Intelligent Buildings: Dream works

From Spielberg's new studio in California to the Inland Revenue offices in Nottingham, architects are responding to the Information Age with revolutionary designs. Intelligent Spaces, a book by Otto Riewoldt, shows the buildings fit for today's smart, new workforce
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As the 20th century draws to a close, the media revolution is becoming a tangible, compelling reality. Data highways span the globe, and worldwide electronic networks are transforming the economy, information systems and the entertainment industry. Computer and television technologies are merging to create on-line multimedia services, the goldmines of the future.

These dynamic new markets are producing a wide range of responses from architects and interior designers: professional users and private clients want more than just the latest technology - they also want an appropriate architectural setting. A building which reflects (or appears to reflect) this market context can be a key factor in promoting a company and enhancing its image.

Software potentate Bill Gates and the experts of America's MIT Medialab are now predicting the total computerisation of living environments: "things that think" will provide integrated, "smart" systems controlling all domestic functions. Such intelligent buildings are evolving into self-regulating machines which can adapt their internal conditions to suit changing environmental factors. "Technology has become the companion of tectonics," observes German architecture critic Manfred Sack, with justice.

Computers can control the whole range of building technology functions, including climate, heating, sun-protection and lighting, minimising energy consumption and enhancing the building's economic, ergonomic and ecological profiles. In some cases, the building becomes self-sufficient as solar cells on the walls or the roof provide some of the energy it needs.

As buildings evolve into a sensitive interface between their interior space and the external environment, so the nature of the building's outer layer is changing. It is becoming a skin, which is developing new technical and aesthetic qualities. The new head office of the Commerzbank in Frankfurt, currently under construction, offers a prototype of how ecocentric innovation will affect the large-scale projects of the future. Norman Foster's design is an impressive hi-tech tower, yet it is also a complex, self-regulating biosphere, with internal courtyards full of hanging gardens, and a high level of energy efficiency.

Private and professional spheres will finally begin to merge in this digital paradise. At least, this is how leading Hollywood figures Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen see the future. Their company, SKG Dreamworks, is planning a new type of utopia. On the site of Howard Hughes's former aircraft factories, they are going to create Playa Vista, a $200-million "prototype of a 21st-century community", a joint venture with industrial partners including GTE, IBM and Silicon Graphics. The studio complex will be surrounded by a multimedia commercial park with private houses, and it will be car-free.

Other leading entertainment companies are preparing to take over whole areas of the world's cities. By the turn of the century, the Disney group will have transformed a desolate corner at the heart of Manhattan into a perfect fake Toontown. It is the theme parks' camouflage of the entertainment industry rather than the computerised media that are taking over the urban landscape. Concepts like Segaworld or The Edge, by US theme-park operator Landmark, are to be set up in dozens of cities world-wide over the next few years; in the USA, and probably soon elsewhere, there is to be a chain of new Sony cinema centres which will transform the traditional multiplex into digital pleasure domes.

Yet cyberspace is no home to live in: it threatens social cohesiveness and countless jobs. The threat of "jobless growth", the proportional growth of profit and mass unemployment, is becoming a reality. American sociologist Richard Sennet equates the overall gain in flexibility with an existential loss of security: "Work no longer provides the worker with a stable identity. Thanks to these economic changes, even the workplace has lost its importance and identity."

The trend towards teleworking is replacing centralised workplaces with diffused satellite or home offices. Employees are becoming office nomads: in the branches of American advertising agency Chiat/Day, laptop trolleys and sockets await the company's vagabond workers. Today, the computer giant IBM still has a fixed desk space for one in two of its workers; in the future, the company plans to accommodate only 20 per cent of its workforce in company offices. Virtual corporate structures need less office space, fewer parking spaces, and fewer facilities for the public.

For architecture, this means a return to its elementary protective and identity-creating functions, to its basic role of providing accommodation, a real living environment separate from the insubstantial worlds of the computer. Digital technologies can add a new dimension to architecture, but they cannot redefine its fundamental character. For architecture, utopia will continue to lie in the real world, not the virtual realm.

Adapted from 'Intelligent Spaces: Architecture for the Information Age', by Otto Riewoldt, published by Laurence King on 13 June, price pounds 45 (0171- 831 6351)