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Machine Landscapes: What architecture looks like when nobody’s there

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A new book explores the meaning of data centers, robot factories, and a world not built for humans

The inside of an Amazon distribution center in Rugeley, England.
The inside of an Amazon distribution center in Rugeley, England.
Photo: Ben Roberts

Machines taking control—and making humanity obsolete—has a long history in pop culture, from Terminator to The Matrix.

What happens when that shift applies to architecture?

Machine Landscapes: Architectures of the Post-Anthropocene, a new collection of writing examining the growing portion of the built world made for machines, sounds as theoretical and futuristic as science fiction. But as the book’s editor Liam Young, a speculative architect, futurist, and instructor at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles, explains, many of the arguably most important and meaningful buildings today, including high-security nodes of the world’s internet infrastructure, simply aren’t meant for us.

Human-centered design has, of course, been a centerpiece of design literature and discourse, Young says, to the point that we’ve literally been “bending the plant to our will.” The new machine-focused work, “hard drive-centered design,” represents something different.

“These are spaces where the traditional language of architecture breaks down,” he says.

The sheer banality of some of these spaces, engineered more to maximize airflow to cool endlessly replicable stacks of circuit boards, wires, and blinking lights, may represent a massive technological achievement. But it can look pretty boring. Machine Landscapes stares past the monotony to find meaning, and metaphors for our cultural moment.

At the Facebook Data Center in Prineville, Oregon, “the server floor trembles like a forest of fireflies, a map of social media territory, a spatialized internet, a field of flickering Facebookers all waving hello,” Young writes in the introduction.

A Facebook data center.
Photo: Liam Young
A Facebook data center.
Liam Young

Many of the structures examined in the book, like Amazon distribution centers or wind farms, have been built on a titanic scale unfamiliar to most of us. They’re designed not in the high-tech style of, say, Norman Foster’s Apple campus or other iconic new buildings, but as warehouses, incorporating very little of what’s normally considered architectural value. Simple sheds that represent the most efficient means to contain volume possible, they’re blank boxes, with no humans inside to require windows. But it’s that efficiency that makes them so potent.

Whether its new warehouses revolutionizing commerce via increasingly rapid delivery, or data centers literally storing the world’s knowledge, these buildings represent technology’s world-changing impacts.

From more journalistic pieces about cryptocurrency mines and data centers to essays and think pieces, these collected writings wrestle with the idea of how to apply contemporary standards of design to these structures. But the assemblage of writers and designers, including Geoff Manaugh and architect Rem Koolhaas, go beyond strictly academic design definitions and attempt to tackle larger issues of technology, culture, and philosophy. Interspersed with striking imagery, such as a wide-angle shot of the endless rows of products inside of a English Amazon warehouse, they can be both heady and fun.

These buildings may be monotonous, but they’re monumental in their own fashion. As Young says, the data center should be seen as our Library of Alexandria, our grand cathedrals, and our contemporary cultural typology.

“These structures aren’t industrial or remote or distant anymore,” he says. “These are cultural landscapes. They’re the repositories of our contemporary culture, these are the landscapes that define who we are. And they’re ever-growing.”