In a day-long programme Het Nieuwe Instituut invited architects, artists, data centre industry experts, critics and political scientists to address the architecture of data centres—a new spatial type for human and machine cohabitation, and testing ground for post-human institutions.
Data centres are a fundamental constituent of today’s political, cultural and socio-economic landscapes. A new form of architecture for data and machines—one almost liberated from human intervention and entirely shaped by technological rationales—data centres form the testing ground of alternative models for post-human institutions. From the new spatial and material conditions that data centres bring together, to the network infrastructures that enable them, to the residual cohabitation of humans and non-humans, these apparently anonymous architectures are mobilised as emerging urban prototypes.
Across Scales & Geographies
The presentations and discussions addressed different forms of physical, legal and software architecture. Speakers explored the socio-economic and environmental implications of the rapidly expanding data centre industry and the political climates that shape it; the physical infrastructures of fiber optic cables and forms of sovereignty they establish or erase. What are the relationships between human-exclusionary ‘white spaces’ inside data centres and grey areas in the law, allowing tax evasion and geographies of avoidance to proliferate? From cybersecurity to physical fortification of buildings, from the Dutch countryside to the Arctic Circle, the notion of the data centre serves to stimulate a broader debate on the role of the architect in designing for a new building type, and emerging spatial models for human and non-human collaboration.
The event was organised together with OMA and Royal College of Art (London).
Session 1: Data Centres, Automation & Digital Economy
What are the implications of the data centre industry for energy consumption, spatial planning, socio-economic and geopolitical conditions? The first session focused on possible developments of the industry towards full automation and the repercussions such a transition might entail in terms of design and labour. With the transition to edge technology, the scale of data centres is shrinking; the new building types, such as data towers, start to permeate the urban fabric. By contributing to circular economies and establishing infrastructure for residue heat exchange, data centres take on new roles in cities and the increasingly automated countryside.
The location of these new data ‘super-urbanisms’ is defined by a variety of factors, from proximity to cooling, energy and cable infrastructure, to risk assessment regarding natural disasters and national security. Session 1 addresses conditions that make the Netherlands an increasingly attractive site for the industry, with a quarter of its GDP dependent on data centres, and elaborates on how the role of the architect is being challenged by new trends and developments in their spatial configuration. Can architects have agency in the design of white spaces, or connected infrastructures and facilities? How does the spectacle of physical security relate to the exponential rise of cybersecurity threats? And if the ‘lights out’ unmanned data centre is no longer a future fantasy, what forms of post-human architecture will emerge in the near future?
Anastasia Kubrak & Marina Otero Verzier (Het Nieuwe Instituut), Stijn Grove (Dutch Data Center Association), Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli (OMA), Aleksandar Joksimovic (OMA).
Session 2: Infrastructure & Geographies of Avoidance
Today many different (and often conflicting) geopolitical regimes and jurisdictions have a direct impact on the accessibility and storage of data. The chaotic mesh of fiber optic cables, switch-points, internet exchanges and data distribution nodes triggers new forms of sovereignty, allowing for new geographies of power to proliferate. But where and how exactly do material, legal and software architectures intersect? What are the main frictions, and where can the obscure power relations be rendered visible? In Session 2, speakers with contrasting backgrounds in art, architecture and political science address the emerging geographies of opportunity, offering different strategies for demystification.
On one hand, digital infrastructure is deeply entangled with historical processes and ecological conditions that affect its planning. On the other hand, advancing digitalisation leads to material and political effects on the life of local communities, such as Sami population in the High North region. The melting ice of the Arctic turns the Northwest passage into the next frontier for financial speculation, as countries enter the battle over the new high-speed cable route. With the rapid acceleration of data flows, new zones of territorial and legal exception emerge, and with them the more intricate tax evasion schemes. It architects finds themselves under threat within post-human spaces, what could be the role of designer, artist, political scientist and geographer in the context of omnipresent automation? Could mapping be used as a form of leverage, contributing to shifts in the distribution of power? And what is the potential agency of visualisation in instigating political change?
Femke Herregraven (Rijksacademie van Beeldende Kunsten), Oliver Smith (Demystification Committee), Mirva Salminen (University of Lapland), Alessandra Ponte (University of Montreal). Moderated by Anastasia Kubrak (Het Nieuwe Instituut).
Session 3: Architecture of Data Centres
The last session further elaborates on the role of the architect in designing for new spatial models for human and non-human cohabitation. What are the main drivers pushing the data centres’ interior and exterior design, beyond solely technological rationales? How do these spaces challenge the conventional spatial requirements and normative rules in architecture regarding health, safety and welfare? From lighting, temperature and ventilation, to ceiling height and size of floor areas, the human-centric spatial requirements are suspended in favour of the new universal building block: the server rack.
Session 3 discusses the aesthetic regimes of the data centres, and the ways data centres manifest in both urban or non-urban environments. The jargon of ‘failover architecture’ and ‘cold storage’ reveals how data is distributed across buildings, rooms and servers to ensure resilience. Sustainability, efficiency, cooling methods, transmission time between data points and (often theatrical) physical security become prioritised in architectural commissions, setting in motion new relationships between architects and their clients. But who populates these spaces on a daily basis, and what other bodies could data centres potentially accommodate and shelter? How can data centres give something back to the territory that they increasingly occupy, developing into new types of complexes and institutions?
Mark Minkjan (Failed Architecture), Joost Vos (Benthem Crouwel), in conversation with Mike Klerks & Niels Hensen (ITB2), Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli (OMA), Marina Otero Verzier (Het Nieuwe Instituut).