Architecture without Content 4: Necessary Architecture
The Data Center is the most definitive and yet invisible typology of our contemporary world. It is the densest spot in our digital universe, a physically invisible space virtually visited by many. In a time when the collective spirit of the net itself is more and more in peril, these privately owned devices represent, in many ways, the pinnacle of our shared infrastructure. Therefore, Data Centers are intrinsically collective infrastructures. Unfortunately the buildings themselves remain largely invisible. Subject to technical and environmental requirements, they tend to hide in the fringes of our world; fringes that are increasingly scarce. The Cloud, inhabitant of the data center, struggles with its own invisibility as the place where our valuable content is stored. Both dynamics are problematic but offer an opportunity. As in our cities, what was formerly considered collective is increasingly privatized (one thinks of schools and communal offices). It might be argued that Data Centers are amongst the few leftover opportunities that, because of their intrinsic content, have the potential to acquire collective meaning. This is not the first time we have investigated this potential. Two years ago, in the first studio at Columbia called Architecture without Content we tried to portray the absolute potential of these big boxes because of the evident impact of their sheer mass when projected in the even covered field. In this studio Architecture without Content 4 we return to the center of the city and investigate the potential of these enormous buildings if they would be located on Roosevelt Island; formerly the outskirts of Manhattan, today the very center of New York. Roosevelt Island is strategically positioned and highly wired. It has a latent potential for symbolic representation, as was recently exemplified by the posthumous execution of Kahn’s Roosevelt memorial and the numerous paper projects that preceded that monument. In parallel, it is undergoing a process of reinvention as a new center of excellence, as exemplified by the recently announced plans of Cornell University to open a new hightech campus on the island. Within all this activity, an overall project is lacking. Architecture without Content 4 reconnects to Venturi’s concept of a Difficult Whole. The Difficult Whole is not a group form, nor a mere collection of elements, but a formal strategy that seeks for a cohesive composition of parts through inflection. Each of the parts influences each other, while the parts retain their individuality. Each of the Data Centers on Roosevelt Island aspire to do the same. Their content is an alibi for architectural form whereas their position is integrally part of the overall project for the island. The immutable forms of these big boxes are able to capitalize on their invisible content to create a disposable sanctuary for our contemporary Information Age. The project for Roosevelt Island announces its very decay the day of its completion—an empty civic center.