How Will We Live with Machines?
The Venice Biennale – Architecture this year was notable — not just because it was delayed due to Covid, but because it was perhaps the first to bring datacenters out from behind their curtain of anonymity and into the public space and dialogue. The architects there asked sometimes difficult and challenging questions as they explored the intersection of data centers, data, and human and environmental systems. At a recent IMasons event, Christian Belady, Eddie Schutter, and Dean Nelson also talked about this intersection: Mr. Belady, with some urgency, said that we need to “think differently” about how we design, build, and operate data centers. He talked about how he’s been thinking in systems — looking to the harmony of natural systems as one example for how we might be better stewards of our environment, as data centers take center stage in an escalating digital era. The architects at the Venice BIennale were doing the same: thinking differently about data centers, as they explored this year’s theme, “How Will We Live Together?,” curated by MIT Dean of Architecture and Planning, Mr. Hashim Sarkis. Though Covid had delayed the Biennale by about a year, 112 participants from 46 countries finally came together this Summer to explore the theme. The Biennale Architecture Pavilions are kind of like the concept cars of the auto industry: they allow architects to dream, explore ideas, and try things out which may later be implemented in the real world. Exploring the theme this year, participants designed pavilions focused on a variety of subthemes: architecture for a war-induced diaspora (complete with a portable palace for displayed royals); the Bit. Bio. Bot exhibit, which demonstrated how home-grown algae could be used as a natural air purifier; even how we might live in portable capsules homes on the moon. Teams from Ireland, Latvia, Austria, Armenia, Berlin and others asked how we will live together with machines, specifically — data centers and digital technologies. The book edited by the architects of the the Irish Pavilion called States of Entanglement: Data in the Irish Landscape opens with this idea:
As our everyday lives become increasingly entangled with data technologies and their assemblages, our routines are shifting to ever more virtual forms of exchange. We are increasingly constructing and experiencing the world via data networks as apps, algorithms, sensors, data sets, digital devices, and e-platforms that provide new forms of exchange between us and the spaces around us… Moving from traditional physical modes of interaction to a more cloud-based lifestyle has enormous implications for how designers conceive, order, and produce space.
The Biennale thus became an important first public-facing conversation about the connections between data centers, data, architecture/ aesthetics, people, and the environment. This post will annotate some of the key themes that emerged from this exploration; this, combined with excerpts from subsequent conversations with industry executives may shed light on some of the ways we may want to “think differently” going forward.
It’s Not For You: It’s For The Building!
image by ēriks božis
The Latvian Pavilion explored the notion of “smart homes,” sensors, and our sometimes contradictory relationship with technology in our everyday lives. The Pavilion’s title “It’s Not for You — It’s for the Building” — hints at the sometimes alienating nature of technology that takes place in a world that is increasingly automated. In their introduction to the exhibit, the curators, Architect’s office NRJA (Uldis Lukševics and Elīna Lībiete) have said:
With climate crisis at our doorstep, every architect now has an urgent global problem to solve. As crucial as technologies are in finding solutions, they also risk creating new problems along the way. Our exhibition and the accompanying book explore human resistance to technology as a pressing issue in contemporary architecture.
The Pavilion itself is a dark, foreboding house-shaped structure: painted black, it is surrounded by a snake pit of intimidating black corrugated tubing representing the data pipelines of fiber optic cables. The darkness also seems to embody people’s subconscious fears of technology and the unknown. Yet step closer — and the pavilion reacts to your presence with winking, blinking lights — breaking stereotypes by inviting the user to engage through humor and delight. The architects said about their intent:
By focusing on instances of unsettling techno-nonsense, we highlight the importance of the human perspective in architecture and stress the need to help people learn to live together with today’s intelligent machines. In so doing, we pursue an informed and balanced coexistence of comfort-seeking individuals with sustainability-driven technology as the condition for a liveable future for humanity.
The architects of the Latvian Pavilion evoked Christian Belady’s “think differently” notion by encouraging us to take a systems approach to thinking about humans living within sustainable technological systems.
As Ireland grows to become the data center hub of the EU, irish architect Donal Lally and his team pulled back the curtain on the unseen (and largely, unknown) physicality of datacenters. You hear this Pavilion before you ever see it: the loud whirring of a series of vintage black fans dotting the bee skep shaped Pavilion creates a metallic buzzing sound which echoes several rooms away. Stepping into the room, the scale of this exhibit is daunting: The black metal skep towers over the viewer, the metal structure a modern-art take on a data center, complete with metal racks, cooling, and cabling systems. It is a beast of an exhibit; the fans wheeze and blow, then fade out as they turn off. Around the bottom is a ring of large vertical digital screens; heat sensors map the heat of visitor’s analog bodies in bright yellow against the cooler purple background of the room, allowing them to think about their digital selves and making them a part of the exhibit. Entangelements urges the viewer to think about how our lives are increasingly entangled with data technologies, and through it’s imposing physicality, breaks the stereotype of “the Cloud” — that our data exists somehow floating overhead in some kind of ether. Their aim is to get viewers to interrogate their reliance on data in a cultural, political and environmental context.
The Austrain Pavilion was perhaps the most critical of all at the Bienalle. Platform Austria explored platform urbanism – e.g., the many ways that global tech companies are reshaping society and our surroundings in urban cities. In the related book – Platform Urbanism and Its Discontents, a collection of scholars ranging from architects to urban planners; artists, photographers, sociologists, anthropologists and historians explore “cities as platform” — and how companies ranging from Uber to AirBnB are becoming the organizing force (over politics and urban planning, for example) in cities. The curators of the Austrain Pavilion and editors of the ancillary book, Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer, write:
By reorganizing access to a wide spectrum of fundamental domains, such as education, housing, health care, or even political information, platforms are destined to become the most powerful players regulating the way we live in cities. Digital platforms such as Facebook, Uber, Airbnb and Amazon embody not only new types of enterprises but also a completely new culture of life—from the products we handle and the services we use every day to entire urban neighbourhoods that will be built by major platform enterprises in the next few years. These multi-scalar changes raise significant questions about the social potentials and risks of the architecture of these all-encompassing ecosystems.
One of the exhibits within the Austrian Pavilion looked at how cities themselves are being “staged” (much like home-sellers are staging houses now to get a sale) — to attract tech talent and tech companies to their cities, with amenities ranging from ferris wheels to corporate campuses to climbing walls and ghost kitchens. A particularly striking photo which hinted at the potentially contentious relationship between data centers and local populations showed a high-rise data center looming over the landscape of a local bike path, seemingly completely without scale or reference to the local community. The inscription read in part:
Unlike industrialization’s factories or today’s sorting facilities, there is no technical reason to place a data centre, with a lineage closer to military and heavy industry than a local utility in a convenient neighborhood… When these structures begin to dominate a landscape that is not the remote desert or forest, but instead the city skyline, we witness the sinister side of the technology’s ubiquity: the visual and subjective normalization of a hierarchy where we live below the data.
Urbanist and historian Leo Hollis, also hints at the potentially challenging nature of the relationships between city dwellers and technologies, saying:
Under platform urbanism, the light that carries data through the city via fibre optic cables constructs a new invisible architecture built to benefit the powerful. Urban struggle is for the invisible city of data, light and air, as much as it is for the solid forms of housing and infrastructure.
There’s much that can be learned from these kinds of observations, and others, at the Venice Bienalle. The main key here is that — with the growing importance of data in industrialized and developing nations, datacenters are beginning to step out of the shadows and into the public eye, which can mean increased scrutiny when they do. Alain de Botton, alluding to the work of architecture writer John Ruckin, said in his book The Architecture of Happiness: Buildings have an eloquence; they speak… The question is: What do we want them to say? Architecture isn’t purely aesthetic — it incorporates the values of the owner/ builder, and perhaps of its surroudnings. But thinking about — what your data center buildings are saying, and whether or not they are in conversation with the local community and their values, history, and ideals, becomes all the more important as datacenters begin to emerge from the shadows into the public consciousness. As “The Cloud” takes shape. In Barcelona, the Barcelona Supercomputing Center is also housed in a repurposed building: In this case, the Torre Girona, a deconsecrated chapel now home to the Mare Nostum supercomputer. Associate director Mr. Josep Maria Martorell talked about the benefits of having such a beautiful and unique facility to house their supercomputer:
There’s the aspect of the visibility, which is also very important for science (that) we’ve realized with this facility, how important it is, you know, to host your machine in some type of facility. It gives you a lot of visibility and attracts a lot of people asking for this — but when people ask for the facility, you can also explain what we are doing with this facility and with our scientific projects and then maybe there’s been an opportunity to collaborate or whatever. And these tours every day through the years, have given us a lot of opportunities that we didn’t imagine at the beginning.
And opportunities to attract and build a future workforce. Mr. Martorell goes on to say:
We are pretty active in terms of outreach in order to try to level (the playing field) – we try to help the city council, in terms of generating new technological vocations. For young people, especially in NGOs, and it’s very easy in fact, not now because of the pandemic of course, but in a normal year — we have every morning fifty kids from eight to 10 years old coming here with their school teachers… And we organize for them an activity inside the church hall where they are walking there with the computer, and it’s an excellent way of explaining to them that this is something really special. And of course they can come here, and work with us in 10-12 years or whatever.
So the fact is, the building itself draws attention, attention which can translate into opportunities for collaboration and scientific research, and opportunities which may translate to business opportunities for the data center operator who has a unique building as well. Now — as Mr. Martorell points out– not everyone has an 18th century church at their disposal, but the point remains — an interesting architecture housing your technology can open the door to many new (and often, unforeseen) opportunities.
Mr. Fabrice Coquio, President of Interxion, also talked about the role of architecture and landscaping — both in terms of his new greenfield project in a Paris suburb, and in two repurposed buildings in Marseilles. In the South of France, local government officials told him to “make it look nice” — in order to give him the permit for the redesign. Working with his architect, the building now has a facade which mimics undulating waves, a welcome sight to visitors of this harborside town. It also incorporates green space on the roof, where workers can enjoy lunch or a break, a thoughtful nod to the humans which as he put it “are living in the datacenter.”
Mr. Coquio described his green and design solutions as working within the constraints put to him by the local governmental officials and community. He said:
I’m working also in the south of Paris, with what is going to be Paris 13 and 14. It’s a huge site of more than 30 megawatts. And I’ve worked a lot on the green aspect of the campus. It does not look like a data center campus anymore: It’s a kind of a forest environment garden. And once again, this time, we had many problems over there: We had exactly 43 protected species. You know the rules: rules are very special in Europe about biodiversity. And because the land was unoccupied for over 20 or 30 years, a lot of insects, birds, whatever, develop — even bats developed there. And we have to protect them. We also had the presence of underground water, so that’s the reason we decided to create some ponds where we could put maybe some ducks, But rather than considering that as a constraint — it’s okay, let’s use it — integrate that in the park, and it’s going to be a new park. We had a lot of constraints in terms of recreating green areas… So I captured all of the constraints, and said: Okay, rather than trying to avoid or try to fight them, I said: Let’s deal with it and live with it, and try to find something clever, if possible. The problem the mayor had was not the size of the building: The problem was that it was a big building in a city where you’ve got almost no green areas, and I said you know what, I’ve got a constraint of 25% of grass and trees. Now, for my business, having them everywhere — I don’t need that. So let’s do something clever. Let’s concentrate all of the obligation in one area, and I will create a garden for your inhabitants. It will remain my property; you will manage it, so I’m not responsible if someone is falling from an edge or whatever, or a kid having a problem. So you will manage it, and we will sign a convention; it’s going to be, of course, my property: I will put up a fence, because I cannot have kids running into the center. And this is how we will design this garden here, which is actually now used by the city inhabitants, and they are very pleased. So rather than fighting against the data center, because of the data center, they could get a park…. actually, not a park: it’s a garden. It’s a garden of some 10,000 square meters — it’s a large garden.
Both the Barcelona Computing Center’s reuse of a church, while maintaining the gardens and pond for public use, and Mr. Coquio’s integration of a large public garden on his property, while maintaining the biodiversity there are great examples of thinking differently — integrating architecture, landscaping — and the wishes and constraints of the community in developing and running a large data center project. In doing so, they gain the support of the community — as opposed to the idea they are “doing to” the community; they’re seen as an asset.
Alain de Botoon, in his book The Architecture of Happiness cites the work of noted 17th century architecture critic and writer, John Ruskinm saying that we want two things of our buildings: (1) We want them to shelter us and (2) We want them to speak to us. The question becomes: What do we want them to say? As data centers become the visible, physical manifestations of our increasing reliance on data, things like sustainability, architecture, landscaping — begin to matter even more. Speaking the visual language of the local community becomes important, in terms of things like scale, style, and materials. So, “thinking differently” may mean paying more attention to architecture (and landscaping), thinking about what your data centers are saying, and what their conversation is with the local community — both in terms of the built environment, the landscaping, the sustainability of the environment — and the people. Doing so can actually benefit the bottom line — as building materials and techniques “fit” with local skills and materials — but also, it can help gain and maintain the social license to operate in cities, from both government officials and the local population. Overall, the lesson from the Venice Biennale – Architecture 2021 is one in systems thinking, in ways of thinking differently that can be put into practice by the data center industry, as datacenters come into the public consciousness.
 ANNEX, ed. “States of Entanglement.” Introduction to States of Entanglement: Data in the Irish Landscape, 9. New York: ANNEX, 2021.
 “It’s Not for You! It’s for the Building.” It’s Not for You! It’s for the Building. Accessed July 14, 2021. https://latvianpavilion2021.lv/.