Author : Alex McLeod Schofield

University : University of California, Berkeley

Status : MArch, 2015

Advisors : Ronald Rael, Tom Buresh

Title : Coffee Apocalypse!

Coffee is the life blood of our culture. Coffee is black gold. We drink it to keep us awake and alert. We bathe in it to rejuvenate and revitalize our skin. We receive coffee enemas to cleanse ourselves. We feed it to elephants, whom digest and defecate the beans, to produce a nuanced $50 dollar cup of coffee.  These are the signs of the forthcoming coffee apocalypse.

In 2011 alone, we produced 8.7 billion pounds of coffee grounds as the second most traded commodity in the world, next to oil.  To get an idea of scale – if we were to replace the Empire state building’s concrete with coffee, we could could build roughly 2100 Empire State buildings in a year.  Perhaps it is because of our detachment with coffee, as commodity for consumption rather than plant and bean, that we often perceive coffee as [ material waste]. The focus is so largely on the end result, on that perfect cup of coffee, that we have become detached from all its imbedded cultural, economic, physical, and environmental footprint. For example, coffees chain of economy involves the exchange of hands roughly six times before reaching the consumer – in a process which is highly regulated in price by the WTO to artificially regulate its trade. In 2011 a farmer in Ethiopia might have received roughly 10 cents a pound of coffee while coffee was trading in the New York Stock exchange for $3.20 a pound. This large discrepancy further emphasizes our misplaced value in coffee and its historical misuse of a material for control and regulation. All of this is revelation that perhaps we understand very little about the power of such a commodity. Because if we did realize its power – as commodity, culture, and drug – we would realize that coffee is a huge waste, a missed opportunity as grounds for reuse. And for these reasons, we must build with coffee.

We can start right here, in the local Bay area which has seen a large growth of coffee roasters and shops, similar in growth to the emergence of the start-up and tech industry. In fact, there is no coincidence to such a correlation between the Bay Area’s local coffee and tech boom. The tech industry is comprised of labor fueled by caffeine and the coffee industry is in turn fueled through consumption of the tech industry.  The Tech wealth itself invests in new roasteries, start ups, and even the first coffee plantation in California just south of San Francisco. These investments and infrastructure further fuel the intense work habits of their young engineers and coders, who are held captive to the tech campus, as they feed off various amenities and gluttonous amounts of free caffeine. The long hours and intensity of work require a powerful social stimulant as well as a [ new typology ] for the office and work environment. Coffee is just one of the many components of which the tech campus uses to create more internal dependency on the new office typology rather than external fulfilments of life. Within this vicious circle is a modern day form of subjugation and servitude, akin to the sugar plantations of Haiti, from where the myth of the zombie is derived, or the mill towns of the Jim Crow south, where occupants were captive to the company store, housing and town.

Downtown Oakland has proposed its recently vacant and foreclosed 400,00 square foot Sears building as development for a new tech hub (Point out site map, adjacency to bart, local amenities, perfect site for further gentrification led by young tech wealth). It is here that revelations of the coffee apocalypse appear. What does the coffee apocalypse look like then?

As form and function is often dictated by material properties, carefully selected for their intended use, who is to say the construction of coffee might look like our traditional means?

Each of the building’s [ programmatic ] proposals begin as an amalgamation of various historical and cultural artifacts. The artifacts have carefully and intentionally been selected for their denotation/connotation within the various relationships of coffee. The late architect, Douglas Darden, once recollected a passage of Captain James Cookís journal. The great 18th century explorer wrote describing a ritual sacrifice in Morai:

“…the entrails were carried to the priests and laid down before them. While one of their number prayed, another inspected the entrails more narrowly and kept turning them gently with a stick. When they had been sufficiently examined, they were thrown into the fire and left to consume.”

We are constantly “turning” over our subjects and objects with great scrutiny as architects. The subject of coffee is turned over to fully understand its relationships, both new and old. Plan, section, and axonometric are juxtaposed to further find a deeper understanding of these coffee artifacts relationships as they would benefit the design process. The artifacts are then paired and arranged according to their explored programmatic elements. These cultural vessels, emerging through the theme of technology and intellectual property,  serve as the bases in exploration for new typology and subsequent form.

C-o-f-f-e-e, coffee is not for me,

It’s a drink some people wake up with,

That it makes them nervous is no myth,

Slaves to a coffee cup, they can’t give coffee up.

– Children’s nursery rhyme


S//A : What’s the most important aspect of this project that we should be aware of?
Alex McLeod Schofield_ So often are we disconnected from the materiality of things. With everything becoming pre fabricated, pre prepared, pre made, etc. we move farther and farther away from that materials origin. To break a material down, whether to its physical friable base or intangible imbedded cultural/historical origins, we can better understand the things we build and the world we live.

S//A : What other fields outside of architecture interest you?
AMS_ Coffee, Geography, Cartography, History, and anything outside (of buildings).

S//A : Most important thing you learned in architecture school?
AMS_ Do what you love, be passionate, the best projects are labors of love. But don’t worry so much, just do good work. Oh ya, and make sure to sit and enjoy your cup of coffee – don’t take it to go.

S//A : Describe your dream project
AMS_ A coffee cultural center, made of coffee.