Reign of terroir (part one)

There are green chiles, and then there are Hatch, New Mexico green chiles.

There are tomatoes, there are Roma tomatoes, there are San Marzano tomatoes, and then there are the Pomodoro San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino from the Sarno Valley. If you cannot tell the difference, you are not allowed to make a Vera Pizza Napolitana. Ask anyone who is certified by the Associazione: the volcanic plains to the south of Mount Vesuvius impart a taste, no… a feel… I actually don’t know what it is. But those tomatoes are the bomb.

If you ever want to wind someone up and you don’t care if you get a word in for the next few minutes, tell an oenophile that wine grapes are wine grapes no matter where they’re grown. Then sit back and enjoy the ensuing lecture about how wine is all about the appellation, and how varietals respond to temperature differentiation, humidity, dry farming and biodynamics, proximity to a noisy highway, and your ignorance, you two buck Chuck-swigging neanderthal.

Fun fact: Champagne is only champagne if it comes from the Champagne wine region in northeast France. If it comes from anywhere else, it’s just carbonated (“sparkling”) wine.


Quality matters. Some things are inherently better than others. Appreciating this fact depends on both the thing itself and on the person who experiences the thing.

Since labels on both packages say “natural” etc., only a knowledgeable shopper can distinguish between a salmon that came from Copper River and one from a foul, fecal fish farm in Scotland. People who don’t know better often settle for inferior product or process.

If that last sentence comes across as judgemental, please rest assured: It most certainly is. You should be too. Sound judgement is a key to our survival. If that kid who went Into the Wild (book/ movie) had been able to tell which plants were OK to eat, he might have survived.

Here’s the way I put it in Academy of One:

The Breakfast Burrito Principle

There are two breakfast burritos on the table in front of you. One burrito is piping hot. Steam rises from the soft flour tortilla that embraces fresh cubed Yukon Gold potatoes, eggs from happy, local pastured hens, Hatch green chiles, and fresh cilantro from the garden.

The other burrito was processed two years ago by a frozen food company that took over a converted auto parts factory next to a waste water treatment plant. It smells like freezer. Someone froze it, let it thaw, froze it again, then microwaved it. The hardened ends are hot, but you can still see ice crystals in the middle. This burrito has blue spots and is hairy with mold.

We live in a “don’t judge me” culture, but in truth we should absolutely judge, especially when it comes to authenticity and quality. If you choose your burrito wisely, your breakfast will nourish you and give you pleasure. If you don’t, it will make you sick.

Anthropological terroir

Terroir influences our identities as people.

The August 1935 edition of The Rotarian championed the idea that, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” Fast forward to Snoop Dogg: “You can take the boy out the hood but you can’t take the homie out the boy.”

Studies in neuroplasticity have shown that our brains are malleable. We are capable of changing our perceptions and behaviors. However, we all start somewhere. Be it the farm or the hood, where you’re from shapes the lens through which you view the world.

My terroir

I am from Los Angeles. LA. The City of Angels. I was born in Encino and raised in Van Nuys and Northridge – the center of America’s Suburb, The San Fernando Valley. The Valley. Which explains my attitude that every other valley is just “a valley,” i.e., some other less well-known valley that requires a name. Need evidence? There is only one Valley Girl (Zappa’s song) and no one is confused about where she’s from. (Omigod I am so000… sure! Silicon? San Joaquin? Hudson? Ohio River? As IF. Gag me with a spoon.).

Wherever else I have lived or visited, LA remains a part of me. I am a creature of glittering broken glass in strip mall parking lots. I attended LA public schools from kindergarten to UCLA. Just as I carry the DNA of my parents, I carry the DNA of Hollywood storytelling, car culture, donut shops, tacos, and noir. Smog. Riots. Traffic. Earthquakes. Boob jobs and botox.

Your brain on terroir

Anthropological terroir is more than a matter of folklore or personal anecdotes. Our surroundings are our learning laboratories. Children who grow up in rural settings learn the world through weather, seasons, animals, and plants. In urban settings, children are confronted by lessons in economics, sociology, transportation, and sometimes criminology.

Our terroir affects brain development. Psychologists at Oxford University and Duke University conducted a longitudinal study of more than two thousand twin children. Their analysis revealed that growing up in the city nearly doubled the likelihood of psychotic symptoms at age 12.

Built environments

Unlike the natural terrain that shapes the character of crops, or the cities into which we are born without a choice, people grow and learn in environments that are built for the purpose.

We shape our buildings. Thereafter, they shape us. -Winston Churchill

Architecture is more than static design. It is the lived experience of interacting in and with a space. How we use a room defines the room. How can a living room live up to its name if no one ever goes in there? Is a family room a family room if the family never spends time together in it?

Each of us develops habits and routines around how we engage with the spaces we inhabit. Architecture – especially in spaces where we are encouraged to achieve outcomes, both individually and collectively – aligns with our learned preferences, like the tumblers of a safe. We should be mindful of what’s worked, and what hasn’t, so that we can improve.

Otherwise we wind up trying to fit the Information Age into medieval design patterns.

As Marilynne Robinson wrote in her novel Gilead,Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations.”

The communicative value of design

Why is a midcentury modern design by Richard Neutra or a craftsman or prairie style design by Frank Lloyd Wright worth more money than a tract house in a master-planned development?

Well-done architecture is an art form, and art brings people together. When we experience a space that conveys values of care, humanity, and attention to detail, we feel valued and we want to reciprocate in appreciation.

Just like the terroir of crops, the terroir of intentional design expresses itself in the characteristics of the thing being made – we experience this in our living spaces through light, warmth, and a sense of organization.

Effective architectural design is an act of empathy.

Architecture communicates. Even relatively impersonal settings such as offices and government buildings convey senses of security, wealth, and status.

A lesson in architecture: school hates you

What does school’s architecture say?

  • Behave yourself.
  • Don’t get too comfortable.
  • You’re not worth the money.
  • “Portable” doesn’t mean what you think it means.

Apart from some notable, exclusive exceptions that prove the rule, the architecture of school is downright mean. Barracks/ mental hospital chic as defined by divisive spaces, right angles, hard surfaces, and muted pastels. Bells and buzzers echo off concrete. What kind of masochist would you have to be to design a space for yourself that looked and felt like this?

Effective architectural design is an act of empathy.

Our failure to design schools as learning spaces is a lost opportunity. As Sarah Williams Goldhagen writes in her wonderful book, Welcome To Your World: How the Built Environment Shapes Our Lives,

“Research clearly demonstrates that design is central to effective learning environments. One recent study of of the learning progress of 751 pupils in classrooms in thirty-four different British schools identified six design parameters – color, choice, complexity, flexibility, light, and connectivity – that significantly affect learning, and demonstrated that on average, built environmental factors impact a student’s learning progress by an astonishing 25 percent. (italics in original) The difference in learning between a student in the best-designed classroom and one in the worst-designed classroom was equal to the progress that a typical student makes over an entire academic year.” (italics in original)

Free your mind and your ass will follow

Nothing in education is neutral. For example, school architecture is literally disintegrating. As I write this, Howard University students are living in tents to get away from the mold, roaches, and mice in their dorms, and a billionaire is proposing windowless mass housing at the University of California Santa Barbara.

[UPDATE: When you’re writing about deplorable school architecture and the ceiling literally falls in on students.]

We will not improve conditions by wishing they were different, or requesting that administrators make incremental changes. In the words of Buckminster Fuller, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

This is not as difficult as it sounds. Start the conversation with purpose. Focus on the architecture between your ears.

As Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”

Open-Source Learning is the environment you build within yourself – you can manifest it elsewhere as you go.

Consider the student who moved our entire learning community to Yosemite.

Or the student who decided high school was a waste of time and took off.

Your life, your headspace

Coffee does not have a choice about where or how to grow – you do.

Preview of coming attractions

Next week’s post will present design principles you can immediately apply to level up your learning space. [Spoiler: Whether it’s a room in your house, or your school/office, it’s all in your head.]

If you have any questions, suggestions, or stories for Part Two, please feel free to Contact Me.