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Piling up the now

Herbert Wright looks into the future

All architects and designers (even those working with Prince Charles) are futurists, in as much as they’re generating the shape of things to come before they exist. And they’re not the only ones: sci-fi film makers have been conjuring the future city at least since Metropolis was released in 1927. Sure, all that art deco, streaming masses, and multi-­layered transportation in Fritz Lang’s master­piece looked rather like contemporaneous New York on steroids, but urbanistically, it was saying ‘the future is now, just piled up more’. The same seems to be the case in the latest credible celluloid crystal ball, Spike Jonze’s film Her. The near-future Los Angeles has contemporary skyscrapers, just more of them. Indeed, supplies of suitable LA high-rise ran low and they threw in a load from Pudong, Shanghai, even shooting there.

Computers that use human language are already here. With Apple’s Siri you get way more conversation than with an emo teenager or immigration official

Her has other interesting design threads. For example, where are the cars? Everyone’s walking or emerging from metro systems, which may be normal in Europe or New York, but LA? That seems a leap too far; unlike the film’s unseen character, Samantha – the operating system avatar that Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with. Once she’s learnt enough of human ways, she floats off to higher planes of thought. Computers that use human language and learn, like Samantha or HAL in Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, are already here. Apple’s Siri enables iPhones to listen and talk – and you get way more conversation than with an emo teenager or immigration official. Most advanced is IBM’s Watson, which won the American TV quiz Jeopardy. Machine intelligence is entering the everyday by stealth. It’s already taken over telephone help lines and Tube ticket offices, and (as noted here before) it’s annexing retail. Civilisation as a whole is a few steps away.

So what about the built environment in an AI-ruled world? The first thing to note is that architecture to house the computers themselves was never up to much because they just don’t care about appearances (yet). When corporations had mainframe computers, they were installed in back-office buildings, usually humdrum but with a few heroic exceptions, such as Lloyds Bank’s Sampson House, a heavily massed exercise in streamlined brutalism by Fitzroy Robinson completed on London’s South Bank in 1979. Now that computers are pocket-sized, it’s their servers that demand space. Researching data centre architecture is difficult because IT has hijacked the word architecture, but we all know they can occupy faceless sheds that give big box retailers a run for their money in the bland stakes. Data centres are responsible for two per cent of CO2 emissions, so design has a lot to play for. Arup’s Citi Data Centre in Frankfurt (2009), with its vast green roofs and green walls, is a seminal step.

Cooling is more important than ever, and guzzles water as well as power. Maybe it’s worth thinking about floating data centres in the atmosphere. Indeed, we already refer to collective computing power and data storage as The Cloud. Hang data centres from tethered blimps, and they could use the wind to drive power turbines as well as drawing more from the thermo-electric effect over the adiabatic temperature differential along the tether. Plus they could keep an eye on us.  

The new Big Brother in The Cloud v2 will doubtless think about the best architecture for us, its underlings. Let’s hope we’re pampered like pets rather than suppressed like a plague of pests. We’ll have iconic cultural buildings to make us feel civilised, seductive stadia to channel tribal impulses into sporting events, and luxurious crashpads with views, but in gated estates. If there was trouble, we could easily be shut in and contained.

Hold on, isn’t that future now, we’re just piling it up more? Er... who’s in charge?

Trained physicist Herbert Wright is an architectural writer, historian and art critic

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