Table of Con­tents | http://​dx​.doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​7​7​4​2​/​I​M​A​G​E​.​L​D​.​8​.​2.4 | VeelPDF

Uncer­tain Architectures—Performing Shel­ter and Expo­sure

Abstract | Orig­i­nal­ly housed in gener­ic indus­tri­al build­ings, data cen­tres have become sites of archi­tec­tur­al feats and play­grounds for star­chi­tects in recent years. These build­ings tes­ti­fy to a changed role of how we think of these repos­i­to­ries for data and their posi­tion in our soci­ety. Through a read­ing of the Bahn­hof data cen­tre Pio­nen in Stock­holm from 2008 and the design schemat­ic for a Data Tow­er in Ice­land, this arti­cle exam­ines how the data cen­tre as an archi­tec­tur­al and infra­struc­tur­al edi­fice facil­i­tates data stor­age and access, focus­ing on how secu­ri­ty is artic­u­lat­ed in the archi­tec­tur­al vocab­u­lary through nego­ti­a­tions of vis­i­bil­i­ty. By inter­min­gling images of these sites with tex­tu­al vignette-like reflec­tions, this arti­cle uses the archi­tec­ture of the data cen­tre to address how the design of dynam­ic data archives embod­ies cul­tur­al imag­i­nar­ies of uncer­tain­ty through the tropes of shel­ter and expo­sure.

Archi­tec­tures incer­taines : quand l’abri nous expose

Résumé | Ini­tiale­ment hébergés dans des bâti­ments indus­triels génériques, les cen­tres de don­nées sont devenus récem­ment des mer­veilles d’architecture et des ter­rains de jeux pour les « star­chi­tects ». Ces bâti­ments témoignent d'un change­ment de rôle dans la façon dont nous pen­sons à ces entre­pôts de don­nées et à leur posi­tion dans notre société. Grâce à une lec­ture du cen­tre de don­nées Bahn­hof Pio­nen à Stock­holm à par­tir de 2008 et au sché­ma de con­cep­tion d'une tour de don­nées en Islande, cet arti­cle exam­ine com­ment le cen­tre de don­nées, en tant qu’édifice archi­tec­tur­al et infra­struc­ture, facilite le stock­age et l'accès aux don­nées, en met­tant l'accent sur la façon dont la sécu­rité est artic­ulée dans le vocab­u­laire archi­tec­tur­al à tra­vers les négo­ci­a­tions de vis­i­bil­ité. En entremêlant les images de ces sites avec des réflex­ions textuelles sem­blables à des vignettes, cet arti­cle utilise l'architecture du cen­tre de don­nées pour abor­der com­ment l’élaboration de cen­tre de don­nées dynamiques incar­ne des imag­i­naires cul­turels d'incertitude à tra­vers les tropes d'abris et d'exposition.

Kris­ten Veel |

Uncertain Architectures: Performing Shelter and Exposure
Storage and Access

Data cen­tres are the build­ings that house the servers that enable our online com­mu­ni­ca­tion, there­by con­sti­tut­ing the phys­i­cal res­i­dences that allows for the ubiq­ui­tous inte­gra­tion of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy into our every­day lives. As anchor­ing points for the data del­uge that envelops us, they can be regard­ed as the con­tem­po­rary archi­tec­tur­al form of the repos­i­to­ry archives and libraries in which West­ern cul­ture has stored infor­ma­tion for cen­turies. In this sense, data cen­tres may also be regard­ed as spa­tial con­tain­ers for our cur­rent engage­ment with time, offer­ing not only stor­ages of the past, but ges­tur­ing towards the tem­po­ral regime of a broad present (see Gum­brecht; Ernst; Cox and Lund): in the data cen­tre the past and the future inter­min­gle in the dynam­ic accu­mu­la­tion of data, which can be oper­a­tional­ized for pre­dic­tive and pre-emp­tive pur­pos­es in an even more tan­gi­ble way than their phys­i­cal antecedents. While pre­dic­tive data ana­lyt­ics are mar­ket­ed as tools for cer­tain­ty and secu­ri­ty, the tem­po­ral regime of simul­tane­ity of which they are part also marks a move towards uncer­tain­ty as a fun­da­men­tal con­di­tion that engages in a re-nego­ti­a­tion of what is con­sid­ered vis­i­ble and what is invis­i­ble.[1] The aim here is to unfold how this uncer­tain­ty takes archi­tec­tur­al form through archi­tec­tur­al and dis­cur­sive analy­sis of blue­prints, archi­tec­tur­al ren­der­ings, and pho­tographs of the Bahn­hof data cen­tre Pio­nen in Stock­holm from 2008 and the design entry for a Data Tow­er in Ice­land, which came in third in the mag­a­zine eVo­lo’s 2016 Sky­scraper Com­pe­ti­tion.

Fig­ure 1

As facil­i­ties for stor­age and access, data cen­tres have dif­fer­ent spa­tial affor­dances than tra­di­tion­al archives. As opposed to archives con­tain­ing books, images, or objects, data cen­tres store the servers that house the data, which can be extract­ed and ren­dered remote­ly in dif­fer­ent for­mats and through a range of dif­fer­ent inter­faces. Admis­sion to the stor­age facil­i­ties is there­fore not nec­es­sar­i­ly grant­ed in order to access mate­r­i­al and the mate­ri­al­i­sa­tion of data can be regard­ed as more fleet­ing and mod­u­lar than the phys­i­cal archive. Nonethe­less, as this spe­cial issue on the geo­gra­phies of glob­al data makes clear, infor­ma­tion infra­struc­tures par­take in nat­ur­al, social, and polit­i­cal geo­gra­phies in new and note­wor­thy ways. While they are con­tain­ers for ephemer­al data, they are also the epi­cen­tres of pow­er and con­trol, and their phys­i­cal loca­tion has exten­sive impli­ca­tions for infor­ma­tion own­er­ship as well as envi­ron­men­tal con­se­quences (Hogan and Shep­ard; Hogan).

Look­ing at the diverse archi­tec­ture of this new gen­er­a­tion of data centres—which are increas­ing­ly cus­tom-built and the result of pres­ti­gious design competitions—conveys impor­tant infor­ma­tion about how con­tem­po­rary cul­ture imag­ines and projects the func­tion of these data hubs. The archi­tec­tur­al vocab­u­lary and the nar­ra­tives these sites exert about data stor­age and access pro­vides us with insight into how secu­ri­ty (under­stood as spec­trum of issues rang­ing from equip­ment con­di­tions to pri­va­cy) takes archi­tec­tur­al form. In recent years, the archi­tec­ture of data cen­tres has gath­ered inter­est among a wider audi­ence, evi­denced by Dou­glas Alger’s cof­fee-table book The Art of the Dat­a­cen­ter (2012), Wired-cor­re­spon­dent Andrew Blume’s best­seller Tubes: A Jour­ney to the Cen­tre of the Inter­net (2012), and the doc­u­men­tary project The People’s Cloud (2016). This arti­cle con­sid­ers the mate­ri­al­i­ty of infra­struc­ture and how we may go about read­ing the cul­tur­al impli­ca­tions of these struc­tures, fol­low­ing the work of schol­ars such as Mél Hogan, Jen­nifer Holt and Patrick Von­der­au, Peter Jakob­s­son and Fred­erik Stiern­st­edt, Shan­non Mat­tern, Lisa Parks, and Tung-Hui Hu.

The two archi­tec­tur­al struc­tures on which this arti­cle focus­es appear at first sight to be opposites—one con­vex and one con­cave struc­ture: Pionen—White Moun­tain, built in 2008, 30 metres below ground in an old nuclear bunker carved out of the moun­tain in Stock­holm, hous­es the facil­i­ties for the Swedish inter­net ser­vice provider, Bahn­hof.

Fig­ure 2

The design for a Data Tow­er in Ice­land, which came in third in the mag­a­zine eVo­lo’s 2016 Sky­scraper com­pe­ti­tion, shoots out of the ground. Yet its height, designed to be adapt­able to shift­ing stor­age needs, and its mod­u­lar struc­ture made out of serv­er box­es that can move in and out of the build­ing, make for an appear­ance that is as flex­i­ble and in flux as the con­tent it con­tains.

Fig­ure 3

In what fol­lows, I shall focus on these two data centres—one built and one imagined—as archi­tec­tur­al, infra­struc­tur­al imag­i­nar­ies that, in dif­fer­ent ways, encap­su­late a reflec­tion on the cul­tur­al imag­i­na­tion of data access and stor­age as linked to uncer­tain­ty in the 21st cen­tu­ry. These reflec­tions take their start­ing point in a series of illus­tra­tions from the design pro­pos­al of the Data Tow­er by the two archi­tects, Vale­ria Mer­curi and Mar­co Mer­let­ti, and Åke E:son Lindman’s pho­tos of Pio­nen for Albert France-Lanord Archi­tects. Weav­ing between these images, my work also re-nar­rates the build­ings, thus pro­vid­ing a rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al archi­tec­ture in and of itself that shares with these build­ings an engage­ment with the future in which we live through imag­in­ing it.

Security as Shelter and Exposure

The equip­ment housed in a data cen­tre makes spe­cif­ic demands on its sur­round­ings in terms of resilience with respect to nat­ur­al dis­as­ters and equip­ment fail­ure. In par­tic­u­lar, data servers are required to be kept cool, which means it is more ener­gy effi­cient to place them in the north­ern regions of the world. Both exam­ples in this arti­cle are inti­mate­ly tied to a spe­cif­ic geo­graph­i­cal loca­tion and cli­mate con­di­tions. This visu­al and tex­tu­al explo­ration thus starts by look­ing clos­er at how these build­ings take advan­tage of the envi­ron­ment in which they are sit­u­at­ed in order to cre­ate the opti­mal con­di­tions for the equip­ment they store.

Fig­ure 4

First, we go into the ground:

On Sep­tem­ber 11, 2008, Bahn­hof opened their new com­put­er cen­tre inside the for­mer civ­il defence cen­tre Pio­nen in Stockholm’s Vita Bergen, a very sta­ble geo­log­i­cal area that con­sists of two-bil­lion-year-old gran­ite. The defence cen­tre was built in the 1970s to pro­tect gov­ern­ment func­tions from nuclear attacks. Thir­ty metres below ground and shel­tered behind a 40-cm-thick met­al door, it has 1200 square metres of space for its serv­er halls and offices. Dyna­mite blew out 4000 cubic metres of extra space, and it took them around two and a half years to turn the atom­ic shel­ter into a data cen­tre. The shel­ter uses out­side air cool­ing rather than geot­her­mal cool­ing (drilling into the moun­tain and using the cool­ness of the ground) to avoid heat­ing the moun­tain that sur­rounds it. Back­up pow­er gen­er­a­tors repur­posed from sec­ond-hand diesel engines from Ger­man sub­marines secure the sta­bil­i­ty of this site. In the event of a sys­tem fail­ure, a sub­ma­rine sound horn alerts the sur­round­ings (see Albert France-Lanord (A)rchitects; Bahn­hof; “Pio­nen”; McMil­lan).

Fig­ure 5

In this way the atmos­phere res­onates with Cold War con­no­ta­tions, and the design of the data cen­tre itself, by the archi­tects Albert France-Lanord, has been heav­i­ly inspired by James Bond and sci-fi film sets. The inte­ri­or dec­o­ra­tion evokes space­ships and notions of self-sufficiency—for instance, in the way foun­tains, green­hous­es, and a fish tank have been installed in the depths of the cave to cre­ate a sense of the inter­min­gling of nature, tech­nol­o­gy, and humans (see Fortin; Schri­jver; Sanders).

Fig­ure 6

As an inter­net ser­vice provider, Bahn­hof works main­ly with what is called “colo­ca­tion”; they pro­vide space for the servers and net­work­ing equip­ment of dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies, par­tic­u­lar­ly desir­able for com­pa­nies with mid­size IT needs for which it is not prof­itable to invest heav­i­ly in the tech­no­log­i­cal logis­tics that sup­port their work (“Colo­ca­tion”). Bahn­hof thus makes a liv­ing from pro­vid­ing a phys­i­cal stor­age facil­i­ty that offers secu­ri­ty and sta­bil­i­ty in terms of pow­er sup­plies as well as flex­i­bil­i­ty in terms of facil­i­tat­ing dif­fer­ent types of cus­tomers and their equip­ment. Since this data cen­tre is essen­tial­ly an exten­sion of a nuclear bomb shel­ter, the site was already con­struct­ed with secu­ri­ty issues in mind, and the vocab­u­lary of a self-con­tained world-with­in-a-world in its sci-fi inte­ri­or dec­o­ra­tion enhances this feel­ing.

On con­struct­ing the Bahn­hof data cen­tre Pio­nen, Albert France-Lanord Archi­tects stat­ed: “It has been very excit­ing to work with a space which at first didn’t offer one square angle: the rock. The main room is not a tra­di­tion­al space lim­it­ed by sur­faces but defined by the empti­ness inside a mass.” (“Pio­nen”)  This notion of “empti­ness inside a mass” is an evoca­tive metaphor for think­ing about dig­i­tal stor­age space. The con­cept of data is often dis­cussed in rela­tion to the trope of the black box, the arche­type of which is, of course, the flight recorder. Enter­ing com­mon lan­guage from engi­neer­ing and cyber­net­ics in the sec­ond half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, the black box is a trope for some­thing about which we can only know the input and the out­put. In Bruno Latour’s words, it describes “an expres­sion from the soci­ol­o­gy of sci­ence that refers to the way sci­en­tif­ic and tech­ni­cal work is made invis­i­ble by its own suc­cess” (304). In the case of Pio­nen, we may say that the whole data cen­tre is, in a sense, black-boxed—to the many pedes­tri­ans mak­ing their way above ground past wood­en hous­es and an old church, Pio­nen is empti­ness inside a mass.

The log­ic of a site such as Pio­nen hinges on the par­tic­u­lar con­fig­u­ra­tion of access and stor­age that it pro­vides. Stor­ing the servers 30 metres under­ground evokes a Cold War log­ic of con­tain­ment and of invis­i­bil­i­ty as con­not­ing secu­ri­ty, with which the inte­ri­or inspired by the self-con­tained space­ship is in dia­logue. Yet sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the archi­tec­ture revolves not only around the fun­da­men­tal needs of secur­ing a sta­ble envi­ron­ment for the servers but also mak­ing the resources housed here eas­i­ly avail­able for dis­tri­b­u­tion and con­sump­tion. Unlike the orig­i­nal nuclear bunker—the sub­ma­rine or the spaceship—the rai­son d’être of the data cen­tre lies in the con­nec­tiv­i­ty it pro­vides to the sur­round­ing world. This gives rise to a series of archi­tec­tur­al para­dox­es, as we shall see when we in the next sec­tion return to how vis­i­bil­i­ty is nego­ti­at­ed in the inte­ri­or of this build­ing.

First, how­ev­er, we shall turn to the pro­ject­ed 65-sto­ry Data Tow­er. Here the notion of empti­ness inside a mass takes on anoth­er mean­ing. Data Tow­er is envi­sioned as a tall ver­ti­cal struc­ture that ele­vates the servers rather than bury­ing them in the ground. The design is mod­elled on an enor­mous, 3D moth­er­board with a cylin­dri­cal shape, inspired by Volkswagen’s Car Tow­ers in Wolfs­burg and the Apple Mac Pro Tow­er. All the hard­ware com­po­nents are fas­tened on the exter­nal façade, while the inside is left as an emp­ty void that has a dou­ble func­tion: it is the main air duct of the cool­ing sys­tem and the space in which the pods can be moved to the ground floor for main­te­nance and upgrade. It is imag­ined to func­tion as a giant chim­ney that heats the lab­o­ra­to­ries and green­hous­es locat­ed in the base­ment as well as the sur­round­ing neigh­bour­hood.

Fig­ure 7

The Data Tow­er demon­strates the same log­ic of self-suf­fi­cien­cy and atten­tion to the heat the servers pro­duce that we saw with Bahnhof’s bunker. Yet while the bunker struc­ture encap­su­lates the servers, they almost leap from the sur­face of the tow­er. Here, secu­ri­ty takes a dif­fer­ent form: rather than shel­ter­ing, it expos­es its con­tents to the sur­round­ings. Flex­i­bil­i­ty and con­nec­tiv­i­ty are priv­i­leged over the sense of pro­tec­tion that comes from the hid­den cave struc­ture. The moth­er­board as an archi­tec­tur­al mod­el allows for mod­u­lar think­ing, which makes the façade adapt­able to the needs at a giv­en time. Thus, the height of the tow­er is not fixed but adapt­able. In this way, the build­ing allows for much more plas­tic­i­ty than is pos­si­ble in Bahnhof’s bunker, which is much more dif­fi­cult to expand at a lat­er stage.

Fig­ure 8

Thus, in dif­fer­ent ways, the two build­ings give form to data stor­age in a way that empha­sizes that this con­tent should be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly secure and also remain flex­i­ble in terms of access. The bunker fore­grounds the secu­ri­ty aspects as an issue of pro­tec­tion and shel­ter while the tow­er makes for a much more exposed edi­fice that exhibits extreme flex­i­bil­i­ty and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty. Turn­ing now to look clos­er at the notion of vis­i­bil­i­ty—a con­cept that has sat­u­rat­ed most pub­lic insti­tu­tions and pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions in the 21st century—allows us to explore this con­stel­la­tion of shel­ter and expo­sure more and exam­ine the rela­tion between secu­ri­ty and flex­i­bil­i­ty that we see at work in these build­ings.


Trans­par­ent glass facades have dom­i­nat­ed much con­tem­po­rary high- to mid-rise urban archi­tec­ture since the 1990s, reflect­ing the archi­tec­tur­al artic­u­la­tion of ongo­ing nego­ti­a­tions of vis­i­bil­i­ty and invis­i­bil­i­ty in a con­tem­po­rary cul­ture dom­i­nat­ed by increas­ing sur­veil­lance (Stein­er and Veel). Archi­tec­ture his­to­ri­an Antho­ny Vidler, among oth­ers, has argued that glass (as a mate­r­i­al which is only trans­par­ent under very spe­cif­ic light con­di­tions) is often used as a polit­i­cal or ide­o­log­i­cal state­ment to sig­ni­fy trans­paren­cy rather than nec­es­sar­i­ly embody it. Trans­paren­cy can there­fore be con­sid­ered an ide­o­log­i­cal con­di­tion (Vidler 217-18). So, I argue, is secu­ri­ty, and data cen­tres are a par­tic­u­lar type of build­ing in which we can observe vis­i­bil­i­ty per­form a nego­ti­a­tion of secu­ri­ty issues in built form.

On a first read­ing, Pio­nen and the Data Tow­er may seem to embody a tran­si­tion in think­ing about insti­tu­tions and visibility—an archi­tec­tur­al equiv­a­lent of the Gilles Deleuze’s dis­tinc­tion between dis­ci­pli­nary soci­eties and soci­eties of con­trol (“Post­script on the Soci­eties of Con­trol”). Here Deleuze uses the imagery of the ser­pent and the mole as a way of artic­u­lat­ing a shift from Michel Foucault’s dis­ci­pli­nary soci­eties, which involved an indi­vid­ual pass­ing through one con­tained envi­ron­ment after anoth­er (the fam­i­ly, the school, the fac­to­ry, the hos­pi­tal, the prison). These insti­tu­tions are embod­ied in dis­tinct phys­i­cal and archi­tec­tural­ly recog­nis­able set­tings in which the panop­tic prin­ci­ple of a cen­tralised gaze can eas­i­ly be imple­ment­ed and stand in oppo­si­tion to con­trol: “Enclo­sures are molds, dis­tinct cast­ings, but con­trols are a mod­u­la­tion, like a self-deform­ing cast that will con­tin­u­ous­ly change from one moment to the oth­er, or like a sieve whose mesh will trans­mute from point to point” (Deleuze 4). Apply­ing this per­spec­tive, the two data cen­tres can be read as rep­re­sent­ing these two dif­fer­ent (albeit con­nect­ed) regimes, with Pio­nen rep­re­sent­ing a notion of enclo­sure and con­tain­ment while the pro­ject­ed Data Tow­er embod­ies flex­i­bil­i­ty, flow, and mod­u­la­tion.

In the Data Tow­er, the serv­er-filled pods are out­side the tow­er. They are lift­ed up to their spots auto­mat­i­cal­ly and tak­en down when need­ed. The inside void is a chim­ney that exhausts hot air or recy­cles it for heat­ing. Data Tow­er thus expos­es what it stores on its façade—in that sense, per­form­ing com­plete vis­i­bil­i­ty where every­thing is there for us to see, serv­er after serv­er, giga­byte after giga­byte. There is noth­ing at the cen­tre to expose but hot air. Where­as Pio­nen, as we have seen, embod­ies stor­age as shel­ter, the mod­u­lar flex­i­bil­i­ty in the Data Tow­er, exposed to the Ice­landic cli­mate, makes a state­ment about flow, dis­tri­b­u­tion, and con­nec­tiv­i­ty that is linked to its use of vis­i­bil­i­ty. The façade has been turned into an adapt­able sur­face that can adjust the den­si­ty and height of the tow­er accord­ing to what is need­ed at any giv­en time. By design, it asserts a dis­trib­uted and mod­u­lar sense of the data it stores. Although there is a con­trol sta­tion at the bot­tom of the build­ing that can check the sta­tus of each serv­er and, via a mechan­i­cal han­dling sys­tem, bring any pod to the ground, it is embed­ded seam­less­ly in the sur­round­ings. It is not an ele­vat­ed, panop­tic con­trol tow­er that pro­vides a bird’s-eye overview. Thus, it is not a build­ing that promis­es pro­tec­tion, secu­ri­ty, and cen­tralised con­trol the way we are used to think­ing about them in panop­tic terms. Rather, it is a build­ing that seems attuned to a con­cep­tion of secu­ri­ty that is equal­ly mod­u­lar and oper­ates with modes of uncer­tain­ty as an unavoid­able con­di­tion.

How­ev­er, if we return to Pio­nen and look at its inte­ri­or, vis­i­bil­i­ty is here also artic­u­lat­ed rather ambigu­ous­ly, and its engage­ment with dis­ci­pli­nary modes of visu­al­i­ty is in fact often tongue-in-cheek. While the site at first glance main­tains an aura of secu­ri­ty and con­tain­ment as an under­ground loca­tion that dis­tin­guish­es itself marked­ly from the wood­en hous­es above ground, thus mar­ket­ing itself by its impen­e­tra­bil­i­ty and obfus­ca­tion, it also engages with vis­i­bil­i­ty as a nego­tiable stance depen­dent on point of view. For instance, in its cen­tral meet­ing room it emu­lates the con­trol tow­er of a tra­di­tion­al indus­tri­al infra­struc­ture: the air­port, the ship, the panop­ti­con prison. Overview and vis­i­bil­i­ty here con­note safe­ty and con­trol.

Fig­ure 9

Yet the allu­sions to sci-fi films through­out the inte­ri­or of the build­ing bring atten­tion to the chore­o­graphed per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty of these secu­ri­ty struc­tures. This empha­sis on the per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty of the site makes it all the more appar­ent that all there is to sur­vey and con­trol from this plat­form is the impen­e­tra­ble white serv­er box­es. The glass encap­su­la­tion thus comes to appear more as a the­atri­cal instal­ment that may bestow a sense of pow­er upon the peo­ple on the bridge but in turn makes them part of the décor on the same lev­el as the 2600-litre salt­wa­ter fish tank we saw ear­li­er. The peo­ple like­ly to sit in this room know only too well that mon­i­tor­ing takes place else­where and, for the most part, is not even con­duct­ed by humans. A cyber­at­tack or a sys­temic error would not be vis­i­ble by look­ing at the white box­es. Most like­ly, it would not even be vis­i­ble from observ­ing the peo­ple work­ing in this envi­ron­ment. Sig­nif­i­cant­ly, the serv­er box­es are white, not black, which may be read as a com­ment on the fact that, while full vis­i­bil­i­ty is grant­ed from this plat­form, there is noth­ing to see.[2] Vis­i­bil­i­ty does not always ren­der the inner work­ings more trans­par­ent.

Uncertain Architectures

The play­ful engage­ment with 20th-cen­tu­ry secu­ri­ty con­no­ta­tions in Pio­nen can thus be regard­ed as point­ing to the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a sub­ver­sive space emerg­ing out of the cul­tur­al imag­i­nar­ies of the Cold War. The founder and CEO of Bahn­hof, Jon Kar­lung, is an active voice in Swedish pub­lic dis­course on cyber­se­cu­ri­ty. He is famous for hous­ing Wik­ileaks in 2010 as well for tap­ing and releas­ing con­ver­sa­tions with the Swedish intel­li­gence ser­vices when they tried to per­suade Bahn­hof to release infor­ma­tion on their cus­tomers’ emails and phone calls in 2013 (“Bahn­hof”). In a sim­i­lar man­ner to the building’s take on vis­i­bil­i­ty, also secu­ri­ty can be seen as a ques­tion of point of view: from whose gaze should the stored data be pro­tect­ed? The pry­ing eyes of com­peti­tors or gov­ern­ment agen­cies? It can be argued that the ambigu­ous engage­ment with vis­i­bil­i­ty in the archi­tec­ture of Pio­nen ges­tures towards what is called “bul­let­proof hosting”—i.e., web-host­ing firms that do not med­dle too much with what their cus­tomers upload and dis­trib­ute and can pro­vide off-shore sanc­tu­ar­ies, for instance, from US juris­dic­tion.[3] Most ser­vice providers have terms of ser­vice that enable them to sus­pend a host­ing account if com­plaints are made, either for eth­i­cal rea­sons or for the prac­ti­cal rea­son of reduc­ing the risk of anti-spam fil­ters block­ing their IP sub­net. How­ev­er, a “bul­let­proof” host allows a con­tent provider to bypass the laws reg­u­lat­ing inter­net con­tent and ser­vice in its own coun­try of oper­a­tion, which was the case with the Wik­ileaks servers. In this way, Pio­nen embod­ies an “aes­thet­ics of the secret” that, accord­ing to cul­tur­al the­o­rist Clare Bir­chall, may pro­vide a way for cop­ing with the sur­veil­lance regimes that cur­rent data-track­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties may facil­i­tate:

Instead of acts of pub­lic­i­ty such as legal march­es or online peti­tions, the “datatari­at” might need to meet the per­va­sive pro­to­cols of inequitable dataveil­lance employed by the secu­ri­tised state with opac­i­ty. A right to opac­i­ty in this con­text would mean the demand not to be reduced to and under­stood as data as defined by the state. Though we have to acknowl­edge the atten­dant risks of non-pro­gres­sive and crim­i­nal activ­i­ty made pos­si­ble by the “dark” web, it is nev­er­the­less here that the right to opac­i­ty might be assert­ed. (45)

Fig­ure 10

Anoth­er approach would be that of com­plete openness—embracing the expo­sure and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that comes with the track­ing of move­ment and pre­dic­tive ana­lyt­ics that is enabled with big data analy­sis. As ear­ly as 2001, sur­veil­lance stud­ies schol­ar David Lyon described how data move freely between dif­fer­ent sec­tors of soci­ety, result­ing in infor­ma­tion from dis­crete realms spilling into oth­er con­texts. Pri­vate life, work life, and shop­ping should be under­stood as what he calls “leaky con­tain­ers” (Lyon 37-48). More recent­ly, media the­o­rist Wendy Chun has made the point that leak­i­ness should not be regard­ed as a fault. Rather, com­put­er devices are leaky and promis­cu­ous by default, “Net­works work—they allow us to communicate—by expos­ing users, by mak­ing users vul­ner­a­ble, so to that there can be a ‘we,’ how­ev­er inop­er­a­ble, to begin with” (379). How­ev­er, accord­ing to Chun this may in fact be employed as a mode of resis­tance:

Thus, rather than fight­ing for a pri­va­cy that is no pri­va­cy, what if we rather embraced our role as col­lec­tive char­ac­ters in pub­lic? What if, rather than accept­ing the reduc­tion of trust to cor­po­rate secu­ri­ty, we embraced Nissenbaum’s argu­ment that trust entails the abil­i­ty to take risks? (375)

These two dif­fer­ent strate­gies pro­vide a more nuanced frame­work for under­stand­ing the way in which Pio­nen and the Data Tow­er embody secu­ri­ty as archi­tec­tures that respond to con­di­tions of uncer­tain­ty by way of a nego­ti­a­tion of vis­i­bil­i­ty. Pio­nen main­tains an aura of secu­ri­ty and con­tain­ment while it expos­es vis­i­bil­i­ty as a nego­tiable stance and a per­for­ma­tive ges­ture that may obfus­cate as much as reveal. The Data Tow­er, on the oth­er hand, is essen­tial­ly a leak­ing and exposed archi­tec­ture, its visu­al impres­sion that of flux and move­ment. The façade appears porous and mem­brane-like with pods con­tain­ing servers flow­ing up and down the 65 sto­ries, either sucked into the build­ing for main­te­nance or pro­trud­ing into the cold Ice­landic air. The pods will not all be inside or out­side the tow­er at the same time; some will always be exposed to the weath­er. As Chun points out, just as there will always be leaks with net­worked media, there will always be a part of our pri­vate data that is exposed. As soon as we inter­act with the machines that store our data, we make our­selves vul­ner­a­ble. This is the nature of these archival machines, and it is the nar­ra­tive that a build­ing such as the Data Tow­er projects.

Fig­ure 11

The Architecture of Data

Through archi­tec­tur­al and dis­cur­sive analy­sis of blue­prints, archi­tec­tur­al ren­der­ings, and pho­tographs, this text has aimed to illu­mi­nate how uncer­tain­ty takes archi­tec­tur­al form as a nego­ti­a­tion of vis­i­bil­i­ty that reveals dif­fer­ent ways of giv­ing built form to con­tem­po­rary notions of secu­ri­ty and pri­va­cy. When jux­ta­posed Pio­nen and the Data Tow­er  ges­ture towards a tem­po­ral regime of a broad present in which past, present, and future inter­min­gle in data struc­tures used in equal mea­sure to pre­serve our past and pre­dict our future. Pio­nen play­ful­ly inte­grates the retro appeal of Cold War rhetoric in a way that sub­verts the sin­cer­i­ty with which it employs the bunker as an imag­i­nary for secu­ri­ty as shel­ter and con­tain­ment. Pio­nen thus plays with imag­i­nar­ies of the future that date back to action and sci-fi films of the 1970s and 1980s and uses this imagery as smoke­screens to secu­ri­tize through obfus­ca­tion. While Pio­nen is bound not only by its phys­i­cal encap­su­la­tion inside a moun­tain but also by the fact that it is an actu­al, phys­i­cal build­ing, the Data Tow­er is still an imag­i­nary con­struct. The Data Tow­er remains in the fic­tion­al realm until it is built and can, as such, be read as our own time’s pro­jec­tion of the future. It faces uncer­tain­ty through an act of expo­sure and an embrace of vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty that, at the same time, also ges­tures toward an “aes­thet­ics of the secret” in Birchall’s terms. The serv­er pods are no more reveal­ing of their insides than the white box­es in Pio­nen, and the expo­sure the tow­er exhibits may be regard­ed as equal­ly per­for­ma­tive as Pio­nen’s shel­ter. It is a tow­er with­out a cen­tre; it car­ries its con­tent on its sur­face, mak­ing the world aware of what it con­tains while at the same time dis­play­ing in mate­r­i­al terms the invis­i­bil­i­ty of that con­tent. It is empti­ness inside a mass of con­nec­tiv­i­ty, and here­in lies its imag­i­na­tive force.

Fig­ure 12

Image Notes

Fig­ure 1: Inside the Data Tow­er, archi­tec­tur­al ren­der­ing, Vale­ria Mer­curi and Mar­co Mer­let­ti

Fig­ure 2: Servers in Pio­nen, pho­to: Åke E:son Lind­man

Fig­ure 3: Viewed from the out­side, Data Tow­er, archi­tec­tur­al ren­der­ing, Vale­ria Mer­curi and Mar­co Mer­let­ti

Fig­ure 4: Pio­nen, draw­ing, Albert France-Lanord Archi­tects

Fig­ure 5: Gen­er­a­tors, Pio­nen, pho­to: Åke E:son Lind­man

Fig­ure 6: Fish­tank, Pio­nen, pho­to: Åke E:son Lind­man

Fig­ure 7: Cross-sec­tion­al view, Data Tow­er, draw­ing, Vale­ria Mer­curi and Mar­co Mer­let­ti

Fig­ure 8: The tow­er explained, Data Tow­er, draw­ing, Vale­ria Mer­curi and Mar­co Mer­let­ti

Fig­ure 9: Meet­ing room, Pio­nen, pho­to: Åke E:son Lind­man

Fig­ure 10: View over the servers, Pio­nen, pho­to: Åke E:son Lind­man

Fig­ure 11: Land­scape view, Data Tow­er, archi­tec­tur­al ren­der­ing, Vale­ria Mer­curi and Mar­co Mer­let­ti

Fig­ure 12: Data Tow­er, draw­ing, Vale­ria Mer­curi and Mar­co Mer­let­ti

Works Cited

Albert France-Lanord (A)rchitects. www​.chezal​bert​.com. Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

Alger, Dou­glas. The Art of the Data Cen­ter: A Look Inside the World's Most Inno­v­a­tive and Com­pelling Com­put­ing Envi­ron­ments. Pren­tice Hall, 2012.

Bahn­hof. www​.bahn​hof​.net/​p​a​g​e​/​d​a​t​a​c​e​n​t​e​r​-​p​i​o​nen. Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

“Bahn­hof spelade in SÄPOs över­tal­ningskam­panj.” Sveriges Radio, 17 Dec 2013, http://​sveriges​ra​dio​.se/​s​i​d​a​/​a​r​t​i​k​e​l​.​a​s​p​x​?​p​r​o​g​r​a​m​i​d​=​1​6​5​0​&​a​r​t​i​k​e​l​=​5​7​3​5​355. Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

Bir­chall, Clare. “Aes­thet­ics of the Secret.” New For­ma­tions, vol. 83, no.1, 2015, pp. 25-46.

Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong. “Big Data as Dra­ma.” ELH, vol. 83, no.2, 2016, pp. 363-382.

Colo­ca­tion.” Bahn­hof, www​.bahn​hof​.net/​p​a​g​e​/​c​o​l​o​c​a​t​ion. Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

Cox, Geoff, and Jacob Lund. The Con­tem­po­rary Con­di­tion: Intro­duc­to­ry Thoughts on Con­tem­po­rane­ity and Con­tem­po­rary Art. Stern­berg Press, 2016.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Post­script on Soci­eties of Con­trol.” Octo­ber, vol. 59, pp. 3–7.

Ernst, Wolf­gang. Chronopo­et­ics: The Tem­po­ral Being and Oper­a­tiv­i­ty of Tech­no­log­i­cal Media. Row­man and Lit­tle­field, 2016.

Elerd­ing, Car­olyn. “The Mate­ri­al­i­ty of the Dig­i­tal: Petro-Enlight­en­ment and the Aes­thet­ics of Invis­i­bil­i­ty.” Post­mod­ern Cul­ture, vol. 26 no. 2, 2016.  Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/pmc.2016.0007

Fortin, David T. Archi­tec­ture and Sci­ence-Fic­tion Film: Philip K. Dick and the Spec­ta­cle of the Home. Ash­gate, 2011.

Gum­brecht, Hans Ulrich. After 1945: Laten­cy as Ori­gin of Present. Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2013.

Hogan, Mél. “Water Woes & Data Flows: the Utah Data Cen­ter.” Big Data and Soci­ety, July-Decem­ber, 2015, pp. 1–12.

Hogan, Mél, and Tama­ra Shep­herd. “Infor­ma­tion Own­er­ship and Mate­ri­al­i­ty in an Age of Big Data Sur­veil­lance.Jour­nal of Infor­ma­tion Pol­i­cy, vol. 5, 2015, pp. 6-31.

Holt, Jen­nifer, and Patrick Von­der­au. “‘Where the Inter­net Lives’: Data Cen­ters as Cloud Infra­struc­ture.” Sig­nal Traf­fic: Crit­i­cal Stud­ies of Media Infra­struc­tures, edit­ed by Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosiel­s­ki, Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Press, 2015, pp. 71–93.

Jakob­s­son, Peter and Fredrik Stiern­st­edt. “Time, Space and Clouds of Infor­ma­tion: Data Cen­ter Dis­course and the Mean­ing of Dura­bil­i­ty.” Cul­tur­al Tech­nolo­gies: The Shap­ing of Cul­ture in Media and Soci­ety, edit­ed by Göran Bolin, Rout­ledge, 2012, pp. 103–18.

Latour. Bruno. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Real­i­ty of Sci­ence Stud­ies. Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1999.

Lyon, David. Sur­veil­lance Soci­ety: Mon­i­tor­ing Every­day Life. Open Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001.

Mat­tern, Shan­non. “Infra­struc­tur­al Tourism.” Places, July 2013. https://​placesjour​nal​.org/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​i​n​f​r​a​s​t​r​u​c​t​u​r​a​l​-​t​o​u​r​i​sm/. Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

McMil­lan, Robert. “Deep Inside the James Bond Lair that Actu­al­ly Exists.” Wired, Novem­ber 21 2012, www​.wired​.com/​2​0​1​2​/​1​1​/​b​a​h​n​h​of/. Accessed 30 August 2017.

Parks, Lisa. “‘Stuff You Can Kick’: Toward a The­o­ry of Media Infra­struc­tures.” Human­i­ties and the Dig­i­tal, edit­ed by David Theo Gold­berg and Patrik Svens­son, MIT Press, 2015, pp. 355–73.

Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosiel­s­ki, edi­tors. Sig­nal Traf­fic: Crit­i­cal Stud­ies of Media Infra­struc­tures. Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois Press, 2015.

Pio­nen – White moun­tain / Albert France-Lanord Archi­tects.” Arch­Dai­ly, 24 Nov. 2008.–-white-mountain-albert-france-lanord-architects. Accessed 30 Aug. 2017.

Sanders, Steven M. edi­tor. The Phi­los­o­phy of Sci­ence Fic­tion Films. The Uni­ver­si­ty Press of Ken­tucky, 2008.

Schri­jver, Lara. “From Alphav­ille to Cyberville: The City of the Future in Sci­ence Fic­tion Films.” OASE, vol. 66, 2005, pp. 28-46.

Stein­er, Hen­ri­ette and Kristin Veel, edi­tors. Invis­i­bil­i­ty Stud­ies: Sur­veil­lance, Trans­paren­cy and the Hid­den in Con­tem­po­rary Cul­ture. Peter Lang, 2015.

Hu, Tung-Hui. A Pre­his­to­ry of the Cloud. MIT Press, 2015.

Vidler, Antho­ny. The Archi­tec­tur­al Uncan­ny: Essays in the Mod­ern Unhome­ly. MIT Press, 1999.


[1] This arti­cle comes out of work on the research project Uncer­tain Archives (www​.uncer​tainar​chives​.dk).

[2] In con­trast to the black box’s focus on input and out­put rather than the inner work­ings, the white box (also called glass box or trans­par­ent box in soft­ware devel­op­ment) is a sys­tem where the inner log­ic is trans­par­ent and acces­si­ble.

[3] Yet anoth­er way in which geog­ra­phy is impor­tant to the posi­tion­ing of the data cen­tre while also obfus­cat­ing trans­paren­cy.

This arti­cle is licensed under a  Cre­ative Com­mons 4.0 Inter­na­tion­al License although cer­tain works ref­er­enced here­in may be sep­a­rate­ly licensed, or the author has exer­cised their right to fair deal­ing under the Cana­di­an Copy­right Act.