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Old building, new identity as the digital age stimulates the senses

The opposite to a plan is an outcome. If we put a number of outcomes together we can predict the future without planning it. In this sense today's planning applications are requests for outcomes, because outcomes render plans unnecessary and are themselves the true structures of the future.

In a society where security cameras scan the faces of people in shopping centres and automatically check them against the faces of known criminals, identity is no longer a matter of opinion. Nor is it an option when merely buying an airline ticket can trigger a vast security screening operation that will research your travel history, lifestyle, credit status and many other personal details.

Like identity, reality too is no longer a matter of opinion - what we think we saw, what we believe happened, what we believe happened before that, what we think will happen next, and so on. Nowadays we rely on technology to tell us what is real.

Just as we have learned to press the keys of calculators instead of practicing mental arithmetic, so do we turn to surveillance cameras - the 'black box recorders'of reality - when matters arise that require verification.

These fundamental redefinitions have come about because a cascade of new technologies has turned the simulation of our senses into a marketable commodity, something that does not play tricks on us like memory but lives in a vast planar present - recorded and stored, edited and indefinitely replayable. As an advertisement for one of the first digital cameras triumphantly put it: 'Everything we see can be digitally recorded in a second, stored in a PC in two seconds, processed in three seconds and published on the Internet or dispatched online in less than a minute.'

What the advertisement for the camera did not foresee was that, once captured, all this information could now be digitally modified. This was an interesting oversight because it effectively handed reality over to the editing suite. Once there, causes could be erased, outcomes revised and casts of characters altered. Just as we have learned to dramatise private life by making it into 'reality TV', so can we brighten up a mediocre built environment by digital imaging, modernise history by reconstructing historic events, and generally set about taking control of the future by bringing more and more events into the predictable realm of the near-present.

It is into this morphological state that the building, selling and reselling of signature buildings makes its uncertain way today. History when digitised becomes a new identity, especially in architecture. Take the Lloyd's building, or Number One Canada Square, or even St Paul's. The first of these is a building whose original factitious brief was simply that it should provide sufficient serviced floor space for 50 years of growth in the underwriting business (hence its fabled renewable out-rigged servicing pipework). But that was not how its identity turned out. Instead of gradually filling up over the years, Lloyd's overshot conspicuously then undershot wildly. It was full to bursting the day it opened, then the underwriting business collapsed and its image became famous in a gloomy context on TV news.

Then it was sold to a German fund called Deka and now it is up for sale again at a modestly increased price. No one says anything about updating its unique exterior plumbing any more.

The Canary Wharf tower has also led a financially switchback life that has coloured its identity: completed in a recession that bankrupted its developer, bailed out, retrieved again, now up for sale again.

As for St Paul's, its outcome has never been really certain since it had a giant Wispa bar projected onto its dome.

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