Simple as they may look, distribution centres are sophisticated structures. The machinery that moves stuff around is constantly evolving. Their playing field-sized floors have to be exceptionally level, as small unevenness could cause the high fork-lift trucks they use to lean unacceptably at the top. Years of competition have made their structure as spare and economical as can be. Architects such as Chetwoods have to reconcile all this with the wishes of users (who might want something tailored to their needs) and of investors, who will want a structure to be adaptable to future users.It is tempting to say that these buildings make the internet visible, except that their visibility is strictly limited. Sometimes they get into the news when reporters, posing as warehouse workers, bring news of working conditions inside. You can get a glimmer on Google, for example from employee reviews of Primark’s warehouse, which sits like an acropolis on a raised earthwork in Northamptonshire: “they’re treating a people like nothing,” says one in imperfect English; “they beautiful lied on induction how much they cares about worker, don’t believe them.” The buildings, however, remain notably blank, giving almost no clue of their busy inner lives.
Some users and owners are dismissive of press inquiries to a degree unusual in big, public relations-conscious companies. Tesco refused a request to see inside their Dirft base, which was possibly not surprising, but also to answer simple questions, such as: what are its dimensions?
For the writer Carolyn Steel, whose book Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Livesexamines the relationship of society to food, this secrecy is the antithesis of the more public processes by which food once progressed from field to market to kitchen to plate. “The exchange of food used to bring people together,” she says. “Now the process is designed to exclude the human”. But distribution centres manifest the world we have chosen and had chosen for us, in return for efficiency and convenience, in which a product appears in the home by ever more inscrutable magic.
Their scale and growth are a consequence of the fact that all that physicality and volume that the virtual world displaces has to go somewhere. It’s welcome that architects and developers should try to make something of them and to mitigate their impact with woods, ponds and indeed coloured bands. But, short of a dramatic restructuring of the economic, technical and social basis of the modern world, these uncompromising building types will only become more essential to our lives. The contrast between what was previously thought of as natural and urban landscape will only become more stark.