Windows from the 17th century and onward.
Daniel Davis Windows from the 17th century and onward.

The 2014 Venice Biennale tells a history of architecture that is conspicuously devoid of architects, and a future in which buildings begin speaking for themselves. Curated by Rem Koolhaas, the main exhibition, "Elements of Architecture," resembles a natural history museum with its taxonomy of life-sized architectural elements on display. The elements are categorized into 15 fundamental genera—such as walls, doors, and ramps—that are organized to show the mutations and adaptations leading to the evolution of each element throughout architecture’s history.

The evolution of the window, for example, is told along a white wall punched by nearly 100 windows organized chronologically (shown, above); stone casements are followed by hung wood windows, then float glass, and progressively more sophisticated mullion systems. As in a museum, each window has been stripped from its original architectural context and shown in the context of continual and unchallenged technological evolution.

This retelling shows the architect’s progressively diminishing sphere of influence as building elements have become productized. The window, which was once a physical element that architects carved from the building, has become a product designed by engineers, marketed by corporations, and then selected by a façade consultant acting on behalf of the architect. In Koolhaas’ history of architecture, the architects are merely supporting actors. Technology is the star.

For the past 5,000 years, our technology has yielded architectural elements that are, in Koolhaas’ estimation, “deaf and mute.” That is, our walls, windows, and fireplaces have been speechless fixtures within our homes. We can interact with the window by opening and closing it, but the window can’t tell us how hot it is or whether it’s transmitting an exorbitant amount of UV light.

But Koolhaas indicates that our speechless buildings are on the verge of learning to talk. The exhibition contains hints at what this might sound like: an autonomous vacuum crawls along the floor; a computer silently tracks people walking through an installation; and, notably, the final element in the history of the fireplace is a learning thermostat. What each element has in common is the ability to collect data about the built environment.

A Roomba vacuum cleaner lies under a raised floor. The vacuum uses sensors to map a room and autonomously navigate the space while cleaning.
Daniel Davis A Roomba vacuum cleaner lies under a raised floor. The vacuum uses sensors to map a room and autonomously navigate the space while cleaning.

To Koolhaas, these small moments represent the beginnings of an incredible change in architecture—one that will see “every element associate itself with data-driven technology,” he says during a panel discussion at the Biennale’s opening.

We are already seeing consumer goods beginning to associate themselves with data. In the past two years, companies have added sensors to everything from bracelets to dog collars. Your toothbrush can track your cleaning habits and wirelessly send a report to your dentist, and your glasses can record the world you see and whisper GPS directions in your ear. These applications can seem frivolous, but they demonstrate how affordable gathering and analyzing data has become.

If Koolhaas’ prediction is right, every element that makes up a building is about to start collecting, analyzing, and reacting to data.

The learning thermostat is the canonical example. In the past, thermostats could be turned up or down, but they couldn't tell us what they thought the temperature should be. This is changing with a new generation of thermostats, such as Nest’s learning thermostat. As the user adjusts the temperature of the Nest thermostat, it learns the user’s preferences for temperatures at particular times, when they are likely to be away from home, and how finicky they are about thermal comfort. Through this virtual dialogue with the occupant, the thermostat has the data to adjust the temperature continually so that the occupant is both comfortable and saving energy.

The history of the fireplace, from a pit in the ground to Nest’s learning thermostat.
Daniel Davis The history of the fireplace, from a pit in the ground to Nest’s learning thermostat.

In the near future, other architectural elements will also have the capacity to collect and react to data. Doors will identify who is walking through them, toilets will gather data about the user’s health, and floors will collect occupancy data. And this is to say nothing of developments in location tracking and the data that smart phones and wearable technologies are collecting.

Silicon Valley is lining up to apply its algorithms to this data. Google recently bought Nest for $3.2 billion, making Nest as valuable as any of the world’s largest architecture firms. In a move symbolic of Silicon Valley’s growing influence, Nest CEO, Tony Fadell, joined Koolhaas on stage at the Biennale opening to discuss the future of architecture. In some ways, it was a condemnation of how uninspiring architects have become to have the CEO of a smart-home technology company representing the avant-garde of architecture at the Biennale. Yet, as Koolhaas says, “the architectural community hasn’t given it much thought that each element will be profoundly influenced by its connection to the digital world.” As such, architects look destined to repeat history—a history driven by technological developments rather than architects.

Disclosure: The author and his employer, Case, Inc., were the technology architects for the U.S. pavilion at the 2014 Venice Biennale.

Daniel Davis is a senior building information specialist at Case, Inc. His technology column will appear on this website each month. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.

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