Will tomorrow’s android workers give fresh impetus to large-scale architecture?
At some point in the next year or so, Amazon’s payroll is going to be split 50/50 between flesh-and-blood and steel-and-silicon. Amazon’s US operation employs around 125,000 actual people, but it’s also engaged in a ferocious expansion of its robotic workforce, the kind that doesn’t need paying, feeding, or the benefits of labour laws.
Right now, it has more than 100,000 robots in action around the world, with the robotic systems geared up to take the weight off the company’s flesh-and-blood workers. Robotic arms stack and sort, forklifts buzz along autonomously and pucklike lifting robots bring shelves of goods to the pickers, dancing a non-stop ballet of logistical reorganisation. With around 75 depots in the US at least, and up to 3m packages shipped around the world each day, analysts at Deutsche Bank note that robot powered warehousing allows 50 per cent more space for goods, saving around 20 per cent on operating costs. You do the maths.
How long though will robots remain in supporting roles? And what does this mean for the future of architecture? Rem Koolhaas has called a potential (largely) post-human infrastructure ‘a new frontier that hasn’t been argued about’. Million square foot structures are increasingly common, and the simple fact is this: as businesses scale up, human input gets smaller. China’s mega-retailer Alibaba is investing heavily in robotic and AI, chasing Amazon’s efficiencies. And while Tesla might need a few thousand workers for its new multibillion-dollar Gigafactory in Nevada, they’ll be rattling around a building that’s already 465,000 sq m and only 30 per cent completed. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive recommends that each worker has around 11 cubic metres of space (say an area of around 5 sq m) but The Wall Street Journal notes that a typical e-commerce warehouse might employ one person per every 92sqm.
Given the ever-increasing space devoted to sorting, shipping, even crop growing, energy generation and data storage, Koolhaas’ frontier lands are upon us. Will big sheds inhabited mostly by robots have anything to do with interesting or progressive architecture? Instead of despairing, Koolhaas seems to suggest the potential for an era of the new sublime, where industrial megastructures can serve a landscape-altering function as well as a cost-saving one.
Koolhaas’ big idea is that this landscape of automation is our architectural destiny, the most important spatial construct since the skyscraper made the modern city a delirious exploration of form, density and power. In the hands of anyone else, it would be a dispiriting prospect. But if you take a more measured approach, tomorrow’s topography offers limitless potential. Koolhaas wonders, ‘What happens to the public realm... if it is uninhabited?’, and you sense he’s itching to shape these new frontiers of data and power.
Post-human architecture does promise an otherworldly intersection of art and function. Imagine reclusive land artist Michael Heizer being invited to landscape a Gigafactory, or warehouses set beneath a swooping canopy of solar cells and wind turbines, a jungle of technology where bug-like bots scuttle about the forest floor. In 2014, the Irish artist John Gerrard created Solar Reserve, an artwork using video game technology which navigated the Crescent Dunes solar energy plant in Nevada. The plant uses 10,000 mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays to heat a core of molten salt (that in turn boils water to power turbines with steam). From the air it looks like a vast circular temple installed by alien technology. Meanwhile, in London, Carmody Groarke is proposing a new city park atop a sunken 180,000 sq m warehouse, with the aggregate extracted from the site used to pay for its creation. New spaces create new space.
Such projects suggest a new topography, an age of invisible megastructures, where the backroom work that buffers and sorts our daily lives hums away in semi-automated perfection. In contrast, our cities are evolving into playgrounds of leisure and consumption, where the only jobs are pushing the paper that stimulates the demand and serves up the orders. Yet the post-human landscape needn’t result in an aesthetic wasteland. To make the most of a world driven by machines, their places of work can give back to the rest of us in new and creative ways.
As originally featured in the April 2018 issue of Wallpaper* (W*229)