Jennifer Ly

Postgraduate Shortlisted

Manhattan Transfer: Data Centre

An elegant monument to personal data straddles the politics of privacy and the civic role of digital infrastructure

Jennifer Ly’s ‘infrastructural monument for personal data’ is a server centre and civic project for Manhattan’s Lower West Side. Depicted alternatively as a bastion of liberty and a public space for protest, the site is just several blocks from CoreSite, one of New York’s central internet exchanges.

This proximity sets up a dynamic dialogue between corporate interest and public security; until recently CoreSite was owned by the Carlyle Group equity fund (accused by documentary-maker Michael Moore of involvement in an epic 9/11 conspiracy centred on the Bin Laden family, Iraq war and defence contract profiteering).

The monument is clearly a response to both the ethics of commercial influence in information exchange, as well as the shortcomings of state regulation and protection for the citizen of this infrastructure − a position made explicit in the image depicting an Occupy-style tent city on the building’s forecourt below a giant banner reading ‘NSA’. But I think it would be a mistake to read this as simply a topical reaction to Edward Snowden’s revelations.

Axonometric of the building in the close-grained setting of Lower Manhattan

An illegible architectural container that camouflages the proliferation of data’s physical form

A large public space acts as mediator between the street and the server centre, encouraging social engagement

Formally, the project recalls a combination of the AT&T Long Lines Building downtown (also an internet exchange, and one of the largest blind concrete facades in the world) and Aldo Rossi’s Locomotiva 2 urban scheme of 1963 (a cubic fortress integrating diverse transport infrastructure with housing).

The architecture and its representation − non-compositional forms, clean axonometric line drawings and severely composed renders − are indicative of a general return in the popularity among East Coast students of Italian mid-century Modernism and its politics (largely attributable to the impact of forces like Pier Vittorio Aureli).

Mechanical floor plan and section revealing the permeability of the proposal

Indeed, it is not hard to repurpose Rossi’s own project description of ‘a modern conception of the centralisation of services and communications’, substituting only actual highways for informatic ones, and worker apartments for IP addresses.

Jennifer Ly’s monument is an elegant embodiment of the political problematics of our times, and it is refreshing to see an architecture concerned equally with formal beauty and social engagement.

Judge’s comment

Elia Zenghelis

The thesis laments the lack of correspondence between the proliferation of data’s physical form and its legibility, thus claiming that data is provoking an architectural crisis. Counteracting the inherent ‘immateriality’ of data, the entry gives it a physical form. A monument that contains the collection of the city’s personal data represents this and is inserted into the urban fabric. On the one hand the argument that the distinct primal form adopted explores the mechanisms of legibility is unconvincing, as it is not clear in what way it confers to the container the claimed legibility of the contents; on the other hand, the embodiment of materiality, scale and monumentality does represent a clear position with regards to what the author calls ‘the conflicts between architecture and the increasingly immaterial’.