Fall 2012


Navigating the logistical surface

Keller Easterling

The floor is now arguably the most important architectural surface.

The vertical surfaces of architecture are customarily regarded as primary. Within a long tradition of visual aesthetics, they are the readable registration of formal silhouettes and decorative signs. Building skins also absorb digital media and environmental technologies that make them part of an “internet of things.” Volumetrically, elevator technologies are highly contagious germs of vertical urban morphology. They carry instructions for relationships between core and perimeter, sequence and passage, and they are the pivotal element in a real estate formula that values land in terms of stacking property.

Yet, in the logistics landscape, new technological devices are rehearsing a horizontal repertoire. In container ports, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated stacking cranes (ASCs) take direction from GPS, lasers, and magnetic transponders in the pavement. In a driverless ballet, they glide along at eleven miles per hour, receiving containers from ships and then stacking them into automated fields—gigantic reflections of the materials-handling software that directs it. Within each supply chain, the movement of containers is just the first stage in a choreography of storage and retrieval that also extends to warehouses and fulfillment centers. Reading GPS signals, magnets, and graphic patterns on these slick and clean floors, forklifts select materials from eight-story-tall pallet racks. Intricate networks of belt and skate-wheel conveyors together with horizontal and vertical carousels work with robotic gantries and AGVs of all kinds to constantly redistribute the contents of the container and deliver the individual units for sale. The ground or floor, more than merely the durable surface underfoot, has become the brains of an intelligent navigation system.

When transferred to buildings inhabited by humans rather than products, these vehicles—now capable of moving vertically and horizontally—are like a hybrid of the elevator and the car. The elevator that dictated vertical urbanism and the car that calibrated highways and exurban development are merged in powerful new germs that like the floor. The Dutch company FROG (Free Ranging on Grid), for example, has designed AGVs for the European Container Terminal in Rotterdam and the factory floor, as well as driverless airport and parking lot shuttles, Disney rides, and personal vehicles. Otis Elevators has marketed an elevator-car hybrid, the Odyssey system, designed to move horizontally and vertically through buildings, from, for instance, parking lot to office. In some projections, a vehicle shuttles passengers horizontally in, for instance, a parking lot, and then, upon reaching a vertical stack, it scales the inside of the shaft.[1]

The floor has also become something like a channel or horizontal elevator shaft. A number of vehicles have been designed to navigate the logistical spaces of hospitals, universities, and mail centers. They can move horizontally through a space between the floor and the ceiling below it, and vertically through a conventional elevator shaft.2 An AGV delivering mail may then pass through a population of desks, ringing a little bell for each recipient before calling an elevator to go to a new floor. The voided vertical tubes and horizontal sandwich spaces in which vehicles travel may also align with structural logics; in addition to stacking vertically, buildings may unspool horizontally, and tall buildings need not have the silhouette of a tower but may instead take the form of, for instance, a landscape.

The logistics landscape has also been rehearsing the car of the future. FROG is among the companies offering practical prototypes. The 2GetThere project in the Netherlands, the ARGO project in Italy, VaMP and VITA-2 by Ernst Dickmann’s team in Germany, and the ULTra personal rapid transit system from the UK are others. Since many of these cars have no exhaust, they make no distinction between front and back, and do not create familiar segregations between inside vehicles (elevators) and outside vehicles (cars and transport). With automated car parking, robotic lifts move the cars in an arrangement that requires half the space of conventional parking. There are no running engines, no drivers, and no access lanes, so cars can be closely packed into any location in a building, collapsing the distinction between elevator, parking lot, and road.

As these AGV systems are adopted, they gradually cancel the conventional logics of floor and potentially allow previously segregated environments to form new adjacencies. Parking lots, elevator shafts, and exterior roadways may well become part of a more continuous surface within which vehicles are not confined to either inside or outside. The floor was always the surface that kept in constant contact with the body, while the vertical surface was biased toward the eyes. Now the floor is producing a language that is read by both body and vehicle with and without special navigational devices. The capacity for changes to urban morphology is profound.

Similar vehicles have been props in futuristic utopian schemes, yet it is today’s workhorses of logistics or conveyance that have yielded the most promising results. Many of the dreams of omnidirectional movement, from Archigram or Cedric Price, for example, depicted trippy, liberatory landscapes. Futuristic projections for personal rapid transit vehicles (e.g., the EUREKA Prometheus Project or the Aramis project in France) imagined that, within the city, cars could gang together to become a train and, once outside the city, separate into individual cars that would deliver passengers to their particular home or destination. Many of these ideas did not come to fruition because transportation engineers found it hard to devise workable algorithms complex enough to address the changeable desires of humans. Yet logistics vehicles work on the principle of robotic intelligence in which repetitive, dumb, and multiplied activities accomplish complex tasks. Finally, it is not the elevator to the moon that is radical but the simple ability of the elevator to move up and down.

Floor.dwg, the diagram seen across these pages, does not depict the dream of omnidirectional movement in a utopian transportation scheme. Most of the graphics, lovingly engineered by multiple authors, were found on autocad exchange networks (where drawings with titles like “do not delete.dwg,” “Elks club parking lot.dwg,” or “Andrew.dwg.” wait in the hopes of someday being useful). In Floor.dwg, fleets of existing vehicles—released from their obsessive logistical chores—are introduced onto a common horizontal surface. Their simple repertoires coexist to meet new responsibilities and logics. With loud graphic patterns, the readable floor indulges in an exuberant, even silly, display.

  1. Miriam Lacob, “Elevators on the Move,” Scientific American (October 1997). Otis marketed the Odyssey system to skyscrapers planned in China, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Korea, and Singapore, but has since discontinued the project.

Keller Easterling is an architect, a writer, and a professor at Yale University. Her books include Enduring Innocence: Global Architecture and its Political Masquerades (MIT Press, 2005) and Organization Space: Landscapes, Highways, and Houses in America (MIT Press, 1999). A forthcoming book, Extrastatecraft: Global Infrastructure and Political Arts (Yale University Press, 2013), examines global infrastructure networks as a medium of polity.

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