Big Digital Boxes Emerge from Hiding

The Cloud in London. Photo ©Herbert Wright 2021

The most important new architectural typology, without which our civilisation would collapse, is the data centre. In the grotto-like Zaha Hadid-designed Roca Gallery in West London, an exhibition entitled ‘Power House: The Architecture of Data Centres’ explores the subject. Its curator Clare Dowdy told me that she had ‘thought of them as big grey windowless boxes’, but she changed her mind. Let’s see why.  

Most data centres are so mundane you don’t see them, unlike the headquarters of tech giants who rule the world wide web. Apple’s 462m-diameter ring in Cupertino, California by Foster+Partners, or Chinese internet titan Tencent’s bridged towers reaching 248m above Shenzhen by NBBJ (both completed 2018) look like artefacts left by giant alien visitors to whom we are almost ants. Google’s almost-finished London building by Heatherwick Studio and Bjarke Ingels’ BIG is less sci-fi but still stretches like a cliff of glass and columns for 330m through busy Kings Cross. But what about the architecture of data centres, where the servers live that store the data and applications of the internet? 

In 1991, the World Wide Web (www) had just one site, for CERN (the Centre European de Recherche Nucléaire) but by 2000 it hosted 17 million websites. Data centres soon outgrew the rooms they lived in and needed dedicated buildings, but the new architectural typology of the 1990s was invisible. Security became paramount, so why attract attention? Data centres looked like curiously quiet offices with reflective windows (usually not cleaned) and numerous CCTV cameras. Others looked like light industrial buildings, and even in 2021, a major facility called IP House in London’s Docklands data centre cluster still disguises itself as a distribution depot. Data centres became bigger and evolved into plain, blank boxes. Dowdy describes ‘Hyperscale’ data centres (defined as with over 5,000 servers) as having ‘their own weird grandeur’. Their design was functional, driven purely by the needs of the servers – floor space, power, connection to data networks, and the need to dump the vast amounts of heat they generate. At least a third of a data centre’s energy demand is just to cool the IT equipment.

These are the sort of design challenges that engineers rather than architects solve. Who cares about architectural aesthetics if there’s only a marginal need to design space for human presence? As Iain Macdonald, professor of the Instance of Uncertain Spaces unit at ArtEZ University and director of design agency Instance in Amsterdam, told me, ‘what we have now is buildings for automation — the Amazon warehouses, the car plants that are robotic’. These ‘semi-autonomous zones occupied by machines’ create a different agenda to ‘urban design (which) is about place-making’.

Telehouse TN2, London by Nicholas Webb Architects – photo Google

But of course, there are people around, not least those outside who see the buildings. Why not come clean, and let the building say ‘I’m a data centre’? London Docklands’ advanced, 73,400m2 Telehouse TN2 (2018) by Nicholas Webb Architects is clad with a circuitboard-inspired motif six stories high, mounted in a distinctly high-tech style structure. This is architecture, which has always known the art of appearance. Now it is mastering – or at least selling the idea of – sustainability. The proposed Belvedere Data Centre in East London, which Macdonald worked on when he was director at architects Scott Brownrigg, has twin floating boxes with horizontal cladding strips promising an almost SANAA-like etherealness, incorporating green walls and roofs, and powered by a waste incineration. It’s also next to a nature reserve and campaigners say it will drive away the rare birds that flock there. 

Belvedere Data Centre by Scott Brownrigg

Elsewhere, data centres are cropping up in madly diverse forms, as the Power House exhibition reveals. Old buildings, such as a Macy’s department store in New Jersey and a Cold War bunker in Sweden are getting repurposed as data centres. The typolgy is  going high-rise – German architects Schneider + Schumacher designed a 110m-high data centre, the Qianhai Telecommunications Center now under construction in Shenzhen. Looking further ahead, Macdonald had already imagined a tower where we co-exist with machines, sharing the first 8 levels with robots, then servers occupying higher levels to 20 or more. It’s a startling vision of our future built environment.

In the meantime, the Internet continues to expand like a supernova. It now has over 4.7 billion human users, maybe four million active websites (and four times that which are inactive), and carries almost 12 exabytes of data traffic daily. That’s equivalent to a video call lasting over 2 million years*. Traffic has grown 4,000 times bigger than it was in 2000, and telecommunication bandwidth is doubling every 18 months. This the age of Big Data and online leisure, revved up by streaming, gaming, the ‘Internet of Things’ (where devices talk to each other), the nefarious, ever-churning cryptocurrencies, and the incoming spectacles of the Metaverse. 

Data centres currently contribute 2% of humanity’s carbon footprint. We need to cut that back big-time. Big names are addressed the issue – a Kengo Kuma-designed data centre in Korea is cooled by mountain winds, and Snøhetta have a circular energy concept in which a data centre heats a city.  MacDonald proposes nuclear batteries, and has developed the concept with MIT and Westinghouse. ‘You don’t need the grid’, he says. ‘It gives you a flexible source’.

Somewhere out there, something’s cooking in the dark kitchens. Photo ©Herbert Wright

It is not just data centres that architects can bring imagination to. Cruder typologies are morphing half-blind into the light of reality right now. The next biggie may be one that feeds us something even more essential than data — food. Consider the ‘dark kitchen’. It prepares food for delivery companies, cruelly but profitably cutting the physical restaurant or take-away premises from the supply chain that leads to your mouth. Yes, they are another step in our sleepwalk from civic life to digitally-immersed hikikomori-style isolation, but they’re happening. Deliveroo recently applied to transform an entire industrial shed in East London into dark kitchens. Such buildings are anonymous, hidden and plain. Sounds familiar?

Power House: The Architecture of Data Centres is at the London Roca Gallery until 28 February 2022

*Worked out from  https://www.internetlivestats.com/one-second/#traffic-band  and https://www.backblaze.com/blog/what-is-an-exabyte/ 

© Herbert Wright, December 2021

This post was originally published in the French newsletter Chroniques d’Architecture in December 2021. It was entitled ‘De l’évolution architecturale des monstrueux centres de données’

About herbertwright

I am a London-based writer interested in art, architecture, the future and more. I am the author of three non-fiction books. Published articles online appear on www.herbertwright.co.uk.
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