Data Centers: Anti-Monuments of the Digital Age

07/05/2012 09:30 am ET | Updated Sep 12, 2012

375 Pearl, originally built in 1975 as a Telephone Communications building, was bought in 2011 to be repurposed as a Data Centers. The intimidating, unbroken facade is typical of a Data Center. Photo via Flickr CC User wallyg.

Your Macbook Air has come at a price. And I’m not talking about the $1,000 bucks you shelled out to buy it.
I’m talking about the cost of lightness. Because the dirty secret of the “Cloud” – that nebulous place where your data goes to live, thus freeing up your technological devices from all that weight – is its very physical counterpart.

Data Centers. Giant, whirring, power-guzzling behemoths of data storage – made of cables, servers, routers, tubes, coolers, and wires. As your devices get thinner, the insatiably hungry cloud, the data centers, get thicker.

So why are you struggling to picture one in your mind? Why do we have no idea what they look like? What they do? Where they are? Because Data Centers have been hidden away and, although carefully planned, intentionally “undesigned.” The goal is to make the architecture so technologically efficient, that the architecture becomes the machinery, and the machinery the architecture. In the words of author Andrew Blum, Data Centers are “anti-monuments” that ”declare their own unimportance.

But if architecture is the expression of our society’s values and beliefs, then what does this architectural obliteration mean? That we are willfully ignoring the process that creates the data we daily consume. As long as the internet works, who cares where it came from (or at what cost — and there is a considerable cost)?

So can design change our alienated relationship to our data? Should it? And if so, how?

The Data Center: An Introduction

One of Microsoft’s data centers is a 500,000-square-foot facility that was built on a bean field in Quincy, Wash., in 2006. Photo © Simon Norfolk for The New York Times

Tukwila is less a building than a machine for computing. “You look at a typical building, [...] and the mechanical and electrical infrastructure is probably below 10 percent of the upfront costs. Whereas here it’s 82 percent of the costs.” Little thought is given to exterior appearances; even the word “architecture” in the context of a data center can be confusing: it could refer to the building, the network or the software running on the servers. [1]

This description of Microsoft’s Data Center in Tukwila, Washingington, via its then-general manager Michael Manos, in conversation with New York Times reporter Tom Vanderbilt, sets up the Data Center as the hybrid creature it is: an architectural machine. There are many reasons for this amalgamation, but let’s begin with the most intrinsic to the Data Center: power.

Chilled water is an essential part of the system to reduce heat from the servers. It has historically taken nearly as much wattage to cool the servers as it does to run them.

Photo © Simon Norfolk for The New York Times


Data Centers require a never-ending, unimaginably large flow of electricity. To put it in perspective: if the Data Centers in the “Cloud” made up a country, that country would be among the top 5 energy users in the world. By 2020, this consumption is expected to multiply fifty times over. [2]

Unfortunately, most companies in the Cloud are still getting that electricity from traditional “dirty” sources of power; instead of finding ways to decrease energy consumption as a whole (by investing in renewable energy sources, for example), many have focused on making their use of energy as efficient as possible – which has led Data Centers to become the infrastructure of the data itself. [3]

The Data Center Pionen – White Mountain, designed by Albert France-Lanord Architects ,is housed in a former 1,200 sqm Cold War bunker (originally a World War II bunker); an amazing location 30 meters down under the granite rocks of the Vita Berg Park in Stockholm. The Center, which houses two of Wikileaks servers, shows the lengths some clients will go to keep their data secure.