The Architecture of Logistics
Footprint. Delft Architecture Theory Journal, no. 23

Edited by Francesco Marullo and Negar Sanaan Bensi. Contributions by George Papam Papamattheakis, Clare Lyster, Francesco Sebregondi, Stephen Ramos, Giulia Scotto, Carola Hein, Nancy Couling, Jesse LeCavalier, Neeraj Bhatia, Alex Retegan, Renzo Sgolacchia, Marcello Tavone, Kathy Velikov, David Salomon, Cathryn Dwyre, and Chris Perry.
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Neoliberalism is a many-headed monster. It can hold different drives without altering its internal coherence. It grows through crisis and instability. Within its flexible order, drastically opposite forces are able to coexist and mutually stimulate each other: globalisation expands at the same pace as nationalist and populist movements; the circulation of people increases alongside the intensification of migratory policies; shared economies and collaborative consumption develop apace with the multiplication of copyrights and patents; common knowledge and resources proliferate as does the parasitism of private entrepreneurship.

Integrating differences within a homeostatic system of economic competition, the monster of neoliberalism turns whatever it devours into commensurable and exchangeable quantities. Any equivalence becomes possible. Any juxtaposition becomes profitable. Any connection becomes valuable. However, the further this dismembered body enlarges, while assimilating new forces and exchanges, the more it needs to improve logistics, or its nervous and circulatory system to stay alive: boats, containers, trucks, warehouses, department stores, harbours, train yards, airports, cargo terminals, communication centres, satellite stations, and all the material conditions that improve flux and trade while ensuring the integrity of commodities across its distant limbs. This issue of Footprint meditates on logistics and its architecture of exchange as the essential lymph of neoliberalism. Registering and managing the circulation of people, goods, and information across the planet, the architecture of logistics could be considered the litmus paper from which one could read and understand territories, populations and societal assemblages.

The term ‘logistics’ derives from the Greek verb logizomai meaning to calculate, to reckon, to organise rationally, to plan. As first systematised by Antoine-Henri Jomini and Carl von Clausewitz in the early nineteenth century, logistics deals not only with the organisation of armies and supplies on a battlefield but with everything necessary for reducing friction in the actualisation of a strategy. Over time the military knowledge of logistics was reformulated as a technology of governance, to modulate trade relations and organise territories in peace time as well. In the aftermath of World War II, logistics turned the whole world into a smooth surface for exchange: into a unique ‘floor’ for production. Containerisation, intermodal freight transport, and outsourced manufacturing processes established a global infrastructural system that regularised the circulation of goods by undermining local labour relations, imposing standardised spatiotemporal frameworks and a whole new architecture: an architecture of logistics.

This phenomenon is indeed visible everywhere: as pallets and containers transformed the spatial configuration of harbours and terminals, by allowing traditional stevedoring and docking tasks to become automated processes, so digital technologies and storage software developed the way commodities are measured, coded, and dispatched, progressively transforming warehouses to colossal semi-automated sheds entirely dependent on invisible algorithmic orders. Goods once stocked in various kinds of crates, barrels, and boxes are now packed and individually coded in orderly containers devoid of smell. Loading and unloading operations have been gradually mechanised and computerised to ensure overall control over the movements of any single object, without accident or physical strain.

And yet, despite often being labelled as an ‘architecture without humans’ because of the high level of technical automation, logistics does not only produce generic spatial configurations able to cope with constant variation and market fluctuations – like fulfilment centres, container terminals, or interchange yards – but it also creates specific forms of employment and new opportunities for workers’ opposition and collective bargaining, as witnessed by the numerous strikes and demonstrations in recent decades. In this sense, the architecture of logistics inevitably replicates the very ambivalences of the monstrous creature it feeds, a tangle of invisibility and concreteness, instantaneous transactions and slow movements, international routes and local labour forces. A monster nurtured by its inner tensions: local duties and extra-territorial domains; migratory seasonal workers and banned unionisation; invisible barcodes and operators’ fatigue; blind algorithms and colossal fulfilment centres; the technical evolution of vessels and the steady articulation of terminals; the accelerated transactions of finance and the lengthy stratification of cities.

This schizophrenic nature becomes evident in its spatial development, where its abstract procedures become immediately tangible. Trying to cope with the expanded field of trade and communication networks and the advancement of smart technologies and distribution, the architecture of logistics is often minimised to its barest and most efficient load-bearing structure: large-span shelters, space frames, cranes, automated floors and platforms. At the same time, the alluring promise of its fluid and freely accessible infrastructure is constantly negated by concrete factors such as territorial scale and encumbrance, land jurisdictions and insurance policies, free trade zones and customs, financial investments or oil and steel prices. Moreover, by mediating every exchange relation around the globe, the architecture of logistics not only reveals the distribution of wealth, financial and productive energies, but it also tracks territories and populations, indexing and capitalising upon their visceral forces and perversions, identities and subjectivities, fears and desires.

Thus, gathering academic papers and visual essays from researchers and emerging scholars in the field, the ambition of Footprint 23 is to provide a critical survey of the architecture of logistics, unfolding the multivalences of its apparatus, dissecting its buildings and spaces, its technologies and labour relations, its historical evolutions as well as its future projections.