The future of buildings is low-tech and dumb

Digital vs Analog

In a little over a week my wife and I are going to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I can’t wait. Once again a new movie will satisfy my desire to experience the aesthetics of the Star Wars universe: a science fiction society depicting an analog future—one where gears, buttons, pistons, and levers reign supreme. The Millennium Falcon isn’t a fly-by-wire spaceship. Somewhere behind the bolted and screwed panels are probably something that more closely resembles the inner workings of a steampunk dirigible than what’s under the hood of an F-35. This vision of the future is why the Prequels are such an affront to all things Star Wars. It’s not the thin plots, horrid characters, or poor acting. It’s the digitization of the technology (the technology in the movie, not the technology of how the movie was created). Everything in the Prequels looks wrong because it describes a digital future, a future where software and electrons matter more than hardware and mechanical energy. There is too much glossy smoothness in the prequels. Sand everywhere, but not enough grit. The Prequels fail to give us the aesthetic of a Star Wars universe. And for that they can never be forgiven.

Fortunately, The Force Awakens begins to make things right. It once again shows an analog future. Unlike the dumb prequels, The Force Awakens feels like Star Wars because it shows a future imaged by people who didn’t understand the digital revolution of the 1990s and beyond. It gets all the details right.

Foreground vs Background

I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens three times in the theater, once this past weekend, and many times in between. Each time I watched Episode Seven in the theater, I focused on different aspects of the movie. The first time it was all about the story and experiencing a new Star Wars movie that was awesome: one that captured not only the aesthetic of the original movies but also the magical space opera qualities. It just felt good to watch the spectacle and see a triumphant return of something that I loved so much.

The second time I watched Episode 7, I did my best to listen to the movie. I paid attention to what music was played, when music started or disappeared, what the various spaceships, lightsabers, and machines sounded like (I love how Kylo Ren’s spaceship and lightsaber purr), and how long it took people to speak. Fin gets an entire dialog free introduction. Rey has multiple scenes on screen before uttering a word, and then those words are in a gibberish alien language. That’s cool. When my daughters watched Episode 7 for the first time this past weekend, it wasn’t until Rey removed her goggles and scarf that they even realized she was a girl.

The third time I watched the movie in the theaters, I did my best to ignore the action and just look at the scenery. I learned this technique from watching Disney movies billions of times with my daughters. There was a time when I was watching The Frog Princess almost daily. After awhile you learn to ignore the foreground and focus on the background.

The scenery in The Force Awakens is gorgeous. There are some very impressive set pieces, and the one that stuck in my mind was Maz Kanata’s castle. She’s a thousand year old alien running a restaurant of sorts. The obvious link to the original trilogy is that her watering hole is a callback to Mos Eisley Cantina. But watching the scenes on Takodana, it was the material of the structure that interested me, not references to background characters from A New Hope. Maz Kanata’s establishment is made out of stone. Why in a space traveling universe is her building made of stone? Because it’s old. And stone lasts. If you live hundreds of years, why build with materials that rot or need replacing every couple of decades? That’d be like us having to replace our home’s windows yearly. That’s dumb. For someone thinking about buildings in terms of centuries rather than decades, more durable materials like stone make sense.

I want high tech stuff in a low tech home

Stone is not only durable, it’s also low-tech. And low-tech answers are the best way to future proof a building. Low-tech solutions are not only about durability (long lasting or easy to replace), they are also about complexity. If you want a building to last centuries, are you really so arrogant as to assume the functions of the rooms will remain static? That how people consume media today will be the same as in a hundred years (or even ten)? Or that how we generate light will be constant? A building designed and constructed to last needs to be adaptable, but adaptable on a coarse scale, not a finicky one.  A durable building is a long-lasting shell. Which again brings me back to Maz Kanata’s castle. Her castle can handle fads in technology and shifts in usage. It is a low tech shell that can handle high-tech activities. Think about it: while the cooking fire might feel archaic, the amount of tech—portable tech—carried by all the patrons is astounding. And while the analog future of Star Wars is just fantasy, the shift from fixed to portable technology is quite real. The activities inside Maz Kanata’s castle are transient and ephemeral, but the castle is constructed to last.

How many built-in shelves do you need if you don’t invest thousands of dollars in books? How does a living room change in layout when once again we can ignore the existing of TVs; when our main gathering space isn’t a slave to a static, immobile aging technology? Should we really sacrifice the insulation value of an exterior wall to fit more wires doomed to obsolescence? If there are no active systems (mechanical, electrical, plumbing) in our exterior walls, what simple construction can be used to maximize durability and insulation? And how does that simplification of all materials and systems ease construction?

Certain aspects of our buildings will increase in complexity (windows and doors today are way more complicated than they were fifty years ago), but most parts will get simpler. So much of the technology we cram into our walls is trend-obsessed. We string knob and tube wiring, then copper wire, then copper wire in metal conduit or ENT or whatever comes next; we add phone wires, then ethernet cables and speaker wires. Then we stop using phone wires, ethernet and speaker wires. We add USB 2.0 ports to our outlets then our favorite tech company starts switching to USB-C. In the future our buildings will be disconnected from the day to day technology we interact with. A screen will be portable, not fixed. Nothing will need to be permanently attached or integrated into buildings.

Analog vs Organic

Star Wars would make us believe the answer is stone. But of course Star Wars is an analog future, a fantasy world that can never exist. Analog technology didn’t take us to space, digital technology did. But the digital tech we know now has limits as well. If we build modern buildings that will last centuries, or spacecraft that can take us to other solar systems, the technology underlying those masterpieces will be organic. This type of tech will be grown, either in a factory or in situ. It will consist of materials that are not found naturally. They might act like natural objects, but do unnatural things—or natural things we’re not used to seeing at such a large scale. The buildings will feel low tech because they will be simple on the scale we can understand. We’ll perceive degrees of solidity and transparency in our built environment; levels of reflectivity; light emitience. Joints will be minimized. Things will feel monolithic in the sense that a tree or a human is understood as one thing, not vast networks of hidden, naturally formed structures.

This is not a prognostication of curvy, fluid formed buildings. Vertical walls and flat floors have value. Organic materials do not require organic shapes. That’s a mistaken reading of this potential future. Further discussions of this are beyond my musings on Star Wars, so I’ll save the details for another day. Until then, check out the article I wrote for Clog back in 2013: Analog — Digital — Organic.

Subscribe to my blog to read more about the tricky world of being an Architect in the 21st century: Shoegnome on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube. For more on buildings constructed to outlast the memories of their builders, check out this video by Kurzgesagt – In a Nutshell called A New History for Humanity – The Human Era that suggests we should be celebrating New Years even 12,017 in a few weeks, as our calendar should start from the completion of the first known big construction project, the Göbekli Tepe.

8 Comments

  1. Dr Walter Black December 8, 2016
  2. Phil Allsopp December 8, 2016
    • Jared Banks December 12, 2016
      • Phil Allsopp December 12, 2016
      • Jared Banks December 13, 2016
  3. Elrond Burrell December 15, 2016
    • Jared Banks December 16, 2016

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