A London exhibition is showing the architecture of data center, and asking how it will develop in future.

– Susan Smart Photography

The Power House show, at the Roca Gallery, which runs till February 22, 2022, includes displays of architectural designs, and panels illustrating aspects of data center building. It opened earlier this month, with a discussion about data center esthetics.

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"Data centers power modern life and yet they’re rarely considered as pieces of architecture," said the exhibition's curator, Clare Dowdy. "But as they mushroom across the globe, it’s time we thought of data centers as a peculiar, and peculiarly challenging, new building typology."

"Data centers are like uncanny offices," said Tom Ravenscroft, editor of Dezeen, and a long-time data center fan. As a student, his Master's project was an exploration of London's hidden data centers, sparked by a fascination with a building in Lewisham, South London. At first, he thought it was a "bad office," but the building had no car parking, no staff came and went, and he could see nothing through the windows. Once he realized this was a data center, he began to see them everywhere.

"These buildings have reflective windows, they are dirty and look neglected, but they have high security," he said, in a presentation which looked at urban data centers as a whole genre of buildings, whose efforts to be anonymous are an unmistakable stamp.

Curator Clare Dowdy – Susan Smart Photography

"When did we fall out of love with the future?" asked Professor Iain Macdonald, Instance of Uncertain Spaces, ArtEZ University of the Arts, the Netherlands. Professor McDonald had worked on multiple data centers over the last 20 years, including one hidden in a former London gin bottling plant. He said data centers had always had to coexist with the community, but this could make them somewhat schizophrenic.

The exhibition included existing centers located underground – in mines and disused bunkers - and Microsoft's Project Natick undersea experiment, as well as concepts created by architecture practices and students, suggesting future data center locations. Arup, for instance, looked at an idea of retrofitting data centers into disused oil rigs.

In future, data centers that are off-grid, powered by nuclear batteries might get more confident, as they run more autonomously, suggested Professor McDonald: "Is architecture becoming more important? Would a person get in the way?"

Engineer Robert Thorogood of HDR said the design would still follow the function of the building, pointing out how hyperscale facilities are generally structured as single-story buildings holding row after frow of racks, positioned to get airflow from the long outside wall. "Data centers can be unapologetic," he said. "And look like data centers."

With an eye on the current climate emergency, the exhibition included a look at district heating and other environmental schemes in the data center sector.

The exhibition consisted of square panels, which contrasted with Roca's curvilinear space. It also had one more incongruous aspect. The gallery owner Roca is a Spanish maker of sanitary wares, and doubles as a showroom. The high-tech building displays were surrounded by high-end toilets and showers.

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