The Greenhouse Effect

By Key MacFarlane, 4 February 2018
Image: Jeff Bezos at the launch of Amazon Spheres last week (Credit: AP)

Eco-friendly glass architecture that incorporates flora into its design is trending high among West Coast tech giants. Only last week, Amazon's 'Spheres' HQ opened in Seattle. Key Macfarlane traces the imperial and utopian lineage of this aesthetic, arguing that its contemporary effect is that of the greenhouse: a seductive but reactionary spectacle of life incubated by total corporatisation.


The Corporate Biodome

‘What would Kew Gardens (in London) look like if they were built today?’[1] This is the question Amazon’s global real estate director, John Schoettler, asked himself during the design process for the company’s new $4 billion campus, just opened this week in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighbourhood. By far the most spectacular structures found on this campus are ‘the Spheres’ – three colossal glass geodesic domes with an ornate steel exoskeleton.[2] These buildings, which will become operational in early 2018, are designed to mimic a nature conservatory, a kind of Amazon Rainforest 2.0, that will soon be home to over 400 species of plants from around the world, many exotic and endangered. The flora will provide the backdrop for a river, waterfalls, and treehouse meeting rooms. This environment will be meticulously controlled, with temperatures set at 72 ºF (22 ºC) and 60 percent humidity, to simulate the climate of Costa Rica’s Central Valley.

Apple unveiled something similar to the Spheres in 2016. The company is phasing out the Genius Bar – where customers receive tech support at long, pub-like tables – in favour of the ‘Genius Grove’, the first of which opened in May 2016 in San Francisco’s Union Square. Giving a little life to the chrome-white sterility of Apple’s usual aesthetic, the stores house a thicket of ficus trees, each encircled by a ring of leather seats. The idea, says Apple, is a collaborative one: ‘inviting customers to get support working side-by-side with Geniuses under the comfortable canopy of local trees in the heart of the store’.[3] Apple’s Genius Grove constructs a ‘natural’ environment for consumption in much the same way that Amazon’s Spheres cloak the monotonous aspects of production as a rosy walk in the park.

Amazon and Apple are extreme examples of a much larger trend towards eco-friendly corporate architecture. Across the globe, there are currently 90,900 commercial projects participating in LEED, the most widely used green-building rating system in the world. [4] These projects have increased exponentially, the global green building sector (including residential projects) doubling in size about every three years.[5] In the language of market growth, green architecture has already prophesied its own success. Making inherently exploitative and wasteful work into something shiny, clean and sustainable, green architecture is a monument to a future of capitalist progress and resilience.

Apple’s ‘Genius Grove’

With its turn to glass design, along with the renewable energy projects recently pioneered by Facebook, Apple, Google, and Amazon,[6] the tech world appears ahead of its time. Yet there is little new in that the use of glass, the incorporation of ‘nature’, the emphasis on spaces of cooperation and creativity are all marshalled towards future company growth. Green building is symptomatic of how this process unfolds today within the so-called digital economy. It is the architectural component of what Nick Srnicek has identified as the ‘emerging’ business model of platform development.[7] A platform is a digital infrastructure that extends control over both distribution and production, drawing its users into a common web of interaction. Greenhouse architecture represents the extension of platform-based companies’ realm to the distribution and production of certain kinds of life (and the uneven social relations that make them possible) within the spaces of capital accumulation. While human life has always been a raw material for capital, it is increasingly blurred within, and extracted as part of, a larger socio-environmental ecology. At the same time, today’s corporate architecture casts doubt on the novelty of the digital economy. For while the institutions and technologies may have changed, glass architecture has long served the purpose of making brutal stratifications of class, race and gender appear transparently natural.


The Botany of Empire

Greenhouses, orangeries and conservatories have always been entwined with imperialism and the reproduction of an elite class. In Rome during the second century AD, proto-greenhouses called specularia [8] were used to grow cucumis for Emperor Tiberius Caesar, which he demanded in all seasons.[9] Instead of glass, the emperor’s gardeners used transparent sheets of mica to cover beds of melons or cucumbers. Mounted on wheels, these beds could be rolled out into the sun or withdrawn on wintry days.

What we think of as the modern greenhouse did not emerge until the 1600s. Around the middle of that century, royalty and nobility in France, Italy, Britain, and the Netherlands began having orangeries constructed with vertical glass panes in the front for sunlight to reach the plants inside.[10] Many have discussed the links between the developments of systematic horticulture and the brutalities of European colonial expansion.[11] Early-modern greenhouses show how these developments carved out uneven geographies within the imperial nation-state as well. Harnessing the power of the sun, trapping heat, extending the lives of flora ex situ: this all had a direct connection with the shoring up of social power and sovereignty, which, as Agamben has shown, rests on a symbolic ordering of the world, including its ornamentation.[12] With the greenhouse, royalty and the aristocracy could, in a way, ‘perennialise’ their positions of authority by filing those spaces with vibrant and unfamiliar plant life, along with the figurative power that these enabled. This occurred in France in the latter half of the 17th century, when Louis XIV became obsessed with the orangery. Orange trees became a symbol of the Sun King’s power and of the gulf between the ruling class and the commoners who subsisted on lettuce and onions.

The ‘Palm House’ at Kew Gardens

Royal greenhouses began to emerge in England around the same time. The earliest to have survived was installed in 1688 in Hampton Court Palace at the bequest of King William of Orange and Queen Mary. In the nineteenth century, greenhouses, or ‘palm houses’, became fashionable among the nobility and the monied upper class as a display of affluence, education, and excellent taste. Glass itself became a luxury item. This was especially the case after 1696, when King William III imposed a steep tax on windows in order to mitigate the financial burdens of the Revolution, recoinage, and England’s wars in Ireland and on the Continent. The Window Tax, which applied to every dwelling in England and Wales except cottages, wasn’t lifted until 1851.[13] As the Industrial Revolution got under way, the poorer urban population, cooped up in dusky factories and overcrowded rooms, suffered from the lack of natural light.[14]

As England rose in imperial dominance, the glasshouse enabled elites to preserve, study, and ‘appreciate’ exotic species from around the world. It was one of the spaces in the metropole where colonial practices were aestheticised and made natural, where the Other could be ‘domesticated’, placed behind glass, admired with tea in hand or prodded at with a botanist’s magnifying glass. Public palm houses, like the one built at Kew Gardens between 1844 and 1848, shared the empire’s spoils with a larger Victorian audience. In this way, the greenhouse became a technology of colonialism, operating from afar to graft nature (along with vanquished populations of the imperial hinterland) onto an emerging industrial capitalism.[15]

With advances in lighting, heating, ventilation, and design, today’s greenhouses have changed immensely since Victorian-era England. But in their connection to power they have stayed much the same. Both demonstrate control of nature and god-like powers over the reproduction of life, both are connected to global networks of acquisition and value extraction, and both perform a certain sort of environmental awareness. Today, glass architecture is, at least in part, an extension of older colonial techniques of accumulation, aimed now at the metropolitan core of capitalism, where it is deployed to help boost efficiency, minimise employee turnover,[16] and project a green spectacle of power that extends over plant life and living labour. In Silicon Valley, the ambition for such power, the desire to continue the legacy of Western ‘exploration’ and colonisation, is represented by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which aims to build ‘a self-sustaining civilization on Mars’.[17]. As hammered home by the recent National Geographic docu-drama Mars,[18] the advanced greenhouse is central to cultivating the portability and hardiness of vegetal and human life so that it can colonise space. The portable greenhouse comes to symbolise the resilience of human will, which finds its vanguard in the visionary business venture.

Microsoft appropriates this symbolism with its ongoing ‘urban farming experiment’.[19] The company employs a subcontractor to grow lettuce and microgreens within the office. The lettuce is cultivated in glass hydroponic towers and pyramids, while the microgreens are grown in ‘machines that look like glass fridges’.[20] Unlike traditional greenhouses, the glass used does not let in natural sunlight. Instead, on the advice of Xbox employees, the growing units use plasma lights, which provide a complete light spectrum and are said to be 30% more efficient than their halogen or LED alternatives.[21] What is harvested is then distributed to the many cafes around Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, WA. However, the amount of greens produced makes up a very small portion of the what’s needed to feed the 40,000 Microsoft workers served each day.[22] The goal of the operation is clearly not subsistence. Instead, it is to market the benefits of sustainability and small-scale farming and to create an aesthetic experience. This extends to the pyramid-shaped structure of some of the ‘greenhouses’, which is less than optimal for growing microgreens. The growing units have certain areas, like near the top of the pyramid, where lettuce gets roasted by the lights and must be thrown out. But the greenhouse looks futuristic, and that’s worth more to Microsoft that a few browned heads of lettuce.

Microsoft’s hydroponic ‘Microgreens’

The shift to green corporate design reflects less an enlightened perspective than it does business efforts to capitalise on and secure themselves amid environmental collapse and endless disruption in the jungle of competition. It is no accident that Microsoft has a ‘Greenhouse’ business unit dedicated to improving ‘Information Worker productivity’.[23] As an ‘internal incubator’, the Greenhouse is tasked with identifying and ‘cultivating’ new software applications and helping Microsoft break into new markets.[24] Here, the greenhouse becomes a design principle par excellence, linking architecture and organisation into a vitalist whole capable of infusing the entire firm with a new life that does not distinguish between the conservation of plants and the conservation of capitalist labour relations. The undergirding idea of this managerial trend is that capital can incubate its own survival amidst the coming winter of the world. Meanwhile, its fertility can be put on display for all, blending capitalist production into every environment, every relation.

Thus, rather than serving as the salvage paradigm of Victorian empire, today greenhouses are more about the resilience paradigm of living in, with, and like adaptive nature. Such ‘nature’ is totalising. At a company like Apple, the greenhouse design uses transparency as a medium of networking. The Genius Grove mentioned above is thought to play a connective role in the ‘ecology’ of the local ‘community’:

Apple Union Square’s glass doors open the store to Post Street and Union Square. The building’s unique position connects San Francisco’s most famous square to a rejuvenated plaza to the north, creating a beautiful gathering place for the community. The art-filled plaza offers seating, public Wi-Fi, a 50-foot tall ‘green wall’ and regular acoustic performances. The store is powered by 100 percent renewable energy, including power produced by photovoltaic panels integrated into the building’s roof.[25]

History, art, architecture, nature, the public – the Genius Grove brings them all together in seeming harmony. What runs through the corporate touting of community and environment is the desire for a selectively permeable transparency. According to Apple’s chief design officer, ‘It all starts with the storefront – taking transparency to a whole new level – where the building blends the inside and the outside, breaking down barriers and making it more egalitarian and accessible’. One can expect, however, that this ‘egalitarian’ vision does not include the large homeless population around Union Square. It is also no secret that Apple has a history of worker exploitation as well as indelible ties to environmental destruction. Genius Grove presents a counter-narrative to this, one that allows Apple to camouflage within its environment. Vanishing into its ‘community’ the company gains legitimacy. Transparency fetishised in the workplace has similar effects. As the co-founder of an architectural design firm in Hong Kong explained, ‘a clear workspace [open to the public] leaves nothing questionable, nothing hidden; it generates trust’.[26]

In today’s business world, strategies of transparency and camouflage increasingly resemble one another, acting as two sides of the same specular process of hybridising life and capital, placing accumulation within a wider ecology that includes botanical scenery and community involvement. Whereas the Victorians seemed to take a noblesse oblige approach to educating the masses inside the greenhouses of the royalty, today’s talk of transparency comes with the performance of egalitarianism and ‘see it all, show it all’ openness – that is nevertheless restricted to pre-selected hyper-competitive elites. The touted transparency camouflages their class dominance and the vast networks of global value extraction that are organised and monopolised by tech giants.


The Future is Clear

Aside from Victorian aesthetes and Silicon-Valley profiteers, glass architecture has long held sway over certain segments of the left, particularly those dabbling in utopian politics. From Charles Fourier’s interest in glass-covered pathways as a symbol of communication and social order,[27] to J.C. Loudon’s 1822 utopia of village-sized greenhouses,[28] to the glass-covered Social Palace (Le Familistère) Jean-Baptiste André Godin established in northern France in 1856 to house workers, [29] glasshouses loomed large in the 19th century imaginary of social utopias. They pointed towards a future society in which everything would be transparent, honest, ordered, where individuals would be able to congregate and express themselves freely and in ‘full Harmony’.[30] However, as it became expressed in glass architecture, the utopian desire for transparency did little to challenge, and in some cases fortified, the rise of industrial capitalism and the formation of the global market.

This point is illustrated by what is perhaps the most famous example of glass utopianism: Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace. The Palace was built in Hyde Park, London to house the Great Exhibition of 1851, and affixed 500 tons of glass to a cast-iron space frame. The public was said to have marvelled at the structure’s industrial building techniques, which were made possible by developments in plate-glass technology.[31] In this, the Crystal Palace acted as a shrine to the industrial ‘progress’ of its time. During the Great Exhibition, it also played a directed role in normalising the world market on which industrial products circulated. On display for the public were 100,000 ‘wonders’ of industry and culture from around the world.[32] Later, in its new location on Sydenham Hill, the Palace contained a winter garden with plants from every climate as well as rare birds. It also held several zoological, geographical and art collections.[33] The purpose of incorporating all of this, according to the Crystal Palace Company, was ‘to build a universal temple for the education of the great mass of the people and the improvement of their recreational pleasures’. In this way, the Palace acted as a glass trophy case for the spoils of capitalist accumulation, which the public was invited to ‘appreciate’ as cultural and scientific artefacts. These were said to produce edifying effects on the viewer, affixing individual development to the growth of imperial capitalism. The utopia of the ‘universal temple’ is thus revealed to be something more like a glass cage.

The Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for the Grand International Exhibition of 1851

In the twentieth century, glass utopianism became more abstract. For members of the Crystal Chain (Die Gläserne Kette), a group of German expressionist architects who exchanged letters from 1919 to 1920, the very material of glass was an expression of the spiritual. Glass was treated as a liberating device, performing a kind of alchemy on the world around it. Adolph Behne, an art critic writing at the time, summed this up:

No material overcomes matter as much as glass. Glass is a completely new, pure material, into which matter is melted and transformed. […] It reflects the sky and the sun; it is like luminous water, and it possesses a wealth of possibility in the way of color, shape, and character that is truly inexhaustible and can leave no one indifferent.[34]

And isn’t glass alchemy equivalent to the social alchemy underlying utopianism?[35] Ian Buchanan has described utopia as a ‘promising-machine’, generating the expectation of a better future without ever fulfilling it.[36] There’s something in the very concept of glass that supports this kind of desire, which is the desire to affirm everything while grasping nothing. This paradox is apparent in the etymology of the word, which overwrites the relationship between appearance and essence. Despite its transparency, the term ‘glass’ is historically linked to notions of brilliance and colour. The Proto-Indo-European root of the English word is *ghel- which means ‘to shine’ and has derivatives referring to colours ranging from ‘grey’ to ‘blue’, ‘green’ and ‘yellow’.[37] The ancestors of glass fall within this spectrum. In Latin glaseum refers to ‘amber’, as does glær in Old English.

It is significant that the term ‘glass’ is so firmly rooted in the material’s perceived colour or appearance, rather than the translucent quality we normally think of as essential to glass.[38] In utopian projects, the world is captured in glass (as colour) and yet, having been captured here, it acquires a certain equivalence (as transparent). In this way, the dialectic of glass enables one to affirm life in a lifeless medium, to trap it there, taking something that should be infinite and subjecting it to the finitude of this world, to death. In capitalist societies this affirmation is always bound up with the fetishism of commodities, attributing value to dead things while entombing the living in relations of exchange and immiseration. If everything solid has melted into air, then it is glass architecture that gives us the transcendental feeling of moving through this air, of effusing our flesh in the smooth elevator music of capital.[39] But ultimately we hit a ceiling. Glass is something that was molten turned solid again, containing us while letting the sun shine through. This evaporation of the living, this build-up of dead things, is the greenhouse effect.

Today, companies like Amazon, Apple, and Google carry on the utopian tradition of glass as they construct new eco-friendly headquarters.[40] Some have called their glass-intensive designs ‘high-tech hippie communes’, but it’s better to say that these spaces are false communes, if anything.[41] The rise of corporate integration with the environment symbolised by such architecture helps to shatter any illusion of a pristine public sphere or civil society insulated from capital. Despite their impressive sightlines, the very transparency of these utopias is an act of closing off space, the sounds of struggle muted outside the glass. Such a bright ‘ecotopia’ reflects a neoliberal oikonomia of resilience that benefits a cosmopolitan elite to the exclusion of everyone else.[42] But there is another neoreactionary tendency involved. In the corporate greenhouse, cooperation, community, citizenship – along with the sense of sight itself – are all merged with the accumulation of capital in a blinding vision of harmony that bears a resemblance to some of the most manic fantasies of last century’s myriad fascisms.


Vital Geometries

In April, Apple opened ‘Apple Park’, its new 175-acre, $5 billion campus in Cupertino, CA. The campus, which will eventually replace Infinite Loop as the company’s headquarters, is considered by his followers to be Steve Jobs’ final stroke of genius. As Wired magazine puts it, ‘through this new headquarters, Steve Jobs was planning the future of Apple itself – a future beyond him and, ultimately, beyond any of us’.[43] In meetings before his death, Jobs envisioned the campus as an ecological-preservation project, transforming flat asphalt sprawl to a vibrant panorama, harkening back to the pre-digital days of Silicon Valley. The plan is to maintain 80 percent of the site as a green space, which will involve planting around 9,000 trees of over 300 varieties, along with other native and drought-resistant plants, intended to withstand climate crises.[44]

In the middle of this reconstructed wilderness stands the main building, a ring-shaped, 2.8-million-square-foot structure, wholly sheathed in what Apple claims is ‘the world’s largest panels of curved glass’.[45] When viewed from above, what’s most striking about Apple Park is its illusion of movement. The circular design and space-age aesthetic of the Ring creates a sense of centripetal acceleration, of a metallic disk spinning in a forest, pulling everything inwards. ‘It’s a little like a spaceship has landed’, Jobs once told the Cupertino city council in reference to the campus design.[46] With its so-called ‘neo-futurist’ architecture, many will see Apple Park as the new face of Silicon-Valley utopianism. As lead architect Lord Norman Foster explains, the ‘idea that a beautiful object descended on this verdant, luxurious landscape and that it will be inhabited by 12,000 people: That is a true utopian vision’. One is reminded of a rotating space colony, the ‘ringworlds’ that have played such a large role in the imagination and actual design of extra-terrestrial habitats.[47]


Designer’s impression of the Apple Park in Cupertino

Yet there is little new about this vision. In its blind celebration of movement, vitality, and technology, the ‘utopianism’ of Apple Park resembles that of fascism’s Italian Futurist wing. In fact, the Ring seems as if it were ripped out of Tullio Crali’s 1939 painting, Cityscape, and placed in a densely wooded, suburban backdrop.[48] Many of Crali’s other paintings revel in the speed, thrill and mechanisation of aerial warfare. In Upside Down Loop (Death Loop) (1938) Crali captures the perspective of a pilot in an aerobatic manoeuvre. Viewed upside down from the cockpit, the city is revitalised, infused with the intensity of violence, death, and endless motion. Something similar is happening in Apple Park. Instead of the city, it is nature that is re-enchanted by the speedy exchange of digital information and strings of code. One imagines these flowing like blood around the Ring, animating it and the trees outside.

Over the last twenty years, many have noted futurist or utopian strands within Silicon Valley. Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron present such a critique in their 1995 article, the ‘Californian Ideology’.[49] The latter is defined as an odd alloy of technological determinism, neoliberal economics, and baby-boomer counterculture. By holding up the free market as natural and by conscribing to a rigid teleology of hi-tech development, this ideology is said to foreclose ‘alternative futures’. For Barbrook and Cameron, what is needed to combat this ideology is to open up ‘political debate’, to ‘think socially and politically about the machines we develop’, and ultimately to ‘recognise that the potentiality of hypermedia can never solely be realised through market forces’. ‘We need an economy’, they argue, ‘which can unleash the creative powers of hi-tech artisans’.

But the rise of glass architecture suggests a different picture, something closer to the Hanging Gardens of Babylon than any sterile, robotic future. The designs and motivations surrounding Apple Park suggest that it is life and creativity, not the technical product, that has become the predominant obsession of the Silicon-Valley elite. This is at least in part a product of Californian Ideology incorporating the critique of the Californian Ideology into itself. For example, the idea of ‘unleashing the creative powers of hi-tech artisans’ could literally be a stock phrase from Google or Facebook or any other major web 2.0 platform company.

Despite its many architectural feats, Apple Park’s Ring seems more like a living organism than any kind of building project. In line with Jobs’ wishes, and as if pulled from a weird-fiction novel, the building is made to breathe, inhaling air via soffits around its perimeter. While Apple Grove is intended to blend in to the surrounding community, the Ring seems designed to blend into itself, into nature.[50] Apparently, Jobs ‘wanted no seam, gap or paintbrush stroke showing; every wall, floor and even ceiling is to be polished to a supernatural smoothness’.[51] Such is the tech guru’s dream of a fully networked world, one without cracks, without delays, where everything is essentially equal and where there’s no need to think about where you are because it doesn’t matter anyway.

Silicon Valley affirms life, and itself as life’s protector, by concealing violent geographies under its newfound obsession with vital geometries. From Apple’s ringworld to Amazon’s tessellated spheres to Microsoft’s pyramid-shaped hydroponic growing units, the tech industry is enthralled by eccentric shapes and the multiplication of surfaces, as if they held some occult power or vitality. The ‘resilience’ and ‘adaptive capacity’ of such architecture is often seen as part of a global neoliberal logic. In Silicon Valley, these neoliberal (and liberal progressivist) tendencies increasingly intersect with neo-reactionary and neo-fascist ones. The fascination with the ‘geometric splendour of forces’ is another element that today’s tech elite shares with Italian Futurists: in his 1913 manuscript for a ‘Futurist Manifesto of Men’s Clothing’, Giacomo Balla emphasises the need to ‘invest dynamic designs’ for clothes as well as ‘equally dynamic shapes: triangles, cones, spirals, ellipses, circles, etc’.[52] The ‘dazzle’ produced by this clothing, along with ‘our Futurist architecture, will mean that everything will begin to sparkle like the glorious prism of a jeweller’s gigantic glass-front’. Contemporary greenhouse architecture produces a similar sparkling, one that works to vitalise corporate culture and space, making the built environment appear alive and generative.


Eternal Life

Infatuation with life is now one of the most pronounced and bizarre features of the Silicon Valley elite. In secret underground laboratories, start-ups like Unity Biotechnology develop drugs to halt or reverse the aging process.[53] Meanwhile, futurist entrepreneurs like Ray Kurzweil await the Singularity, the moment when exponential developments in genetics, computers, robotics, and artificial intelligence will, in the near future, bring us to a historical rupture point where humans will transcend their biological limits and fuse with the machine. This, in his view, is the beginning of eternal life. Belief in the Singularity, now widespread in Silicon Valley, is symptomatic of a larger range of transhumanist tendencies that have emerged in the tech industry over the last couple of decades. These tendencies mark a general shift in the Californian Ideology, from the techno-utopian libertarianism to the technological authoritarianism of figures like Peter Thiel and Elon Musk.

Recently, there have been several attempts to map out the ways in which Silicon Valley, and particularly its transhumanist subculture, has been a significant incubator of ‘neoreaction’ (NRx) and neo-fascist thought. The rise of greenhouse architecture suggests that neoreaction is much more closely bound to liberal progressivism than either tendency would like to think. In eco-friendly headquarters, (neo)liberal values of creativity, equality, and environmental stewardship exist alongside, and in mutual support of, authoritarian longings for eternal life and total corporatisation. Both tendencies converge in their belief, which is eugenicist in principle, that life is something that can and must be ‘tapped’, controlled, and cultivated by an elite cadre of engineers – the visionaries, CEO gurus, and creative types.

None of this should come as a surprise. Fascism in the 20th century emerged out of much of Italy’s most cosmopolitan tendencies and existed on the very cutting edge of both industrial technology and urban culture. The Nazis, for their part, implemented some of the most far-reaching environmentalist policies of the time, albeit in connection with the desire for a racially cleansed ‘soil’.[54] These historical examples sit uneasily with a dominant media narrative that blames the rise of Trump, and neo-fascism more generally, on poor and uneducated rural whites who refuse to believe in climate change. Today’s corporate greenhouses, and the ideologies that pervade them, suggest that the emerging fascistic tendencies are much more closely aligned with a business elite, that speculates on environmental conservation, unbridled technology, full transparency, and eternal life.

In places like San Francisco and Seattle it is no longer possible, if it ever was, to separate neo-fascism from neoliberal urban development caused or exacerbated by a growing tech industry, and its consequences of gentrification, homelessness, gender inequality and worker exploitation. Sometimes this connection is explicit. This was the case last year at the Northwest Forum, a white nationalist convention in Seattle heavily attended by men working in tech.[55] Though less obvious, this connection also applies to the series of clashes that occurred last year in Berkeley around the University of California, with antifascists and anarchists sparring with members of the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and Trump supporters. Liberal media pundits have been quick to condemn antifascist tactics as ‘mob violence’.[56] Meanwhile, on the grounds of free speech, far-right activists are given the right to put on public displays of racism, which have lethal consequences for those already marginalised.[57] Neoreaction and the purified forms of ‘life’ it espouses, is incubated in the glassy public sphere of diversity of opinion, free speech and biodiversity. This is the bio-sphere that tech companies are building today. It creates a living space for neoreactionary thought because it naturalises and encloses as ‘life’ the illusion of an authentic and self-transparent community. Antifa and other struggles have posed a challenge to this sphere and to neoreactionary tendencies along with it, to the extent that they have been able to call into question the very conditions on which life under capitalism is based.

There is nothing inevitable about these glass structures. They may turn out to be passing whims. Yet they serve as symptoms of a global capitalism in crisis, needing to mine life for new sources of value. Like tech bubbles in the stock market, greenhouses are landscape bubbles full of hot air, incubating life under clear glass panes. A radical politics today is one that shatters this glass, rejecting an eternal life that mirrors to infinity the mechanism by which our lives are being selectively destroyed.



Key MacFarlane is a graduate student in the History of Consciousness department at UC Santa Cruz.



[1] Ángel González, ‘Amazon’s Spheres: Lush nature paradise to adorn $4 billion urban campus‘, The Seattle Times, 03 January 2017.

[2] You can see the official Instagram page of the Spheres here.

[4]USGBC Statistics‘, US Green Building Council, July 2017.

[5]World Green Building Trends 2016 SmartMarket Report‘, Dodge Research and Analytics, 2016.

[6] Brent Ryan Bellamy and David Thomas, ‘The Green Struggle‘, Jacobin, 2015.

[7] Nick Srnicek, Platform Capitalism, Polity, 2017.

[8] In Latin there is a tension in the word ‘specularia’ between transparency and reflection. The noun form specularia refers either to window panes or windows, while the adjective specularis means ‘in the manner of a mirror’. In Linnaean taxonomy specularia is a genus of flowering plants in the family Campanulaceae. Specularia perfoliata (Venus Looking-Glass) has toothed leaves and purple flower pedals.

[9] These proto-greenhouses are described by Pliny the Elder in his Historia Naturalis (Book 19, 23: 64) and by Columella is his De Re Rustica (Book 11).

[10] Orangeries themselves emerged earlier, in the Renaissance gardens of Italy. The first was built in Padua in 1545. For a history of orangeries, greenhouses, and conservatories see: May Wood, Glass Houses, Aurum Press, 1988.

[12] Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, Stanford University Press, 2011.

[13] Stephen Dowell, A History of Taxation and Taxes in England, Vol. III, London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1884, p. 193 –203.

[14] See: The Lancet, 22 February 1845, Vol 45, Issue 1121, p. 214–215.

[15] On the relation between horticulture and colonialism see: Londa Schiebinger and Claudia Swan (eds.), Colonial Botany: Science, Commerce, and Politics in the Early Modern World, Philadelphia: UPenn Press, 2005.

[18] See the National Geographic Sci-Fi docu-drama Mars (2016), about SpaceX and the colonisation of Mars. The episodes contain continual references to Columbus and other Western ‘pioneers’, and an artificial greenhouse is at the centre of dramatic development

[21]See Microsoft’s in-office urban farming experimentGreenBiz (December 5, 2014).

[22]Feeding Microsoft with Hydroponics‘, 425Business (March 31, 2016).

[23]Microsoft’s Greenhouse cultivates software ideas‘, Puget Sound Business Journal (February 8, 2004).

[26]MVRDV Transform Hong Kong Factory into Glass Office’, MVRDV, Press Release, 3 June 2016.

[27] Isobel Armstrong, Victorian Glassworlds: Glass Culture and the Imagination, 1830-1880, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 163.

[28] John Claudius Loudon, An Encyclopædia of Gardening, London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1822.

[29] Pictures can be found here.

[30] Charles Fourier, ‘The Phalanstery‘, The Utopian Vision of Charles Fourier, Jonathan Cape, 1972.

[31] For a detailed account of the Crystal Palace’s architecture and the development of glass building in general see: Georg Kohlmaier and Barna von Sartory, Houses of Glass: A Nineteenth-Century Building Type, MIT Press, 1986.

[33] Georg Kohlmaier and Barna von Sartory, Houses of Glass: A Nineteenth-Century Building Type, MIT Press, 1986, p. 317.

[34] Cited in: Christoph Afendorf, Batteries of Life: On the History of Things and Their Perception in Modernity, Berkeley: UC Press, 1993, p. 25.

[35] However, it might be worthwhile to distinguish the ‘impossible utopia’ found in Fredric Jameson’s work. See: Frank Ruda, ‘Jameson and Method: On Comic Utopianism’, in Fredric Jameson, An American Utopia: Dual Power and the Universal Army, Verso, 2016, pp. 183–210.

[36] Ian Buchanan, ‘Metacommentary on Utopia, or Jameson’s dialectic of hope’, Utopian Studies, 9.2 (1998): 22–23.

[38] The emphasis on colour is probably, in part, a result of the fact that most ancient glass had a greenish tinge, due to the iron found in glass-sands (P.G. Maxwell-Stuart, Studies in Greek Colour Terminology: Glaukos, Vol. I, Brill, 1981, p. 81.)

[39] A new skyscraper in Dubai tries to create the feeling of walking on air. See here.

[40] See also Miriam Greenberg on Bay Area’s ‘ecotopia’ in her 2013 article ‘What on Earth Is Sustainable?’ The Journal of California 3(4): 54–66.

[41] Nikil Saval, ‘Google and Apple: the High-Tech Hippies of Silicon Valley‘, New York Times Style Magazine (March 28, 2016).

[42] See Matthew Sparke, ‘Nature and tradition at the border: landscaping the end of the nation-state’ in The End of Tradition? (ed Nezar Al Sayyad), New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 87–115.

[44] Steven Levy, ‘Apple Park’s Tree Whisperer’, Wired, 01 June 2017.

[45]Apple Park opens to employees in April‘, Apple Newsroom, 22 February, 2017.

[46] Philip Elmer-DeWitt, ‘Video: Steve Jobs’ pitch to build a ‘spaceship’ in Cupertino‘, Fortune, 8 June 2011.

[49] Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron, ‘The Californian Ideology’, Mute, 1 September 1995.

[50] Google has voiced its own plans for a new campus that would ‘blur the distinction between our buildings and nature’. See:

[51] Peter Burrows, ‘Inside Apple’s Plans for Its Futuristic, $5 Billion Headquarters’, Bloomberg, 4 April 2013.

[52] Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero, ‘The Futurist Reconstruction of the Universe’, 1915. A designer at Amazon recently used a similar aesthetic in creating the ‘Spheres dress’.

[54] See Franz-Josef Brüggemeier, Mark Cioc, and Thomas Zeller (eds.), How Green Were the Nazis?: Nature, Environment, and Nation in the Third Reich, Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005.

[56] Paige St. John and James Queally, ‘“Antifa” violence in Berkeley spurs soul-searching within leftist activist community‘, 29 August 2017.

[57] There is evidence, for instance, that alt-right personality Milo Yiannopoulos was planning on publically announcing the names of undocumented UC-Berkeley students, if his scheduled talk on 1 February had not been cancelled due to Antifascist protesting. See Maya Oppenheim, ‘UC Berkeley protests: Milo Yiannopoulos planned to ‘publicy name undocumented students’ in cancelled talk‘, Independent, 3 February 2017.