Architecture Without People: the Built Environment of Machines

Archdaily_Data centers, automated assembly lines, telecommunications facilities, and warehouses represent a very utilitarian aspect of the built environment, and yet they compose a particular kind of infrastructure within contemporary society, one that is fundamental to the development of everyday life. Rarely discussed within the profession, these new typologies have more recently penetrated the architectural discourse, raising questions about the architectural significance and design potential of the spaces sustaining the mechanics of today's world.

The rise of new typologies that cater to the machine prompts a conversation about a kind of architecture where human scale is no longer the default measure of space and where the parameters that define the built object do not defer to the human condition, cultural signifiers, and patterns of movement or orientation. Imperative for spatial organisation are time, technical requirements and process efficiency. In these automated landscapes, people are merely tasked with supervising the automated processes.

Seemingly lacking architectural qualities, and to a certain degree not designed for people, what sets these typologies apart from mere infrastructure is their relation to our cultural landscape. The anonymous building housing the Google servers is, in fact, a cultural archive for contemporary society. The Facebook Data Center in Prineville stores the digital image of the personal lives of almost 2 billion people. As Rem Koolhaas notes, "At a moment when our collective history is digital, the data center is becoming one of our most signi­cant cultural typologies".

This architecture situated outside of the human scale has been around for several decades now, with notorious examples such as the AT&T Long Lines Building in New York and its telephone switching equipment hidden behind windowless walls. However, automation and data-driven processes have become ubiquitous in recent years, and architects can no longer ignore the changes they produce to the built environment. It is within this automated landscape and the infrastructure of the Internet that lies the spirit of the age. In an interview with Strelka Mag, speculative architect Liam Young compares the new typologies to "the grand cathedral or the great library", stating that "these are the cultural typologies of our time." As guest editor of Architectural Design's Machine Landscapes: Architectures of the Post-Anthropocene issue, Young curated a mapping of the various expressions of the phenomenon, promoting the engagement of the architectural profession with this new development in the built environment.

The practice is evolving to appropriate this kind of architecture, as some initiatives and design proposals seem to indicate, reconsidering their aesthetic and relationship to communities and landscapes, whether rural or urban. For the moment, the fertile ground of inquiry is the typology of the data center. The design collective Project Rhizome has been exploring the idea of using the Internet infrastructure to create attractive urban environments, by curating the interface between the two, through the paring of data centers with public amenities.

Similarly, Snøhetta's The Spark concept reimagines the data center typology as an integral part of the urban environment, transforming the high-energy-consuming building into a source of energy by using its excess heat to power public amenities in the vicinity. The images for the proposal reflect a lively atmosphere in and around the building, indicating the merging of the data center with more community-oriented programs. A re-reading of the same typology is Mecanoo's Qianhai Data Center proposal, the runner up in an international design competition. The concept features several strategies for integrating the utilitarian program within the urban environment, such as transforming the opaque tower into a digital display and creating connections with the immediate surroundings through a plinth featuring office spaces and landscaped terraces.

However, these typologies are predominantly found at the peripheries, in the countryside, or around small towns, which have, for the most part, been eluded by architects. For several years now, Rem Koolhaas has been pushing the conditions of the countryside to the forefront of architecture, arguing that is within this non-urban conditions that the fundamental transformations of the built environment are currently taking place, announcing the trajectory for the future evolution of architecture. Finding a common denominator for two topics of great interest to OMA, the museum typology and the countryside, the practice explores programmatic strategies through which data centers could become accessible to people. Paring the "stagnation" in the evolution of the museum typology and the number of artworks currently in storage with the condition of the data center, OMA speculates around the idea of merging the two forms of storage, articulating a landscape devoid of people to the public realm.

Generally, this machine landscape has no aesthetic agenda. The backstage of everyday life made up of data centers, logistics, and manufacturing is designed and built overwhelmingly by engineers and firms specialised in industrial buildings. Although situated at the fringes of architecture, these typologies are an interesting ground of inquiry, entailing a new type of architectural space, one with different imperatives, scale and measurements., a questioning of conventional architecture, with the potential to generate a new kind of aesthetic. Once again, technology is setting in motion changes in architecture. Rather than taking a step back and disassociating from this new technological landscape, the profession has the opportunity to appropriate the topic as an architectural issue.