Clouds have always held a certain fascination for architects. This may be understandably unremarkable, because I believe clouds hold a certain fascination for everybody. How many hours were spent as a youth staring at clouds, lying in the grass in a field, through the window of a car on a long drive, or simply through the bedroom windows on a lazy sunday? Diller & Scofidio created their Blur Building (see above) as a deliberate and stunningly literal interpretation of “cloud architecture,” and Wolf Prix’s firm’s name Coop Himmelb(l)au translates to “Blue Cloud Cooperative” in his native Austrian (he also designs slightly less literal physical approximations of clouds–see below).
But cloud architecture has a slightly different meaning today, and this is what I want to draw attention to here. In Tom Vanderbilt’s article in the New York Times Magazine, titled “Datatecture,” he delves into the world of data centers that are silently and conspicuously popping up throughout the country (including many near Portland, OR, from where I’m posting today). Data centers such as these are “like Fight Club; the first rule of data centers is: Don’t talk about data centers.” Accompanying this article are some beautiful photographs by Simon Norfolk (see below). This is what cloud architecture looks like today. Very white, but not as fluffy.
The article begins with an anectdote about the online community of people playing a particular Xbox game (over 60,000 at his precise instant, a number which is equivalent to the size of a small suburb community), and a moment spent wondering about where exactly these people were. In no less reducible terms, they exist in these data centers–these warehouses of servers that worldwide consume more energy than the entire country of Sweden. This “cloud,” which represents nothing less than the future of information, media, and technology, uses 1-2% of all the energy produced in the world and has doubled in the past five years, according to the article.
In a way, what this points towards is a slightly changing idea of materiality (dare I say metaphysicality?). That was what was so brilliant about Diller & Scofidio’s Blur Building (top), which was as direct and confrontational a challenge to architecture as we’ve previously defined it, even though many contemporary practitioners, including by Rem Koolhaas or Lebbeus Woods have attempted to do so in other, various ways. The blunt numbers, facts and statistics about data centers are surprising only in that they begin to illuminate a changing realm of media (the internet) that is beginning to have very physical, material impacts upon our environment. At this point, I can’t help but bring up Keller Easterling, whose writings tangentially approach these non-national, extra-infrastructural, “ecology of interrelationships and linkages.” In many ways, these ideas are in pointed contrast to the awarding of this year’s Pritzker Prize to Peter Zumthor, who works with a very different idea of materiality. Are those ideas mutually exclusive?