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Landscapes of the Post-Anthropocene: Liam Young on architecture without people

, People

Acknowledging the end of human-centered design, speculative architect and filmmaker Liam Young reflects on how to prototype new relationships with emerging architectural typologies.

Churilovo greenhouse in Chelyabinsk. Drone footage by Maksim Tarasov

We live in an age where new technologies develop faster than our cultural or ideological capacity to understand what they mean. Hence is the urgency to map new territories and conditions formed by AI and automation.

Assembly lines, data centers, automated ports, and warehouses are spaces that cater to the machine and shift away from the human. They are becoming less dependent on us and are turning into spaces where humans and robots are kept safe from one another, creating “human exclusion zones.”

Akin to the grand cathedrals of the past, these structures have become the cultural typologies that define our time, says Liam Young, who has edited the latest issue of AD, “Machine Landscapes: Architectures of the Post-Anthropocene.”

In the book, notable thinkers reflect on the end of human-centred design and architecture without people. The issue features essays by former Strelka Program Director Rem Koolhaas, current Strelka Program Director Benjamin H. Bratton, The New Normal faculty members Geoff Manaugh and Trevor Paglen, and visiting lecturers Merve Bedir and Jason Hilgefort, among many others.

“As this atlas attests, the founding machine landscapes of the Post-Anthropocene are already here, critical and fundamental, embedded in the ground of the Earth and the fabric of the planetary city,” Young writes in the introduction to the issue. “Their cooling fans spin, the electromagnetics hum, the LEDs flicker, and it smells of rare earth. Machines are making the world and we are on the outside peering in, faces pressed to the glass windows of an empty control room.”

Liam Young is an architect who operates in the spaces between design, fiction, and futures. He runs the M.A. in Fiction and Entertainment program at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles and has taught internationally, including at the Architectural Association and Princeton University. He is also a founder of Tomorrow's Thoughts Today and a core faculty member of Strelka’s The New Normal speculative urbanism think-tank. Photo by Noemie Baumann

Liam Young, who is also a core faculty member of The New Normal, recently led Strelka researchers on a field trip to the southern Urals to explore machine landscapes of Russia’s industrial heartland. Using film and fiction to reflect about the region’s possible futures, the group produced speculative projects to prototype how our relationships with these new typologies might look. In the previous two years Young led field trips to Murmansk and Magadan.

Strelka Mag spoke to Liam Young about the new conditions of the Post-Anthropocene, an era in which emerging technologies compute, condition, and construct our world.

TIMUR ZOLOTOEV: How do machine landscapes like data centers and automated plants define our time, and what do they tell about us at this moment in time?

LIAM YOUNG: The way that we describe these machine landscapes is that they are territories of what we talk about as the Post-Anthropocene. We’re coming out of a point where humans have been the dominant forces shaping and engineering the planet for our own needs, wants, and desires and these landscapes are iconic of what could be described as the condition that happens after that, the Post-Anthropocene, where now the machines and systems and softwares that we have created are actually setting in motion the changes that are taking place on the scale of the planet.

These landscapes are at the cutting edge of what the Post-Anthropocene actually is; they’re landscapes that bring into question all of the assumptions we have made about Anthropocenic-centered architecture across the decades and the weak signals of a new age where the most strategic actors in the world are non-human and they’re machines.

They’re iconic to who we are now, where we’ve outsourced all of the stuff we do to large-scale inanimate systems and these landscapes are typical or really interesting to look at because they talk about a new world – an emerging world where humans are no longer at the center.

Churilovo greenhouse in Chelyabinsk. Drone footage by Maksim Tarasov

To what typologies of the past would you compare them?

In this context where we are no longer at the center of things, when the cultures that we produce are actually digital, these structures are akin to the grand cathedral or the great library. These are the cultural typologies of our time.

Something like the Facebook data center is totally foreign to us and it’s been engineered to sit behind the scenes, forgotten, out of sight and out of mind. But actually it’s a site that almost all of us visit, almost every day of the week, almost every hour of the day, it’s a site that’s at the center of all of our lives but we’ll never visit and even if we did, we wouldn't be able to enter.

And all of these machine landscapes sit at the center of where we are in the same way; they structure our entire modern existence, they deliver things that we want to our door, they connect us to each other, they become the vaults where our digital selves live, but in terms of architectural space they’re totally new because it’s a space without people, it’s architecture without occupants, it’s a strange new phenomenon. But whether we like it or not, this is the typology that will define our time.

Why is it important and crucial to shift our focus towards this new typology?

All of these machine landscapes, they are so fundamental to who we are that we must think about how we would engage them in a way that acknowledges that value. Our entire media system is set up to distance ourselves from these things. We used to be thinking about these kinds of infrastructural territories, about being on the margins or the periphery, about cities.

But now we’re in a context after geography where place doesn’t matter in the same way that it used to, and the fact that these things are out on the edges doesn’t mean they’re not important or central to who we are. So I think it’s critical that we start to think about ways we can be connected to acknowledge their value and their importance.

I’m really interested in what it means to think about the data center as our contemporary archive; would we visit it? How would we design these data centers? They’re typologies without history. We’ve never really thought about design and architecture purely for machines that have this kind of value for us. Should we visit them like churches? Someday should we wander through them like we wander through a forest? Maybe we go on picnics to the data center like we once did to rolling hills. Maybe they become occupiable territories in ways that they're not allowed to be right now.

And perhaps if we did have that awareness then the massive-scale territorial change they’re setting in motion through accumulating rare earth, through producing massive amounts of carbon dioxide – maybe that becomes something we have more engagement with and more responsibility for if we are asked to connect with them in ways that are deeper than what we are currently doing.

Automated dry port in Khorgos, Kazakhstan. Footage by Seiche (The New Normal 2018)

How do humans prepare for the Post-Anthropocene, and where do we go after we find the definition of this new condition?

There are different responses when you define a new territory, when you map a new geography. You can either build walls and defend yourself from it or you can gather your offensive weapons and go on attack. And I’m interested much more in engaging with what these are, not trying to resist them or overly regulate them, but trying to engage with them as sites of new potential.

So how can we think about these things as thoroughly new conditions, extensions of who we are? How do we start to develop a new dialogue, a new vocabulary around talking about them? How can we find alternative ways of access? I think that’s really interesting because they are the new forms of the sublime and if we’re in charge of creating them in these ways we can also be in charge of mitigating their effects.

At the moment these things just kind of coalesce like a cloud out of a system of flows; they are designed to perform a particular job and that job only. But these things are amazingly precious geologies – a data center is just stacks and stacks of rare earth which is no more disposable or throwaway than your grandmother’s engagement ring, yet we don’t think of that kind of infrastructure with that kind of value.

But I think if we start to engage with these territories differently, then maybe we see them as being valuable for what they are. Maybe we see them and relate to them differently. I like to think about this kind of thought experiment of what it would mean if we understood that the iPhone you’re currently recording this interview on is this precious slab of lithium metal dragged out of the earth in Chile, dragged out of an indigenous landscape rich in mythology. What would it mean when your phone contract runs out and it’s time to throw it away, would you still throw it away?

When we make a ring out of gold and put a diamond in it, it gets passed down from generation to generation, when that metal is no more precious than the metal in your phone. I’m interested in what would happen if you kept your phone, held onto it, waiting to give it to your grandchild. “This is your grandfather’s phone, he always wanted you to have it, this is an iPhone 5 and I want you to keep it with you and maybe you can give it to your children.”

These things are geological artifacts and we don’t think about them as such, and all of these machine landscapes are evidence of these emerging new relationships that we could form – so if we engage with them as cultural spaces then we can develop cultural attachments to them and I think that’s only going to be productive in the context of figuring out how we rein in the massive territorial change that the Post-Anthropocene is setting in motion.

Churilovo greenhouse in Chelyabinsk. Drone footage by Maksim Tarasov

How does the Urals field trip relate to the topics explored in “Machine Landscapes: Architectures of the Post-Anthropocene”?

Russia is an extraordinary site of machine landscapes; some of the largest machine landscapes of industries on the planet are here because of Russia’s gas and oil industry. Automation has been a critical component in operationalizing these infrastructures.

In the Urals, we were visiting one of the largest steel pipe manufacturers in the world. This extraordinary automated landscape produces these steel tubes that act like the veins of Russia, dragging oil and gas across enormous territories.

We visited an automated cucumber, tomato, and salad farm and there we see automation playing the role of the sun. They’ve essentially created a mechanized sun tuned to the properties of chlorafill where at 8:30am every morning the sun gets turned off, to be turned on again in a different color spectrum a few hours later because they’ve optimized the growing systems to efficiently produce cucumbers at a particular scale faster than the natural sun can do in that region.

And we weren’t allowed to access that space, we were only allowed to see it through glass because humans ourselves are contaminants in that system; we would just corrupt it, so it’s a different kind of garden, a garden that we’re never able to be inside. We only peer in through the steamed glass, looking at this utopia on the other side.

We also visited a magnesite plant, a massive quarry that used to be a mountain that’s now been turned to this negative void, this new landscape, this new geology, as an artifact of the automated Post-Anthropocene, where we dig out magnesite and run it through a series of automated or chemical processes, turning it into super heat resistant bricks. And again those processes can only be done at that scale using massive automated infrastructural systems.

So in many ways parts of Russia are at the bleeding edge of this emerging phenomenon and it was important to take a group of students there to stand inside the human exclusion zones, to intrude on the machine spaces, to survey our footprints near their tracks and think about what they might mean to us.

How does the trip build up on the previous two The New Normal field trips to Murmansk and Magadan?

What we’ve been doing I guess on the previous trips is charting this condition in a whole range of different regions across Russia.

So previously the trip was focusing on the edge conditions of Russia, all the way along the Siberian coastline, looking at fishing villages, looking at automated ports, and speculating on what might happen when this mythical northwest sea route opens up. What is currently a fairly empty coastline, spare a few fishing villages, will soon become the biggest shipping lane in all of human history, populated by these robot cities stacking out containers, filling the ships with goods ready for transport all over the world.

So we’ve seen the possible new sites of the next generation of machine landscapes on the previous trips, looking at the Russian Arctic, and now we’re seeing those sites in real time, some of those machine landscapes that are already playing out in the Urals.

How do aesthetics and ideologies catch up with the pace of technological development?

I describe all these technologies, all these types of landscapes, as being “before culture.” And what I mean by that is these systems have arrived faster than our cultural or ideological capacity to understand what they mean.

The reason why I made this book, the reason why I’m interested in doing this field trip, and the reason why I’m looking at human exclusion zones with The New Normal is to try and engage with them now because they’re already here, but our cultural understanding of what that means hasn’t developed yet.

So again we’re interested in prototyping what those new relationships might be, prototyping the way we can redesign these human exclusion zones to do different kinds of things, and that’s what the students will be working on, is exaggerating from these existing conditions of what we’ve been looking at and speculating on these new machine landscapes or speculating on the cultures that they might produce.

And that’s immensely valuable; the speculative projects the students develop are kind of sites to test out ideas. To see what works and what does not work, so we can work back from that and start to think about how we might design our world in a more productive way.

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