Architects as Spatial Agents of Digital Urbanism – between Large Digital Corporations, Governing Institutions and Urban Society
Author: Orly Even
Proposed Research
Figure#1: Amazon Spheres from the Seventh Avenue side, Seattle, Washington, U.S, 2018 [Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons]

A proposal for a research project that would set forth an agenda for a politically progressive geography of architecture. The project would explore the role of architects as urban planners and designers, in promoting and producing urban intervention by large digital corporations. Its theoretical approach would be based on post-politics and on the concept of the sublime object and its ideological implications.

In early February Amazon unveiled renderings for its Arlington headquarters campus HQ2. The design icon of the campus, planned by Seattle based architecture firm NBBJ, is a spiraling 106-meter-tall building named “The Helix”. Media discourse over the design has presented concepts of sustainability, wellbeing and biophilia, promoted by both project architects and Amazon (Harrouk, 2021; Kunkle, 2021; Palmer, 2019; Schoettler, 2019, 2021). Architecture critics, on the other hand, have rather dismissed the design, referring to the building as an architectural “duck”[1] whose form represents its purpose (Kennicott, 2021), and bluntly comparing it to an unflattering emoji (Ravenscroft, 2021). This discussion seems to be missing a more pressing issue than merely aesthetic appreciation: the HQ2 project brings into question the role of architects as urban planners and designers, in promoting and producing urban intervention by large digital corporations (LDCs).

Academic Context

This proposed project wishes to follow the research direction of the DIGI-GOV research project and the research outcomes of DIG-URBGOV (Carr & Hesse, 2019) in order to explore procedures of urban development lead by LDCs, and also draw attention to the architectural artifacts they produce. Conceptually, the research would base itself on prior theorization of post-politics and the split between politics and the political (Carr & Hesse, 2020; MacLeod, 2011), and would address the “introduction of aesthetics into political life”(Benjamin, 1969, p. 241) via theories of ethics and aesthetics. As post-politics relates to Lacanian concepts (Wilson & Swyngedouw, 2014), the research would suggest to incorporate Lacan’s concept of sublime object (2013) as developed by Žižek (1989), to explore ideological articulation of urban digital space.

The Helix, as well as Amazon’s HQ1 Spheres in Seattle (designed by NBBG and Site Workshop), showcase technological innovation, extensive use of flora and futuristic morphology. The symbolic architectural expression embodies a notion of the smart city – a vague model with troubling implications (Carr, 2018; Kitchin, 2016; Shelton et al., 2015), alluding to the technological sublime (Jameson, 1991; Miller, 1965; Nye, 1994). The objects chosen to represent what is beyond representation – digital practices and data - become alluring (evoking aw) yet intimidating (losing personal autonomy), and hence sublime. The sublime object possesses “a massive, oppressive material presence”, compensating for a structural lack within the social order (Žižek, 1989, p. 184). The function of buildings like The Helix or urban designs like HQ1+2 is to integrate their users into the new symbolic order created by LDCs, via a socio-ideological fantasy of a homogeneous, digitally governed society - while such society does not exist (yet?).

Recognizing architecture as a key component in the fabrication of urban space, the proposed research aims to examine architectural practices in the political context of digital urbanism. Architecture’s role in the social production of built environments has been probed by geographers, sociologists, anthropologists and architecture historians (Faulconbridge, 2009; Gottdiener, 1985; Harvey, 1989; Imrie & Street, 2009; Knox, 1987; Lefèbvre, 1991, 2000; Mcneill, 2006, 2008; Porphyrios, 1985; Tafuri, 1980; Tafuri & Dal Co, 1986). The social function of architecture is to insert the agents of aesthetic culture into activities that promote or subvert the dominant production relations (Dickens, 1980, 1981). According to Bevir & Rhodes (2006), situated agents of institutional governance responding to novel ideas, can bring about changes in tradition and practices. This could also be applied to lower level actors in the governance game. Awan et al. (2011) introduce the idea of spatial agency, situating architectural practices in relation to wider publics and politics than a particular client. The proposed research would examine how architects engage in post-politics as mediators between LDCs, urban institutions and the public, and also as agents of urban change, amidst the novel process of urban digitalization.

Research Objectives and Expected Contribution to the Field

The two main objectives of the research would be: a) exploring urban and architectural planning initiated by LDCs as a mode of post-political social production; b) examining the role of designated architects as situated spatial agents in this mode of production. Relying on previous research on Toronto’s waterfront project as precedence, the research would encompass three spatial modes of planning in four cities:

1. New urban fabrics in current urban context in Seattle and Arlington / Amazon.

2. Local interventions (particularly architectural) within existing urban fabric in Seattle and Arlington / Amazon.

3. New infrastructure and data-centre design in countryside environments in Bissen and Eemshaven / Google.

As these are ongoing cases where LDCs have secured a position in the local urban field, the research would follow plans, discourse and political procedures for dissemination of urban intervention. It would focus on architects/architecture firms as part of new digital institutions, and city appointed planners as part of old urban governance. Architectural outputs would be considered in a broad view of social practice.

Since LDC’s entrance to the domain of urban planning is an ongoing phenomenon, research of this sort is bound to lag behind the changes in urban governance and form of the smart city. Perhaps critical approaches would not suffice, rather one should try to conceptualize future methods of digital urbanism as a productive and beneficial mode of LDC involvement in urban practice. One hypothesized direction might be a rhizomatic approach (Deleuze & Guattari, 1988; Menatti, 2013) of network distribution within the city, to allow adopting smart city practices and distribution of governance in favor of local communities and municipal services.[2]

In the past two decades there has been renewed interest in architecture among cultural geographers (Jacobs, 2006; Kraftl, 2010; Lees & Baxter, 2011; Lorne, 2017). In line with this approach, the proposed urban research puts together critical geography and architecture, by introducing ideas of spatial agency. Its aim is to develop a politically progressive framework, which could perhaps challenge conventions in spatial studies and cross disciplinary boundaries. This research could contribute to the geographies of architecture scholarship, and its results would be published in scientific journal articles and presented in conference papers. If successful, it might also step out of the academic realm and offer implementable models for digital urbanization processes.


The research would employ a qualitative methodology common in human geography and urban studies, incorporating several approaches to enable a top-down perspective with a street-level view of social practice:

1. Interpretative institutionalism: exploring “ways in which social practices are created, sustained and transformed through […] human activity” (Bevir & Rhodes, 2006, p. 3). The interpretation would include various techniques based on Krueger et al. (2018) – observation, surveys of planning sites, interviews with architects and city planners, official and unofficial documents such as architectural representations.

2. Processuality of urbanization: understanding and analyzing urban politics and political processes by identifying different discourses (Carr & Hesse, 2020; Kenis, 2019). This would include the ways in which new urban planning and architecture are mediated to local institutions and communities, review of discourse of the planning architects and discourse in authoritative architectural magazines.

3. Urban comparison: exploratory mapping, visual documentation and comparative synchronic analysis of studied cities and spatial modes. This would be accompanied with historic diachronic analysis, to reconstruct the urbanization processes (Lefèbvre, 1991; Robinson, 2011; Schmid et al., 2018).


[1] A term coined by Venturi and Scott Brown in their study of Las Vegas. See: Venturi, R., Scott Brown, D., & Izenour, S. (1977). Learning from Las Vegas: The forgotten symbolism of architectural form. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

[2] Applicable to the specified spatial modes 1 and 2.


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