The
  Cornell
    Journal
      of
        Architecture
2
Data Lives Here



Jennifer Ly is a designer based in New York City. She graduated from Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she received the Faculty Design Award. Her thesis explored the legibility of digital information in the city. She currently works as an architectural assistant at Adjaye Associates.



The cloud — data’s proclaimed home — is a troubling marketing ploy. It gives the illusion that data is weightless and siteless, suspended as bits or pixels in the air. In reality, data is expanding within unremarkable buildings all around us — and we are simply unaware of its presence. Data is not a cloud: it is physical.

In 2010, the world’s data amounted to 2.8 zettabytes, and by 2020, that gure is projected to reach 40 zettabytes.1 Data centers are the homes of this digital information, serving as information repositories within the internet’s vast infrastructure. They serve as infrastructural nodes, driving global communication and economies, but they operate as impenetrable urban objects. They function as highly secure, thermally controlled buildings housing computer servers, networking equipment, ber optic cables, and vast systems of climatization and conditioning. According to a recent report by the National Resources Defense Council, 12 million servers operate inside 3 million data centers in the United States.2 These servers — essentially covering 2.9 square miles or two Manhattan Central Parks — run around the clock to support online activities such as e-mail, searches, social media, and business transactions. With data growing at an expo- nential rate, questions of its physical manifestation in the built environment become inevitable.

In 2013, U.S. data centers used 91 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, the amount of energy produced from 34 coal- red power plants; by 2020, that gure is expected to increase by 53 percent to 140 billion-kilowatt hours.3 While larger technology corporations are able to implement more energy-ef cient facilities, like Google’s 13 of cially disclosed data centers worldwide, the majority of smaller data centers operate very inef ciently because of the many zombie or comatose servers they house ― servers that are actively powered on but only operate at a tiny fraction of their capacity.4
Zombie servers re ect not only the energy inef ciencies within data centers, but also the need for redundancy within the network. Data centers are designed with multiple redundancies to prevent system failure, outage, or damage to information by storing duplicate copies on different servers in multiple locations, and having backup mechanical systems and electric generators. In order to satisfy the demands of online needs, data centers are expanding globally and consuming massive amounts of electricity to run both active and inactive servers, adding up to almost 2 percent of the world’s total energy consumption per year, a gure that is on the rise. This inadvertently poses serious environmental and health problems, with growing power plant emissions. As a fast-expanding energy consumer, big data is becoming a big environmental offender.




Fake Facades

From adapting existing buildings and bunkers to occupying nondescript warehouses and towers, data centers tend to hide behind unassuming facades in urban contexts for cost ef ciency and security. Urban data center typologies thus cover a diverse range of shapes and sizes. The illegibility of the architectural container camou ages data’s proliferating physical form. Building facades that were originally designed for human occupation are now being occupied by machines that do not need light and air. Data centers thrive on anonymity.

In New York City, data infrastructure has in lled former telephone switching buildings from the Art Deco and Brutalist eras. Telephone switching buildings originally served as the physical nodes within the telecommunications network where human operators manually switched cables to connect calls. Prior to World War I, many of the regional companies disguised their switching buildings to blend into their surrounding context ― Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz’s Metropolitan Telephone Building (1886), for example, a Romanesque Revival building that housed 128 switching operators and the world’s largest switchboard on the top oor. With the expansion of telecommunications technology in the 1920s, the telephone switching building became a new architectural paradigm where humans and machines could coexist in a skyscraper. Later telephone switching buildings embraced architectural legibility and communicated their function through ornamentation. Considered to be the rst Art Deco skyscraper, the Barclay-Vesey building originally designed for the New York Telephone Company in 1926 by Ralph Walker, used ornamentation to humanize the 32-story tower and communicated the expanding role of telecom technology in its ground- oor lobby. The Barclay-Vesey skyscraper simulated a miniature city with its extensive, ve subbasement levels of telecom infrastructure and a variety of public programs such as a gymnasium, a cafeteria, and a theater.




In New York City, data infrastructure has in lled former telephone switching buildings from the Art Deco and Brutalist eras. Telephone switching buildings origi- nally served as the physical nodes within the telecommunications network where human operators manually switched cables to connect calls. Prior to World War I, many of the regional companies disguised their switching buildings to blend into their surrounding context ― Cyrus L. W. Eidlitz’s Metropolitan Telephone Building (1886), for example, a Romanesque Revival building that housed 128 switching operators and the world’s largest switchboard on the top oor. With the expansion of telecommunications technology in the 1920s, the telephone switching building became a new architectural paradigm where humans and machines could coexist in a skyscraper. Later telephone switching buildings embraced architectural legibility and communicated their function through ornamentation. Considered to be the rst Art Deco skyscraper, the Barclay-Vesey building originally designed for the New York Telephone Company in 1926 by Ralph Walker, used ornamentation to humanize the 32-story tower and communicated the expanding role of telecom technology in its ground- oor lobby. The Barclay-Vesey skyscraper simulated a miniature city with its extensive, ve subbasement levels of telecom infrastructure and a variety of public programs such as a gymnasium, a cafeteria, and a theater.




However, as telecommunication technology advanced with automatic telephone exchange, human operators eventually became obsolete within the infrastructure. The new technology allowed callers to connect to other callers directly, and at a faster rate, without the assistance of a human switching operator. The subsequent Brutalist towers of the 1970s, such as John Carl Warnecke’s AT&T Long Lines Building (1974) or Rose, Beaton & Rose’s Verizon Building (1975), embraced the machine occupation with their windowless facades. The AT&T Long Lines Building elevated the machine levels four oors above ground to protect from potential bomb blasts and ooding, provided generous oor-to- oor heights, and accounted for heavy machine loads. The utilitarian facade of granite-clad precast concrete tiles expresses power and security. Today, data has adopted these old megaliths by replacing old copper wires with ber optic cables. From 60 Hudson Street to Google’s 111 Eighth Avenue, the internet has extended the vitality of these telecom infrastructural landmarks.




Behind the curtain-wall facades and standard punched-out windows, data has also crept into normative existing buildings: of ce buildings, churches, houses, etc. But disguising infrastructure is not uncommon practice. Many cities and suburbs have adopted similar strategies of adaptive reuse or constructed fake facades for other infrastructural elements like pumping stations, electric substations, and ventilation shafts. These machines are often hidden behind fake bungalows, brownstones, and apartment blocks where typical architectural elements such as doors, windows, and porches serve purely as camou age. Fake facades rely on common facade elements to suggest human occupation, a technique that illustrates architecture’s inability to represent or accept infrastructure within the city.

If the common practice has been to disguise data infrastructure, what new strategies will arise to meet the needs of new and larger urban data centers? In Le Corbusier’s Toward a New Architecture, the Barclay-Vesey telephone building marks its frontispiece as a modern achievement. If the telephone switching building serves as the predecessor to data infrastructure, how should today’s data centers represent themselves? How can the immaterial and unhuman be translated through architecture? As we project fantastical images of progress, from the switching center to the data storage tower and beyond, the cloud gets ever heavier and darker ... 17


Endnotes

1 John Gantz and David Reinsel. The Digital Universe in 2020: Big Data, Bigger Digital Shadows, and Biggest Growth in the Far East. December 2012. http://germany.emc.com/collateral/ analyst-reports/idc-the-digital-universe-in-2020. pdf,. 3.

2 Josh Whitney and Pierre Delforge. Data Center Efficiency Assessment: Scaling Up Energy Efficiency across the Data Center Industry: Evaluating Key Drivers and Barriers. Report. August 2014. http://anthesisgroup.com/ latest-research-by-anthesis-americas-data- centers-consuming-massive-and-growing-amounts- of-electricity/, 31.

3 Ibid., 5.

4 Ibid., 13.



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