Surfing the Internet on our computers and talking to our friends on our cell phones may seem like intangible acts while we’re doing them, but behind each act there lies the physical infrastructure that supports our digital lives. In other words, the virtual cloud is formed by a series of actual buildings.
One very important building that makes up the cloud is the tower—and no, I don’t mean Trump Tower or a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill tower. I mean communications towers, or cell phone towers, to be more specific. Design Observer’s Rob Walker talks about “the infrastructure of the cloud” in his latest piece of the same name, in which he describes how the oft forgotten cell phone tower plays such a pivotal role in our society. But the actual infrastructure, he says, goes largely unnoticed.
A camouflaged tower strikes me as a great metaphor. Even plain-sight towers are a classic example of an element of the built environment that most of us never really see, even when they enter our field of vision: it's just some industrial/infrastructure thing, visual static, we look right through it.
Without the towers we would have no cell phones, no Internet, no apps. Yet we hide the towers and marginalize the workers who risk their lives every day to keep the towers in service. The workers life-threatening efforts, Walker says, go largely unnoticed. (He cites the recent Frontline episode on the topic. Dateline covered the dangerous occupation in an episode called “Tower Dogs” a few years back.)
Our attempts at hiding these towers lies in direct contrast to our fascination with other notable non-functional towers such as London’s ArcelorMittal Orbit tower or the Eiffel Tower. (Observation decks don't count as "function" here.) Could there be a role for architecture in designing functional towers the same way there is with non-functional ones?