Ambivalent Object VI: Gigantic
Gary Polk @ University of Pennsylvania [MArch, 3rd Year, Fall 2017 Option Studio (Professor: Jason Payne)]
‘The representational aesthetic of the project takes on several methods to ground the design in multiple historical and cultural realities. Along with hyperrealistic photography and satellite imagery, the plan takes cues from post-war Icelandic geological survey mappings, the section from 18th-century geographic illustrations, the ‘creature painting’ utilizing the style of Icelandic painter Arngrímur Sigurðsson, and the model being built, ironically, as a crystallized miniature sans-fog.’
From Ptolemy to the Pixies, humans find both fascination and fear in the gigantic. Ironically, little attention has been paid to the form and shape of data centers, Iceland’s newest rapidly developing crop, which often combines geothermal dynamics with information architecture to be housed in gigantic volumes. Given the relative formlessness of current data centers, there is much left to be explored in the context of the complimentary systems of the geothermal along with the rich vastness of the strangely-scaled Iceland.
Fog is an effect endemic to the atmosphere of Iceland. Steam, likewise, is an inherent element of the geothermal power plant, commonly released into the stratosphere as an extract. This project utilizes steam as a mechanism that gets re-appropriated as fog to shroud the geothermal data center, allowing the building to recede into its environment. The concept of blur takes shape to conceal the structure at different scales, through both fog and the duplication of seams, allowing the building to exist functionally yet simultaneously disappear, obscuring architectural turf with geology, and in turn creating an ambiguous state of gigantism. In the satellite view – arguably the dominant form of realism for iceland, along with the constant stream of air travel flying in and out of Keflavik – the building begins to suggest itself to be a hybrid cloud-like mass. On ground level, this building only reveals itself in specific angles that are constantly in flux, with the fog dissipating as one gets closer. Ultimately, the obscurity of the structure will cement itself into Icelandic culture, where the mystery of the strange object will transform into mythology.
While fog is presented as the primary material, the building’s skin is cover in turf, another element that is very vernacular to Iceland, and one that effectively takes on the frequency, motion and direction of the fog that shrouds it. The turf sits on a substructure that is derivative of the data center grid system underneath. This grid is designed for decentralization, a highly political phenomena where companies vie for the proximity of data centers. It establishes numerous “centers” that act as catalysts for their own sub-grids (white space) that begin to radiate outwards, thus initiating expansion in a multitude of directions, ensuring that the creature will grow.
The concept of blur and decentralization establishes a variety of data center space, where the building begins to offer several different conditions for security tiers. This includes the above-ground data centers (tier 1), subterranean data centers (tier 2), pier data centers (tier 3) and water data pod colonies (tier 4), based on a relatively new form of data storage prototyped by Microsoft.
Who influences you graphically?
For this project specifically, I studied various methods of representing effect. Roger Deakins was a big influence for his work with fogginess and blurriness in cinematography; Jason Salavon as well for his artistic interpretation of additive blur. For drawings, I explored geographical illustrations, particularly 16th and 17th century drawings depicting objects of unknown scale and proportion (think New World cartography) drawn with great detail, often with mythic creatures in the waters – there was a kind of intimate reality to these drawings. For Iceland in particular, there exists an archive of post-war geology survey drawings that mapped out all the various geological features on the island, with various hatches and line weights depicting different elements and textures – these were a big inspiration in a project where geology and building blurred into ambivalence, each sensitive to the other and both indifferent to former categories of origin. As for the mythological narrative, I explored Icelandic painters, specifically Arngrímur Sigurðsson, who depicted mythic creatures in a fantastic yet strange, almost uncanny manner.
What was your work process in terms of project development and its representation? How did the various methods of representation, as methods which would ground the proposal both historical and culturally, develop? Did one influence/require the other?
The project began by utilizing the architect’s abstraction – in this case, drawing grids in plan – as a way of laying out the gigantic data center, aiming at a minimum of 1 million ft2 (approximately93000 m2). From there, the plan and its satellite image counterpart became the primary drivers going forward. This is where the argument became clear that the building, as an aesthetic artifact, existed most prominently in the realm of satellite (and aerial travel), as it was positioned off a road rarely traveled. Thus, this became a key factor in deciding how to delineate modes of representation. I created a series of satellite images zoomed to various scales, as well as a series of elevation perspectives of various angles and distances from the building to show its qualities (or lack thereof), focusing on the building’s ability to recede within the geology through blur.
Naturally, the plan ended up being one of the few images that took on the responsibility of exposing the building in its full naked existence, contributing plausibility in a project that always wanted to hide. The section allowed me to explain not only the spatial variation of the data center nodes and security tiers, but also question the vast unknown depths that the building was wired in to. The fog had such a presence that it had to be represented in the drawings in a spatial and durational capacity, as it is as much a material of the project as the turf that covers the skin.
How effective is the model, what was its purpose? What defined the way you frame this within the photographs?
The model acted on two fronts – as a physical artifact complimenting the images, and as a medium for quasi-photograph hybrids. To that end, the model also avoided abstraction in lieu of realistic textures and coloration, borrowing techniques often used in miniatures such as model trains. Some of the model shots, particularly the elevations, were merged with actual site images, creating an ambiguous state of representation where viewers questioned the fabricated render from the photograph. This effectively fed into flattening the project into a particular reality, as opposed to showing you the traditional step-by-step process.
You talk about the exploration as highly aesthetic and parafictional – could you discuss this further?
The proposal behaves through articulating the real presence and effect of the object rather than showing a gallery of abstractions. This is set up as a fiction, of course, yet it grounds itself into a real-world place, with real-world images and plausible consequences to its existence. By subtly altering a satellite image, one begins to question whether any alteration even happened.
This approach is further enhanced by the functionality of the program – a data center, by nature, has a very minimal amount of on-site employees, which immediately de-emphasized representing most of the internal spatial experience. This is interesting when realizing that the building is servicing millions of people globally who will never even consider the physical storage of their data. The presence of such a building, then, would cement itself into local – Icelandic – cultural lore, which led to the painting of the building as an interpreted creature, or a fiction within a fiction.
What were the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The vastness and strangeness of the Icelandic landscape made it a challenge to comprehend scale. A gigantic glacier can read as a tiny sliver next to a volcanic horizon. There are next to no human objects for relative comparison. What is big and what is small – or does it even matter?
You seize to reveal any visual speculation in terms of views on the interior of the data centre- why so?
The interior of any data center is typically divided up in two types of spaces – the area that houses all the IT equipment, servers, storage, network gear, racks and air conditioning units and so on, is commonly labeled by the industry as ‘white space,’ relative to ‘gray space’ which houses all the back-end machinery such as chillers, generators, and in my case, parts of the geothermal power plant. The point being, these spaces are very densely engineered for peak efficiency, and every data center will have quite similar white space aesthetic for those reasons. The stance here was to avoid designing these areas, and focus on external qualities.
Gary Polk is a design architect currently interested in designing stories as well as emerging methods of establishing geometry and space particularly as it pertains to nonhuman agency, parafictions, narrative and cultural ergonomics. He is finishing his MArch at the University of Pennsylvania, and has worked for the likes of UNStudio in Amsterdam, Richard Meier in Los Angeles, Ibañez Kim in Cambridge and FJG Architects in Chicago.