Information Technology and the Irrelevance of Architecture

Throughout history, architecture served as the primary communication device of common cultural values. Whether inspiring religious awe or displaying the power of an empire, great works of architecture went beyond mere utility to reflect the shared expression of time and place.  Modern architecture, with its right angles and smooth surfaces devoid of ornamentation expressed the early 20th Century zeitgeist of efficiency and mass production. In many ways, the Modern architectural language also conveyed common cultural values of the time as it became the model for socialist utopia.

The information technology revolution of the late twentieth century changed the role of architecture forever. With digital information readily available at our fingertips, buildings are no longer needed as a communication device. This new paradigm has largely gone unnoticed by the architectural establishment, which itself has been through a series of futile stylistic phases in recent decades ranging from the campy Postmodernism to the cynical Deconstructivism. The soul-searching continues today, as leading architects promote the use of technology to justify the creation of wild, superfluous forms that are for the most part nothing more than self-referential, sculptural contortions.

Function still matters, but building design often no longer serves the higher aim of communicating a shared culture to a civic audience. Rather, it is the mobile IT products created by companies like Apple that do a superior job of communicating and transferring information while at the same time filling a human desire for great design.

The implications for urbanism are enormous. Cities, as they are thought of in the traditional sense of high-density concentrations of people and buildings, are no longer required for a productive economy. No other place represents this new reality better than Silicon Valley. Rather than being an exalted futuristic urban landscape as one might expect given the amount of innovation that goes on there, Silicon Valley is a non-descript amalgam of low-density suburban villages. The headquarters of internet giants like Google, Yahoo! and Facebook are just as anonymous—bland office parks that turn inwards and are indifferent to the street.

Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne blasts this reality in a critique of the proposal for the new Apple headquarters, which he calls a ‘retrograde cocoon.’ The proposal is a huge four-story concentric ring set among a park-like setting in the Silicon Valley town of Cupertino which Hawthorne laments as what he sees as the continuation of an unfortunate land-use pattern of low-density sprawl.

Urbanists cannot afford to ignore the fact that technology is unsympathetic to architecture. Computer programmers and IT innovators, people who require countless hours of focused concentration, might actually prefer the pastoral landscape and low-key nature of Silicon Valley to the noisy and bustling urbanism that define what we traditionally think of as a ‘city’. Taking this into consideration, the new Apple HQ is an appropriate design for its purpose and also serves as reminder of the irrelevance of architecture in the twenty-first Century.

This essay originally appeared in the architecture journal CLOG: APPLE

Adam Nathaniel Mayer is an American architectural design professional currently living in China. In addition to his job designing buildings he writes the China Urban Development Blog.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.

Frank Duffy is good on this

I have been interested recently to discover the writings of a British architect Frank Duffy. An excellent essay, "The Death and Life of the Urban Office", is unfortunately not online, being in a fat volume "The Endless City", published by the LSE's "Urban Age Project".

Duffy writes scathingly of the inflexibility of the dense CBD tradition, with its daily cram-in of workers on choked roads and transit systems, as if there are not other forms of building and location that would, in the IT age, match the preferences of office workers and the businesses for whom they work. Some of the specialized written histories of inner city development in US cities have noted that the process tends to be driven by what property speculators want (ref. for example, Carol Willis, “Form Follows Finance”), in contrast to a certain fashion in European architectural and “management” circles for “social democratic” office buildings of low and flowing form, so as to provide all office workers regardless of rank, with the most pleasant possible working environment.

There is a good review online here:

And a review of DUFFY: "Work and the City", in which a lot of the same material in "The Death and Life of the Urban Office" is obviously included:


It truly amazes me that you can go into buildings built a century ago (many centuries ago) and see an attention to detail that is completely lacking in today's designs. In a time before industrialization and heavy lifting cranes, somehow magnificent structures were built using crude methods and yet many of these buildings still stand!

I would suggest a few reasons why it seems today architecture seems to be lacking to the point where it has indeed lost it's relevance, and the I-Pod becomes far more important as a society changing tool.

The average person staying at a Hampton Inn or similar mid-level hotel has access to sauna's, hot tubs, and a pool and a meal that only Royalty could enjoy centuries ago, never mind that a local trip in a subdivision to go to the corner store is at speeds that were imaginable less than a century ago! Architecture thus set the stage for societies advancements, there were few other consumer products other than the stove, Ox cart and home. The question is not why architecture is no longer relevant, but why has it not advanced as much as other things that affect our daily living?

I would offer my opinion as a land planner since 1968 and software developer since 1976 both serving land development and architecture.

Back in 1968 everything (planning and architecture) was entirely hand drawn. It was not possible to press a button and have a 'typical' configuration (cul-de-sac or bay window for example) instantly appear at the mouse location. From 1980 BC to 1980 AD this is how buildings and sites were designed - slowly by hand, with the designer being intimatley involved in every detail. The advent of CAD (computer aided drafting) brought in a new era where it was too easy to use preconfigured typicals to design architecture and site plans in both cases, the offset command is the culprit to complacent design. Instead of using CAD to get better designs, these software systems had always been marketed for speed. I've been creating and selling software for 36 years - it's always been about production - never about quality, (which we hope to change that situation soon with our latest products).

So technology; that very same 'software' that wows the I-Pad user, has been instrumental in dumbing down land development and building design!

Another problem is that builders and developers for the most part would love to have their buildings (residental and commercial) as monuments to their efforts - but they must also adhere to strict regulations that did not exist centuries ago and also must fall within their budgets. For example those urban cities designed a century ago had developers fill in swamps (now called protected wetlands), bulldozed trees, and reshaped steep slopes, all of which are protected (for the most part) by today's regulations. If these same cities had to fall under today's regulations it would be impractical to design using a grid, and many of our older cities would have doubled the rate of sprawl! It was cheaper - much cheaper to develop a century ago than today leaving more budget available for architectural and landscaping details.

In other words the more regulations to create better communities, the more shortcuts need to be taken elsewhere to remain financially viable, thus we are left with worse communities!

It is the combination of software controlling the designer and ever increasing regulations that has brought us into an era where development and buildings have seem to be (in general) of less character than those built prior to the 1970's.

While there are some magnificent buildings that have been constructed in the recent decades, but how many ended up in recievership only to be profitable to the investor who bought the failed project with pennies on the dollar? While the average citizen may not be aware of some spectacular failures, those (builders and developers) in the industry are aware of them, thus fear of failure also applies.

Is design dead? If we continue on the path we have been going - absolutely, but I believe we may be turning the corner on design and may be able to enter a new phase where affordable architectural and planning solutions will bring about a new era enhancing our everyday living.

Totally On Point


Thanks for this very insightful comment. I completely agree with everything you said, especially about technology (and stifling zoning regulations) being responsible for dumbing down land development and building design. It's amazing this isn't talked about more in planning and architecture circles, where technology is often seen as 'manna from heaven'- a solution, rather than the cause, of many problems in the built environment.

Perhaps "software architects" are really the true architects of the 21st Century world after all?

Face to Face

I think we're still struggling to combine technology with face-to-face communication. The iPad has become almost like a sketch pad for people to show things to one another. Yes, there is a certain amount of "face down on the screen", but I also think we use it to come up with ways of demonstrating our ideas, a kind of "but wait" approach while we show people what we are talking about.

The iPad, socially, seems to be very much like the old slide show, something we share. People like watching other people watch something, and it provides this opportunity. Skype doesn't, yet, communicate well the body English of response. In the ideal combination of place and talent, maybe we need both better places (including the right furniture) and better electronics. ARe the advances in electronics outpacing the advances in workplace?