Sanz Serif, a makeshift nickname earned as a result of my typographic likes, is the umbrella under which I present the diverse facets of my work: academic research on architecture and urbanism, design speculations, graphic design, curatorial and editorial work, and writings developed individually or collaborately, in institutional settings or independently.

Current focus: Workscapes.

LOU / Lights Out!: Emerging Spaces and Territories of Non-Human Labour

Lights Out! was the title of a proposal for research on the production of space for and by fully automated industry, which in 2016 received an honourable mention in Het Nieuwe Instituut’s 2016 International Call for Fellows, and that currently I am developing through writing, research, and education.

Photo: APM Terminals

March 18, 2016

The rise of new production technologies, robotization, and computer algorithms seem to indicate that we are heading to a future of workspaces without workers. Economists and technologists have rushed in to register the phenomenon, and offer roadmaps to guide society to the new paradigm. Call it the “collaborative economy” based on new manufacturing technologies of Jeremy Rifkin’s The Third Industrial Revolution (2011), the “cyber-physical systems” of  Klaus Schwab’s “Fourth Industrial Revolution,” Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAffe’s The Second Machine Age (2014), or simply, the era of The Rise of the Robots (2015), as Martin Ford has put it, such current buzz is symptomatic of deep ongoing transformations in the economy with great consequences for society. Robotization and human-free lights-out factories sound still like science fiction, however, that presumption might be misleading. At the macro-level, economists have noted that since the 1990s, growing Gross Domestic Product and productivity gains in the West contrasts with falling income and employment, signaling a clear shift from investing in labor towards capital—namely digital technology and mechanization—an acceleration of the expulsion of labor from the system, and the rise of inequality. On the ground, companies like Foxconn—Apple’s manufacturer in China—already operates a fully automated factory twenty-four hours in Chengdu, and plans to use robots and automation to complete 70 percent of the assembly line work in its factories by 2018; millions of workers will be replaced by a “robot army,” in the words of Terry Gou, the company’s CEO. 

Robotics and automation has also reached research and practice in the field of architecture; as a matter of fact, any design school with the ambition to be competitive today must boast among its facilities a cutting-edge fabrication lab with robotic arms and CNC machines. Some scholars have argued that robotic fabrication in architecture must be embraced by the profession, as it makes it possible to bridge the forms of computational design and their material construction, pushing forward a true architecture of the digital age (Celanto 2007; Gramazio, Kohler & Willmann 2014). Yet other authors and practitioners have noted that automation might bring within deeper transformations in architecture and construction as industries in themselves, disrupting its traditional processes, and the role, or even the existence, of their traditional actors, from designers to construction workers (Simondetti 2014; Picon 2014). 

So far, however, little research has delved into the wider transformations in the design and use of the built environment already being directly and indirectly caused by the generalized phenomenon of the adoption of robotic automation in workplaces. Consequently, mainstream architectural scholarship and practice endorses a narrative that characterizes this discipline as one that is subject to the ongoing revolutionary technological and socioeconomic shifts, with little or no agency in affecting these processes and their outcomes. Without a thorough study of the emerging—and anonymous—trends in the design of spaces for non-human labor and their implications, we undervalue the impact of economic decisions and the organization of industrial processes in the organization of spaces and society; such disregard ultimately leads to missing the opportunity of using design to alleviate the effects of the new industrial revolution, and, most importantly, to intervene and maximize its benefits for society at large by exploiting its gaps and contradictions. My project, Lights Out, remedies this gap by analyzing the production of space of fully-automated industry.

This project aims to construct a panorama of the emerging spatial typologies and configurations, users and user needs resulting of the widespread use of robotics in industry. Through close examination of anonymous architectures, patent drawings, promotional brochures, robots, their workplaces, and stories of the humans they replace—building Siegfried Giedion’s “anonymous history” as it is happening—I will piece together the incursion of full automation into contemporary buildings, cities, landscapes, and infrastructures. I claim that, in contrast to other forms of artificial intelligence, algorithms and bots, robots have a bodily presence in space and a different way of sensing it, and therefore an effect on its configuration—for example, they do not need lighting to operate, hence they may do it in lights-out factories in protected atmospheres. Furthermore, mechanical workers have also a tangible presence in society, generating new landscapes of employment and unemployment with massive urban implications. Ultimately, my research aims to show how full automation might challenge conventional notions defining architectural space, such as light, ventilation, or human movement and proportions, as well as bring new forms of territorial occupation, expulsion, segregation, and social contestation. 

While it is true that robots have been in factories since the 1980s, it is not until very recent that the conditions have coalesced to impulse and extend the automation revolution to more diverse working environments. Among them, improvements in low cost robotics, artificial intelligence and sensing technologies, high wage costs, and the need for more flexibility, efficiency, and quality to remain competitive in the global markets. As a result, the elimination of the human factor has come together with automation operating at various scales, and adapting its forms to different contexts and tasks. Evidently, it is also bringing a new set of collateral spatial and social implications.

Following on that, Lights Out is examining exemplary cases of fully automated workplaces in operation today, each one of them addressing a distinct scale, technological solution, and socio-spatial problematic. The first installment of the series, FutureLand, deals with the fully automated container terminal in the Port of Rotterdam. This case manifests to the rise of self-managed logistical infrastructures; there, meanwhile port workers protest and strike against the mechanical blue-collar robots, driverless vehicles and robotic cranes maximize the stacking of containers in a fenced area with unprecedented performance and productivity.  

Lights Out will reveal full automation’s hidden spatial production, making visible how economic decisions and industrial processes as key factors in the development and direction of spaces, and even of entire territories. In the process, it will built systematically document and analyze automation’s tangible manifestations in the built environment, and their gaps and contradictions, ultimately contributing to revealing pockets of agency for architects and designers to capture the most of the new industrial revolution for the common good.


See also: PAR / Platform ArchitecturesALA / Automated Landscapes and APM / FutureLand.