went in for that behavior. Lillian was a backpacker, a silent drifter. Lillian was “undocumented.” She was on the run from something, from someone — her creditors back in the former USA, presumably. Being American, Lillian was from a society that could no longer afford itself. Europe had blown six fuses, but the troubles in the United States of America were as dense as Sanskrit; the Americans had all of our troubles, plus several lost wars.

When I pressed the matter — I was impolite that way — Lillian told me that she had grown up in a trailer. Her parents had “home-educated” her, inside some Beatnik tin contraption, randomly rambling the American continent. Lillian had never owned a home, she had not so much as a postal code. Criminals had stolen her identity. When I looked her up on the Net, there were thirteen Lillian J. Andertons, every one of them in debt and most of them on parole. It seems entirely possible that Lillian had somehow re-stolen her own identity — deliberately vanishing into bureaucratic ineptitude.

When Lillian appeared among us, with her agenda cinched round her waist like a secret money-belt, a new vernacular architecture was already gripping White Fungus.

The region had been designed for cars, of course. Built for portly car-driving suburbanites, people eager to plunge into individual home ownership, into its unsustainability, its eventual chaos.

White Fungus was a developers’ mélange of mass-produced skeuomorphic “styles,” realized in lath, plaster, wire, glulam, and white brick. Those structures, dependent on climate-control, were rapidly peeling and rotting. The structures that survived had permanently opened doors and windows, and had vomited open their contents. Their occupants, deprived of delivery trucks and package services, were hustling permanent garage sales, living from barter. Abandoned buildings were torched by bored teens or ripped apart to tack, bolt and staple onto the living properties.

This denser, digital-feudal housing was easier to patrol, defend and heat. Almost everyone was growing marijuana, in the touching illusion that this fast- growing weed had some value. This was the new vernacular look of White Fungus: this tottering Frankenstein make-do patchwork, this open-air Lagos-style junkspace.

Lillian looked like that. That was her milieu. An indifferent female vagrant with a backpack, a billed hat, thick rubber boots, multi-pocketed work-jeans and, to top it all, a man’s high-visibility jacket in tarnished silver and aviation orange. Never any lipstick, scissored-off hair. Never anxious, never in a hurry. She had no more origin or destination than a stray cat. Asking for nothing, demanding nothing. Commonly she was munching something from a small canvas bag and reading a used paperback book. Lillian had mushroomed among us when no one was looking.

In times of turmoil, people love to talk about their troubles. I still talk about those times, as you can see. That was years ago, and life has become quite different now, but those were my formative times, my heroic times. That’s the consolation of a general catastrophe: that misery loves its company so dearly.

Lillian did not want to talk about her troubles, or about anyone’s. Lillian wanted to act. Demands for conversation bored her: they sent her out the door, into the street. There she merged into the fabric of the urban. She became unfathomably busy.

Lillian was on a mission: a one-woman rescue of junkspace. “Guerrilla urbanist” might describe Lillian, except that I’m flattering myself. In truth, I was the guerrilla urbanist in White Fungus. I like to think my efforts drew her there.

I was very busy, like she was. Once my boy was fed, the boy had to be schooled. White Fungus had a school of course, but it had no budget and its teachers had fled. It sat dark, paralyzed and useless at the end of a long commute.

We had no money for new construction. This meant that the children had to build their own school. Their parents were not particularly public-spirited, but they were driven mad by their children’s incessant presence underfoot. So these parents commandeered, they squatted, a dead retail box-store. We built the new school inside this vast, echoing space.

The school was made of cardboard: a ramifying set of parametric cardboard igloos. An insulated playground. Since there was no educational bureaucracy left, there was no more reason to build a school like a barracks. Let the children wreck their school, paint it, pierce it, kick holes in it; after all, it was cardboard.

My son’s school, a playground set of ramifying continua without doors or right angles, was generated out of package-strapping, velcro, and glue. The structure was a blatant fire hazard, in brutal opposition to a hundred building codes, and it had to be rebuilt every five weeks. This did not matter. The “curriculum” had nothing to do with previous school systems, either.

The school was no monument; as I said, the costs were mostly borne by sweat-equity, and that mostly from sweaty little children. Still, it was the first new building in White Fungus that looked like us — like the *new* us, like something novel we ourselves had created, that wasn’t a rip-off or a hand-me-down of the old ways. We were poor people with computers, so we had to set our computers to work on the poorest and humblest materials. On recycled paper. On fiberboard. On bundled straw. On recycled plastic, on cellulose glue, on mud, on foam.

On the abject. Machine processing always looked best when applied to the abject. Because the simplicity of the materials made one see the brilliance of the process. And what we could see, we could inhabit.

Since Rufus never wanted to “come home” from his wondrous new playground, I moved in with him. As a resident intellectual, the locals were keen to have me to teach school. I of course had no salary and no pedagogical clue. So I taught the rubrics of assemblage, the complexity of dynamic systems, and the primacy of experience in the philosophy of Charles Sanders Peirce. Those Peirce studies interested the children most. Indeterminate phenomenology was the one issue they couldn’t master through Wikipedia in five minutes.

Lillian had no visible interest in children. The school brought Lillian out of hiding because of her silent passion for abandoned buildings. I remember that she owned a thin, shiny hammock made of heat-reflective fabric, some American astronaut toy. The hammock came with anchors. She would dig her rubber boot- heels in, climb the junction between two walls — and reach the overhead corners, which are the deadest spaces in architecture. There she would fix her mirror-colored hammock, climb inside it and vanish.

Whenever Lillian was gone, she was commonly four meters above people’s heads, invisibly sleeping. Sometimes I’d see the glow of a solar-battery booklight up there, as she silently paged through the works of Buckminster Fuller.

There was a legendary period in Fuller’s life, when Fuller dropped out of society, said nothing for two years, and invented his own conceptual vocabulary. In retrospect, I’m quite sure Lillian had experienced something similar. Fuller, for instance, realized that mankind lives on a globe and not a Euclidean plane. Fuller therefore used to refer to the direction “down” as “in,” and “up” as “out.” Fuller theorized that walking “instairs” and “outstairs” might help us to pilot SpaceShip Earth. In the long run, we got neither Utopia nor Oblivion; we got what we have.

Lillian took some similar approach, but she never spoke about it. Her practice had to do with junkspaces. Useful work could be done in junkspaces, but never within the parameters of reason. Junkspace was everywhere in White Fungus. Traffic islands. Empty elevator shafts. Gaps within walls, gaps between administrative zones and private properties. Debris-strewn alleys. Rafterspace. Emergency stairs for demolished buildings. Nameless spaces, unseen, unserviced and unlit. No economic, social or political activity ever transpired there. They were just — junked spaces, the voids, the absences in the urban fabric. This is where Lillian existed. This was her homeland.

She was always busy. Living in spaces no organized system could see, she took actions no organized system would take. For instance: if cars become rare or nonexistent, then bicycle lanes should appear. Of course, this rarely happens. Someone has to study the streets with care, find the paint, and perform the work. The administration taxed with such labor no longer exists. Worse, no shamefaced official wants to admit that the cars are truly gone, that a glorious past has collapsed through sucking its own exhaust, and that the present is abject.

Physically, it is quite simple to re-paint a street for a horde of bicycles. One small, determined adult could do this useful task in two or three nights. If they asked no permission from anyone. If they demanded no money for doing it. If they carried out that act with cool subterfuge and with crisp graphic precision, so that it looked “official.” If they calmly risked any possible arrest and punishment for this illicit act. And if they told no one, ever, about the work they did, or why, or how.

This was what Lillian was doing. At first, I simply couldn’t believe it. Of course I noticed her interventions, though most untrained eyes never saw them. I saw the work and I was, I confess, thunderstruck by its tremendous romantic mystery.

Here was this uncanny female creature, diligently operating outside any comprehensible reward system. Lillian was not a public servant, an activist, a political campaigner, a nun devoted to religious service; she wasn’t working for money, or ethics, or fame, or to help the community. She wasn’t even an artist, least of all a prankster, or a “subversive” of anything in particular. When she dropped sunflower seeds in a dead tree pit, when she replaced and re-routed useless traffic signs, tore out the dead surveillance cameras… She was just… being herself.

Those mushroom spores. Surely that was the strangest part of it. A mushroom pops out overnight: but the mushroom itself is a fruiting-body. The network of the mushroom, those tangled mycelial threads, are titanic, silent, invisible things, some of the oldest living beings on Earth. Seeding flowers is one thing — your grandmother might do that, it’s warm, it’s cuddly, it’s “green” — but seeding mushroom spores? Or spreading soil bacteria. To “befriend” the bacteria: who would ever see that? Who on Earth would ever know that you were the friend of microbes?

Well, I would know. Myself. Of course I would learn that, in the way that a man’s obsession with a woman makes it necessary for him to know. There’s nothing commoner than a lonely man, with his “chivalrous concern,” stalking a woman — whether she returns his feelings, or not.

They say — well, some sociobiologists say — that every creative work of the male species is a form of courting behavior. I could never make Lillian come to visit me, but, infallibly, I could get her to visit a project.

The projects started small, with the children, who were also small. The new architectural order scarcely looked like order, because it was growing in a different ontological space: not “utilitas, firmitas and venustas,” but massing, structure and texture. My personal breakthrough came when I began practicing “digital architecture” without any “computers.” I was adapting and upgrading the materialist methods of Gaudi and Frei Otto. I don’t want to go into that subject in depth, since there are so many learned treatises written about it now. At the time, we were not learning it, we were living it. Learning becomes so tiresome.

Let me simply summarize it as what it was: white fungus. A zeitgeist growing in the shelter of decay. First, it silently ate out the dead substance. When that work was done, it burst up through the topsoil. Then it was everywhere.

Our architecture did not “work.” We ourselves were no longer “working” as that enterprise was formerly understood. We were living, and living rather well, once we found to nerve to proclaim that. To manifest our life in our own space and time.

“If we can crack the design of the models necessary to accomplish this, it will propagate virally across the entire world.” I didn’t say that: but I did hear it.

The Internet — we used to call it a “commons.” Yet it was nothing like any earlier commons: in a true commons, people relate directly to one another, convivially, commensally. Whereas when they train themselves, alone, silently, on a screen, manifesting ideas and tools created and stored by others, they do not have to be social beings. They can owe the rest of the human race no bond of allegiance. They can be what Lillian was: truly, radically alone. A frontier wanderer with no map for her territories. Hard, isolated, stoic and a builder.

She was the worst lover I ever had: worse than you could imagine. To be in her arms was to encounter a woman who had read about the subject and was practicing sexual activity. It was like banging into someone on a sidewalk. Other aspects of our intercourse held more promise: because there were urban practices a single individual could never do within a reasonable time. Exploring, patching and clearing sewers. Turning swimming pools into aquaculture sumps. Installing park benches and bicycle parks. Erecting observation towers on street corners, steel aeries made of welded rebar where Lillian liked to sit and read, alone.

Lillian was no engineer, she had no fondness for electrical power or moving mechanical parts, but there were urban interventions that required such skills. There, at least, I could be of some service to her.

Inevitably, I could feel her growing distant, or rather, distant from me. “You don’t need a woman,” she said at last, “you need a nest.” That was not a reproach, because, yes, in White Fungus we did need nests. Lonely women were never in short supply.

Lillian appeared at my construction sites less frequently, then not at all. Then her friends… I wouldn’t call them “friends,” but they were clearly associates of hers, people who had intuited her aims and who mimicked her activities. Women, mostly. A cocktail party or a knitting-bee had more social cohesion than these women. They had no logo, no budget and no ideology. They were mercilessly focussed, like the Rubble Women of post-war Berlin. They were dusty women with shovels and barrows, and with no urge to discuss the matter. They did things to and for the city, in broad daylight. We learned not to fuss about that.

These women were looking after Lillian, it seemed, in the way that they might take in a stray cat. With no thought of reward, no means and no ends. Just to do it: because stray cats are from the street. So Lillian was gone, as she was always gone. Several months passed.

When she at length reappeared, I never saw her. She left me with a basket and a note. “My work here is done,” said the note. My second son was inside that basket. Not much need for talk about the subject: he was my futurity, just like my first one.

one of the better-known Bruce Sterlings