Fall 2012


Navigating the logistical surface

Keller Easterling

The floor is now arguably the most important architectural surface.

The vertical surfaces of architecture are customarily regarded as primary. Within a long tradition of visual aesthetics, they are the readable registration of formal silhouettes and decorative signs. Building skins also absorb digital media and environmental technologies that make them part of an “internet of things.” Volumetrically, elevator technologies are highly contagious germs of vertical urban morphology. They carry instructions for relationships between core and perimeter, sequence and passage, and they are the pivotal element in a real estate formula that values land in terms of stacking property.

Yet, in the logistics landscape, new technological devices are rehearsing a horizontal repertoire. In container ports, automated guided vehicles (AGVs) and automated stacking cranes (ASCs) take direction from GPS, lasers, and magnetic transponders in the pavement. In a driverless ballet, they glide along at eleven miles per hour, receiving containers from ships and then stacking them into automated fields—gigantic reflections of the materials-handling software that directs it. Within each supply chain, the movement of containers is just the first stage in a choreography of storage and retrieval that also extends to warehouses and fulfillment centers. Reading GPS signals, magnets, and graphic patterns on these slick and clean floors, forklifts select materials from eight-story-tall pallet racks. Intricate networks of belt and skate-wheel conveyors together with horizontal and vertical carousels work with robotic gantries and AGVs of all kinds to constantly redistribute the contents of the container and deliver the individual units for sale. The ground or floor, more than merely the durable surface underfoot, has become the brains of an intelligent navigation system.

When transferred to buildings inhabited by humans rather than products, these vehicles—now capable of moving vertically and horizontally—are like a hybrid of the elevator and the car. The elevator that dictated vertical urbanism and the car that calibrated highways and exurban development are merged in powerful new germs that like the floor. The Dutch company FROG (Free Ranging on Grid), for example, has designed AGVs for the European Container Terminal in Rotterdam and the factory floor, as well as driverless airport and parking lot shuttles, Disney rides, and personal vehicles. Otis Elevators has marketed an elevator-car hybrid, the Odyssey system, designed to move horizontally and vertically through buildings, from, for instance, parking lot to office. In some projections, a vehicle shuttles passengers horizontally in, for instance, a parking lot, and then, upon reaching a vertical stack, it scales the inside of the shaft.1

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