Architecture, in its strict sense, is no more dealing solely with Human beings, maybe it was never only about the Human, but our Anthropocentric gaze made us think so. Its scope has been expanding significantly, on one hand we have been studying and envisioning a new type of inhabitant, the Space-man. Unlike us, the Spaceman will have to deal with a new set of psycho-physiological and psycho-environmental stressors.¹ On the other hand, improvements in science and technology led to a new field of research where the Human factor is not mutating into an alternative one, as mentioned before, but it is completely gone, and this is the case of the Architecture for Machines. The following article introduces the advance around extra-terrestrial Architecture and focuses on the discussion around the progress of Architecture without people.
When the editors of AGORÀ told me about the title of the 17th International Biennale of Architecture in Venice, the phonetic similarity between the word “Live” and “Leave” led me to explore this thought-provoking theme of “How will we leave together?”. First thing that comes to mind would be that you are about to read an article on space travelling and, therefore, living in extraterrestrial environments. Consequently, where there is human life there will be architecture and viceversa. Indeed, the initial research was heading toward that single direction, and great number of studies have been already conducted on this topic; yet it seemed no less critical to take into consideration and tackle the conundrum of “What will be left behind?” through observing the work of contemporary researchers/architects.
© Wikimedia Commons, Stanford torus under construction, Don Davis, 1975.
The point that science and technology have currently reached shows that life in space is no longer a dream. Mankind will eventually undergo a transition from human to spaceman. Accordingly the Architect, through design, must seek an appropriate balance between earthly and cosmic conditions in order to ease this transition.
The first known description of living in space dates back to 1869, and it was made by Edward Everett Hale in the story “The Brick Moon”², in which the first space settlement was envisioned as a giant brick sphere thrown, accidentally, into the orbit of Earth.
There are three major examples of space settlements, visionary studies carried out during and after the summer workshop by Stanford University in collaboration with NASA in 1975: the Stanford Torus, the Bernal Sphere and the O’Neill cylinder. In more recent years extraterrestrial life has also become the subject of many science fiction novels, television series, and films; such as Elysium and Interstellar, as to mention two examples.
Furthermore, billionaire entrepreneurs like Elon Musk with SpaceX, Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin and Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic are joining in the space race. Their ultimate goal is to create commercialised, relatively cheap, space travel and life in space.
On the other hand, in Architecture, competitions stimulate Architects to develop a space-based approach. Conceptual projects come not only from the next generation of Architects, but also from global firms such as Foster + Partners; which have proposed the designs of Lunar Habitation (2012) for the European Space Agency and Mars Habitat (2015) on the occasion of 3D Printed Habitat Challenge organised by America Makes and NASA.
© NASA, First Humans on Mars – Artist’s Concept, 2019.
After stating that space architecture is a new frontier for design research, and Mankind leaving its one and only host, the planet Earth, will come true someday in the near future; let’s have a look at the future of our planet. This time, differently from the speculative extraterrestrial scenarios, we do have tangible and physical evidence of where terrestrial architecture is directed.
Before following on, allow me to digress a little. While this article is being written, Humanity is going through a difficult time; I am referring to the pandemic outbreak that has temporarily turned upside down our lives. We are dealing with exceptional circumstances here, that have been slowly changing us; millions of people are confined within their homes, and our habits are mutating as a consequence.
We are attending our classes online, we are going grocery shopping online, we are meeting our friends online, this list could go on, basically we could argue our existence is being digitized. Yet we don’t realise an essential aspect of the digital world. The immaterial-online realm relies on a material world.
More specifically we will be dealing with Architectures that are designed for Machines. Machines such as data centres, power plants, server farms, data mining facilities that produce and keep the modern World. We might add to this list storage spaces, distribution/fulfilment centres and those related to logistics.
The Facebook Data Center in Prineville Oregon. A prime example of one of the new typologies of the Posthuman (here Posthuman as opposed to the geological period of the Anthropocene). At first glance, there appears to be little architecture here, no grand monumental gesture; instead, this network of spaces, so fundamental to our modern experience of the world, seems to be conceived as little more than air-conditioning infrastructure. The primary function of this kind of architecture is to condition and move air at the right temperature through the stacks of servers it holds inside. It is a landscape filled with our digital avatars, but strangely absent of people.³
© Pixabay, Data Center – Air conditioning, Ann zima.
The Amazon fulfilment Center in Manchester. It is only one of the many Amazon facilities spread around the globe, and it adopts the Kiva system (purchased in 2012 by Amazon for 775 million $). This system relies on a host of robotic drive units (RDUs) operating in unison and with common goals. According to the language of Kiva’s patent: ‘The mobile drive units respond to the order request with bids that represent the amount of time each mobile drive unit calculates it would take to deliver the requested item.’ The ‘winning’ bid then delivers its charge to the awaiting station. Once the items have been picked, the RDU brings the shelf not to its original position, but to the closest open slot.⁴ Through this process, the warehouse is continuously reconfiguring itself. If we accept that automation has a technological momentum that will work to shape the built environment to its own expedient ends then, rather than stepping aside to let technology run its course, there is an opportunity to treat this as an architectural issue, or at least as a spatial one. Architecture has always been a machinic landscape. Our challenge now is to offer suitably seductive responses, to proliferate typological inventions and to generate dispositional modes of practice that see the political problems of logistics as fundamentally architectural.⁵
OMA, with its ongoing exhibition for the Guggenheim Museum in New York (Countryside, The Future. February 2020-February 2021), addresses the fact that urban life requires a countryside in which themes like data storage, fulfillment centers, artificial intelligence, robotic automation have an unprecedented relevance. The Office for Metropolitan Architecture is cataloguing the emergence of a new kind of architecture, the data center: vast and monolithic facilities which are not designed to be inhabited by humans. Their proposition is to use the architectural configuration of the data center for a museum. Data center architecture operates on the purest form of a grid; you maintain the same grid and use it as a place where storage and exhibition can coexist (data and art are both forms of storage).
© Wikimedia Commons, Le Corbusier Modulor Coin, designed by Max Bill, Zumikon, 1987.
This new typology’s reference is not anymore the Modulor devised by Le Corbusier, known also for machine-à-habiter.⁵ Paradoxically this definition of a House as a machine to live in, in our case, could be inverted as House inhabitated by Machines. We have to question what will the role of the Architect be when the space is reconfigured by Machines and when efficiency will be the only criteria. Will aesthetics matter when these facilities, inaccessible and hidden from Humans, will be built, operated and inhabitated only by Machines?
Cover: © Wikimedia Commons, Adam Elsheimer, The Flight into Egypt, 1609.
¹ Angel Marie Seguin, Engaging space: extraterrestrial architecture and the human psyche, in Acta Astronautica, Volume 56, Issues 9–12, May–June 2005, pp. 980-995.
² Edward Everett Hale, The Brick Moon, The Atlantic Monthly, 1985.
³ Liam Young, Machine Landscapes Architectures of the Post Anthropocene, January/February 2019, pp. 6-13.
⁴ Michael C. Mountz, Material Handling Method Using Autonomous Mobile Drive Units and Movable InventoryTrays, US Patent 6,748,292 B2, 19 August 2004.
⁵ Le Corbusier, Vers une Architecture, Éditions Crès – L’Esprit Nouveau, 1923.