Last week in Barcelona the biggest mobile phone fair in the world ended, with a presentation of the latest devices, apps and trends which are supposedly changing our lives, all representing the arrival of a new epoch. Usually in architecture new epochs imply new concepts of the perception and understanding of space; new times which demand new types of buildings.
The new mobile devices and platforms (smartphones, tablets, phabelts, ultrabooks, etc…) with ultra fast 4G internet technology celebrate the definite liberation of an old tyranny: not only the one linked to a concrete space and a socket, but also the one tied to a limited wifi-radius. Communication, leisure, chatting, netsurfing: working and entertainment are now everywhere available, at any time. The repercussions of the technological explosion are not questionable: the way we work and relate to each other, the way to access information, when and where we shop and consume or how we deal with our free time are different than before.
But as architects dealing with the definition of spaces we have to ask: how exactly does this new situation affect our environment and its built surroundings ?
During the industrial revolution working and production conditions were changed in such a way that the emerging society demanded new building typologies: factories to produce industrially manufactured goods and infrastructures to distribute these and transport people; mass housing schemes to host the inflowing workforce; offices and administrative buildings to manage and organize the new complexity, and also new built facilities for new forms of leisure activities.
How does today’s mobilization affect work and production? I dare to affirm that only the production has become cleaner, quicker, more reactive, more automatic, more digitally based and more flexible (and scattered around the globe). But it will take a while until we see mobile factories. At most we can expect a network of small flexible factories in constant communication with each other, where products and components are shifted between each other efficiently on high speed transport infrastructures. While the factories themselves would lose in size and importance, the most remarkable outcome of this prospect development is a classic built hardware: heavy transport infrastructure and not the delicate ethereal quality of weightless space which is attached to the new mobile world.
The liberation of the people’s workplace is also surrounded with question marks: blue collar work remains the same but is delocalized in a race around the world, in always new “emerging” economies, while replicating old conditions in new locations. In the white collar sector, good old-fixed- administrative work is replaced by new quick and flexible contracts: but at heart people are still doing something quite similar, just not on their work desks, but on their tablets and smartphones on the move in trains, airports, at home or in the café: administering, gathering, classifying and distributing information, but not producing anything tangibly new. It is possible that we will see the end of the traditional office building, since technology will allow us to be in touch with everyone everywhere, so that we will be able to work anywhere linked with our colleagues with high quality connections.
So which space, which building will symbolize this new era, like the chimney and the mass housing block did for the 19th century?
Probably not one with the clear symbolic force that every new time demands.
The most characteristic features of today’s political, social and economic scenarios are the ambiguity of attributes, the diminishing diversity of every time more exchangeable places, the acceleration of changes and and the ongoing symbiosis between human being and the machine: according to the oracles of the experts on hybridization, we will live, learn, work and exercise our leisure everywhere, without being able to tell where the limits between these activities are.
And the buildings? There will be dwellings with integrated work corners, schools with attached coworking spaces. Office blocks halfway converted and used as open social meeting points and hotels; warehouses with overlapping kindergardens. And transparent factories with leisure centers where people will be able to admire the good old times on live-diorama shows; the times when work still was proper work and on Sundays you rested.