zero-degree machine

[2019] ARCH+ 236: Posthumane Architektur

Enter the Hyperscale

Currently, the world of data is undergoing a radical infrastructural evolution, an evolution from the physical to the non-physical, from the server to the de-materialised infrastructures of the cloud. This evolution has enabled large tech firms to carry out an extraordinary scale of daily transactions; four billion google searches, 500 million tweets, 254 million Alibaba orders, 350 million new Facebook photo uploads, 235 million QQ messages. The business model of the cloud is based on volume, efficiency and the ability to deliver. As an inevitable consequence of this business model, many organisations with medium and smaller data centres are closing their facilities and migrating their workloads to the cloud. To handle this migration, the internet giants use a strategy called hyper-scale computing — a strategy requiring a larger, denser, more scalable, and more networked data centre called the hyper-scale data centre. In recent years, the Irish government has approved the construction of multiple hyper-scale facilities, by companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Apple. The proposed Amazon facility has been planned to accommodate eight data centres, each measuring roughly 20,000m2. Each hyper-scale data centre has an energy need equivalent to tens of thousands of Irish homes, and when grouped to form a campus they can consume as much energy as 230,000 homes — a medium-sized Irish city.

The hyper-scale data centre tends to be located far enough from urban centres to avail of low-cost land and utilities, but close enough to tap into fibre optic networks. When these large-scale buildings collect to form a campus the in-between spaces are reminiscent of Di Chirico’s surreal street scenes — urbanisation made up of simple abstract forms connected by deserted public spaces. With advances in predictive algorithms, these facilities are on the verge of being fully automated, meaning they will require little or no human presence. In 2016, Rem Koolhaas described the Tahoe-Reno Supernap Data Centre campus in Nevada as an “urbanisation without people”, a campus which “is mankind nearly achieving the outlines of a post-human civilization”. This post-human city is home to an eclectic mixture of digital tenants, every bit as random, diverse as those in a traditional city; personal emails and family photos are racked side by side with pornography, health records and online black-market trading.

Up until the end of the nineteenth century, architecture and the human body were inextricably linked; fundamental parameters such as access to daylight, fresh air and manageable circulation governed architectural and urban design. The technological advances of the twentieth century decoupled the reliance on these relations. At the beginning of the twenty-first century we are producing an architecture which is not constructed, or located, relative to human scale; but instead is a physical manifestation born out of, and subject to, global flows of information.

How do we define the hyper-scale data centre as an architectural typology? — as a profession do we dismiss it as simply another form of infrastructure, or is it something far more radical? What are the implications for a typology when it must cater to the constant pressure of the network? What potential leaps in scale are possible with this type of architecture? What are the implications for our environment, both locally and globally, when the network creates an insatiable demand for facilities which, as of 2015, were responsible for two per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases? Are we looking at the outlines of a post-human civilisation?