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The Orbital View: Posthuman Architecture in the Age of the Zero Point City

There is an emergence of mega-structures no longer situated in the human scale but designed for the "orbital" gaze.

Patrick Lichty

Throughout much of its history, humanity has marveled at the grand and sublime in terms of its architecture and its monuments. Gobekli Tepe, the Giza Pyramid, the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat, Versailles; all of these invoke the human doctrine of scale as a signification of power. Depending on when one invokes the notion of the Anthropocene, or the geological era of humanity termed and then popularized by Stoermer and Crutzen, certain aspects of the definition of gigantic human-made structures become clear.

Often, the Anthropocene is thought to have started during the Western Industrial Age. This is arguably the beginning of the exponential growth curve of human events. In terms of architecture, then, the geological, or near-geological architectural scale would be viewed as “Anthropocene architecture” and would suggest a taxonomy of works, the most evident of which might be the Great Wall of China. With its span of over 21,000 km, the Wall is one of the first human-made structures visible from space. Visibility from space is a major criteria of my discussion of Anthropocene architecture. However, the Wall lacks facets to its design, other than merely impeding movement in the horizontal, which would additionally make it surpass the human scale frame of reference. What then emerges is a mega-project-based posthuman architecture that is engaged with the “orbital view”.

The era of the Anthropocene, as argued by Stoermer and Crutzen respectively, is thought to be somewhere between the beginning of the Industrial Age and the Trinity nuclear tests. This can be said to begin with the establishment of the Carbon or Radioactive sediment layers in the Earth's crust, but I argue it goes back far more. If we can believe that the human era of geology begins with mega-projects, one can argue for the Anthropocene era as such spans back over 20,000 years, a mere drop in the bucket of the ocean of time in terms of the Earth’s existence. But as we emerge past the age of the purely monumental, humanity is now beginning to turn our focus on structures away from just what we can accomplish on Earth [and to look towards outer space.] This viewpoint demands one to consider what we design on Earth as if it were looked at from outer space. I call this the ‘orbital view’ and it is at this point where I feel that architecture and art begin to reach the scope of the truly posthuman.

Criteria for Posthuman Architecture

In discussing this turn to a posthuman "orbital gaze", I have three criteria that are of interest. These include the direction of the gaze, intent, and formal considerations for the work in terms of scale. Despite their vastness, the monuments, walls, [and plans] I discuss all possess merely one of the criteria for my notion of post-human "orbital" architecture. The first, as stated before, is scale that deals primarily with the human gaze/body; the second deals with the vector (or direction) of the gaze. Whereas previous works have almost exclusively been seen from a horizontal/landscape perspective, in Cartesian and Renaissance-driven perspective, post-human geo-architecture is designed to be viewed off the surface of the Earth; from above and beyond. That is, the work no longer addresses the onlooker standing in the same landscape with the work, but the one located in the airplane flying overhead or the spacecraft in orbit, [or, even, incidentally perhaps, via a satellite photo.] This is a significant difference in architectural planning, as this type of long-distance, aerial ‘view’ was not possible before the aeronautical or Space Age. Although there are projects such as castles and towns built in large, geometric form, most of this planning was created not for aesthetic, but for practical, strategic concerns. The third criterion is that of intention. This is necessary when delineating between structures like the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai (with a diameter of 5 km) and the Nazca Lines in Peru. I argue that intention of the Nazca Lines operates in a wholly different context than the Palm Jumeirah [despite the fact that they both are visible from space]. For example, researchers believe that the Nazca Lines are meant to be walked for religious/meditative reasons, similar to a labyrinth and while the Palm can be walked, its proliferation of private dwellings and resorts prohibits [unrestricted] walking with exception of the 11 km walkway. The matter of intent, function, and context of the Palm and the Nazca Lines thus differs, but also brings forward the matter religious significance plays in the making of "orbital" works.

The question of whether contemporary mega-structures (read from orbital space) are imbued with religious intent is a controversial claim. For example, is the Palm a geologically-scaled aesthetic structure, or a symbol of praise to Allah? I believe that any Muslim from the United Arab Emirates would argue that the latter might be a possibility, yet I have found no evidence to believe this. And this structure, taken into context with recent news stories in the UAE of plans to create other mega-structures like a dome atop downtown Dubai to a man-made mountain to encourage rainfall collection, I feel that the Palm Jumeirah is a monument to the region’s ambitions and fits well into my argument on the aestheticization of geography and the Earth's surface, making, as Molly Hankwitz said to me, “…huge drawings in the Earth’s crust.”

Zero Point/Zero State

Another phenomenon that may play a large part in the creation of posthuman geo-architectures is the notion of the “Zero Point” as framed in the New Geographies Journal #1(only in print at this point). “Zero Point” denotes the cultural site built “from scratch”. Prime examples of this are the emergent city-states of the 20th Century such as Singapore and Dubai. As an aside, I realize that Dubai is merely one of seven Emirates, but I feel that it, as well as Abu Dhabi, are so distinctive in terms of their qualities of being akin to classical city-states, that I am taking this slight liberty.)

In what I call “Zero-State” architecture, the site is a near tabula rasa at the inception of the project. In the case of Dubai, one can look at the famous photo of the World Trade Center there in 1990, and see nothing else except a dust plain as one looks down what would eventually become Sheikh Zayed Boulevard. Today, the site looks almost like a carbon copy of a Ron Cobb science fiction illustration of the 1970’s. In Dubai, Singapore, and even Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, all three areas that have developed from near zero-state positions over the last 100 years, are now dominated by gigantic structures on the skyline. The Burj Khalifa in the UAE and Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur are but two examples. The importance of these structures, and land-made projects like the Palm Jumeirah stems in part from the recentness of their development. I argue that the Palm Jumeirah is also endemic to its time and stands as a monument to the potential for human-reshaping of the Earth’s surface. It is critical at this juncture to consider precedents.

In my opinion, a precedent for an argument towards a definition of a posthuman terra-formed architecture on Earth is Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, located at Rozel Point Peninsula on the northeastern shore of Utah’s Great Salt Lake. This 1500-foot long construction of basalt extends into the Lake. While it is a masterpiece of Formalist Land Art, Smithson’s work lacks the horizontality of gaze that is typically seen in monuments like Angkor Wat, or even the Great Wall. I use the example of The Great Wall in that its function is defined by horizontality – the movement of bodies across a terrain and impeding them from moving across a line while providing firepower to repulse said bodies. So, in many ways, the intention of the Great Wall is all about the body and its control. Spiral Jetty, on the other hand, while inscribing a path out into the Lake, is arguably not as concerned intentionally with the body, even though one is made to walk in a spiral, as are these other land works. Smithson’s artwork can be seen as a graphic design tools such as Google Earth or in photographs.

Of course, other, more fantastic structures not yet constructed could certainly fill the role of the architectures I am discussing. Arthur C. Clarke, in The Fountains of Paradise, talked about the notion of a space elevator to lift payloads into Earth’s orbit. This is something that is actually being considered in the 2010’s with no clear date for construction. If it were created, and done so with an intentional aesthetic in mind, it would certainly be a construction that is well beyond the scope of the human body, and it would certainly be visible from space. In fact, such a structure would not only convey its experience from a higher orbit than its end terminal, but could reveal itself from many adjacent trajectories from orbit, from just behind the Earth, and so on. Structures spanning beyond the pre-orbital surfaces are a particularly exciting possibility for the 21st and 22nd centuries. Structures that are highly unlikely, like Dyson Spheres or orbital halos are other examples of beautiful architectures that would not only enter the orbital sphere and create gazes multivalent from the horizontal, but would also be artforms of a Kardashev Class II civilization.

Other forms that could perhaps enter into the trope of the geo-engineered space might be those that manipulate human structures that are created at the global scale. Theorist Timothy Morton talks of the notion of the “hyperobject”, one that is evident, but at scales that are far too vast to be considered in basic conceptual terms or material discourse. These include the Earth’s climate, the Internet, and so on. If one could consider the 2003 Northeastern US blackout, from space, one could see a “shape” constituting the affected area. The issue of an intervention of this scope would be that of intent. What would be the intent of taking down a portion of the global electrical grid so vast that it could create a hyperobjective aesthetic work? Would it entail the cooperation of peoples and governments, or would it be sabotage, and what would be the duration? When considering works at the hyper-objective level as relational works, the social aspects of the work frequently obscure the formal, and this in itself could be a fruitful area of inquiry.


While this all sounds highly speculative, artists have long imagined and created works that address the notion of posthuman, geo-scalar work. The well-known and published Christo and Jean Claude have both worked at grand scales, but I argue that however vast, Christo’s scales just begin to suggest, without meeting, the scale of "orbital" architecture, while still others work at those much vaster. Artists like Hugh Pryor and Jeremy Wood create GPS drawings that map themselves upon the landscape driven by their own movements on the ground. While not “seen from space” from an immediate perspective, such data could direct the vertical gaze if viewed through Google Earth or by augmentation such as Augmented Reality goggles mapping the data to the Earth from the viewpoint of a space-faring orbiter. Chicago-based Paul Catanese is inhabiting one of the main studios of the Chicago Cultural Center to explore the notion of art that could be seen from a lunar vantage point. To begin this project, he has been employing blimps, drones, and other aerial platforms to explore works from the vantage point of the vertical gaze rather than the horizontal. Drawing, huge positional element placement, and more take place in the gallery while a large blimp soars overhead giving Catanese his vertical gaze. As a theorist, I have not yet seen the results of this work, but the fact that artists are beginning to explore the geo-engineered scale is, in my opinion, significant.

In this essay, I have described what I feel is a shift towards the emergence of mega-structures no longer situated in the human scale in terms of the emphasis or intention of their construction. Even though the monumental buildings and structures I have mentioned still follow the modern principle of human achievement and inhabitation, I believe that [graphic] structures like the Palm Jumeirah in Dubai surpass [graphic] installations like Smithson’s Spiral Jetty in turning the gaze towards the "orbital" and placing the scale outside of that merely aimed at human presence. I mentioned structures like the Great Wall, although barely visible from space, which are still based solely in the control of human bodies within a horizontal landscape. In the age of geo-engineering, aesthetic landscapes are being built which are clearly not only intended for human scale viewing and this is where my concept of the "orbital view" emerges. Another key difference among these giant scaled plans lies in intent. The Palm and the Nazca Lines of Peru, for instance, differ in their architectural intention. Although the Palm might be argued as being for the eyes of Allah, I feel that it is largely a secular structure in the form of a huge graphic construction, while the Nazca Site is documented to be one of a deliberate, spiritual purpose. 

Therefore, I have argued that human-made constructions are moving beyond intentions of mere human instrumentality and are heading instead into arenas of the aesthetic and geo-engineered. Given that artists are beginning to enter this terrain as well, we must begin think about the possible ramifications of this new modality of structure and expression as we move forward from the frame of reference of human, Earth-based only structures to what I am calling the post-human scale.

Patrick Lichty is a techno-artist, writer, curator, animator for The Yes Men, and Executive Editor of Intelligent Agent Magazine. His artwork deals with the social relations between us and media and he has exhibited with the Whitney & Turin Biennials, Maribor Triennial, Performa Performance Biennial, Ars Electronica, the International Symposium on the Electronic Arts (ISEA), in the virtual environment of Second Life, and in performance with his group, Second Front. Lichty is currently Assistant Professor of Interactive Arts & Media at Columbia College Chicago.

Image credits:
Palm Jumierah: NASA
Great Wall of China: CC BY 2.0,
Nazca Hummingbird: By Martin St-Amant S23678 - Own work, CC BY 3.0,
INSA image courtesy INSA.
Copyright © Patrick Lichty. All rights reserved.