On June 27, 1967, a Barclays bank in Enfield, London, debuted what is widely regarded as the first automatic teller machine, or ATM. The machine dispensed £10 at a time through the use of a special voucher that had to be purchased in advance. The system didn’t automatically deduct the amount from a customer’s balance. Instead, it functioned as a sort of steampunk check-cashing system, with customers’ balances updated by human tellers the following day.
The machine’s purpose, naturally, was to dispense cash outside of limited operating hours—as well as to fend off union efforts to close bank branches on Saturdays. At its grand unveiling, its first customer was actor Reg Varney, known for playing a hapless bus driver on a popular television comedy show. How exactly the ceremony proceeded has been lost to history, but a former Barclays employee did note decades later that Varney had been “a bit cheeky.”
The ATM is one of the most visible and familiar symbols of automation, its 24-hour service demanding neither coffee breaks nor health insurance. Two years after the first one appeared in England, a similar machine debuted at a branch of Chemical Bank (now Chase) on Long Island. Today there are more than 3 million globally, according to the ATM Industry Association. They have reshaped how people bank: anytime and anywhere, and mostly in locations that aren’t even banks.
It’s not just banks. Automation has also changed how people shop, park, fly, and more. In the process, it has reshaped the architecture that contains those experiences—making them more efficient, often, but also putting machines above people.
That first ATM was installed at the Barclays in Enfield, a borough on the northern fringes of London, specifically because it was the only branch with windows situated high enough on the building to accommodate the necessary machinery below. Since then, ATMs have required banks to reconsider other aspects of the building that house them.
A bank once provided a stately architectural procession: a vestibule, followed by a counter staffed by a waiting row of tellers, and perhaps a screened-off area with private offices and a safety deposit chamber. But enter a bank branch today—if you visit one at all—and chances are you’ll be greeted by a waiting row of ATMs. To find an actual human, you’d have to travel deeper into the building, often through another set of doors.
Over the course of a typical bank transaction, customers are unlikely to deal with a person at all. (Data compiled by Bank of America, for example, shows that only 30 percent of deposits there are made with the assistance of a human teller.) And at banks in more remote areas, complicated financial questions that necessitate human contact are often handled remotely. Instead of speaking with someone on-site, the customer uses an ITM—or Interactive Teller Machine, essentially a video conferencing system—to reach an employee at a centralized location. The buildings that house banks are no longer sites for person-to-person interaction. They are places where people come to transact with machines.
“I remember going to a bank and talking to a person,” says architect Greg Lynn, founder of Greg Lynn Form, a studio in Los Angeles focused on how technology facilitates architectural form. “But now everything happens with a portal on the side of a wall. It’s all about speed of transaction and efficiency.”
Banking is not the only industry where this is taking place. Arrive at a hotel and you might find yourself swiping a credit card to check yourself in. Go to a big-box store and you can check yourself out. Park your car at a lot and chances are you’ll feed your money (or more likely, your bank card) into a machine that will supply you with another card that will allow you to exit the lot.
All of this is changing the nature of the structures that people inhabit. “Architecture is losing places where you interact with people,” Lynn tells me. “There is so much desire for a rapid transaction and rapid movement and buildings are changing to accommodate that as well.”
Mariana Pestana, an architect and curator who recently helped organize the design exhibition “The Future Starts Here” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, describes this phenomenon as “post-human architecture”—one in which structures are geared more at generating machine interactions than in bringing human beings together.
Sometimes, this can result in an awkward dance between the human world and the automated one. At many supermarkets and big box stores, for example, space once allotted to a checkout station has been replaced by a row of self-checkout systems. The cashier, who previously had a designated spot behind the counter, now stands at the end of this row, ready to assist when customers get confused or if the machines fail. At stores such as Target, the staffer often has no dedicated workstation. A position once tied to a physical location has become unmoored.
At parking lots, this detachment is even starker. Parking decks and lots used to contain shelters near their entrances. They housed a parking attendant, who took a customer’s fees and raised the gate. Automation has resulted in the removal of that shelter, since a machine now purportedly does the task. Yet, in Los Angeles, where I live, you nonetheless regularly find attendants standing by the exit, helping customers navigate the machines or serving as manual override on glitchy technology.
“There always has to be someone there to fix it when it breaks,” says Rory Hyde, a London-based curator of contemporary architecture and urbanism who co-curated “The Future Starts Here” with Pestana. “There has to be someone there for the exception to the rule.”
The person may be there, but the architecture that once contained them is gone. At the parking lot of a medical building I frequent on Wilshire Boulevard, I always find the same middle-aged Latino man standing on a narrow strip of concrete feeding customer’s payment cards into the automated machine.
“Don’t they give you a little place to sit?” I ask him.
“Es automático,” he responds with laugh and a roll of the eyes. It’s automatic. (He and other checkout workers I approached for this story, declined to be interviewed on the record.)
Automation is often lamented in the context of job loss—when machines can do the work that people once did, their jobs can be eliminated. A report issued by McKinsey & Company last year shows that 39 million jobs in the United States could be “displaced” by automation by 2030. Though, during that same time period, it is estimated that roughly 30 million jobs will be added to the economy—requiring many workers to shift duties or industries.
Some companies claim that automation has simply allowed them to reassign workers to other duties. Joe Perdew, vice president of store design at Target, told me that the company actually increased its headcount in 2017, despite the growing presence of self-checkout. “Approximately one-third of our guests choose self-checkout, so we’re adding self-checkout stations to give more guests a fast and autonomous alternative,” he notes. “In fact, we’re expanding self-checkout beyond the 1,500 stores that offer it today—adding to 150 more stores this year, with plans to be in all stores by end of 2019.”
Self-checkout hasn’t completely eliminated jobs, but it has transformed them. Automation design prioritizes machines over humans. That impacts customers who have to deal with the machines, but it impacts the workers even more. At Target, a cashier overseeing a row of self-checkouts has a job that is now geared less at interacting with customers than in tending to the machines the customers operate.
The same goes for parking lots. One attendant I spoke with in downtown Los Angeles noted that he now oversees two neighboring lots instead of one. Now that the gates are automated, his job primarily involves helping customers operate the ticket takers. “People have problems using them,” he tells me. “They don’t know how to insert the card or the machine doesn’t read the card or something else.” The attendant’s job has been made even more physically precarious than it already was. When he isn’t roaming the lots or assisting with the machines, he takes shelter under the eaves of a small shed stuffed full of equipment.
Having humans toil alongside machines isn’t new. Architecture has been designed for industry first, and human workers second (if at all), for a long time. Roman canals, 19th-century textile mills, and Cold-War nuclear reactors were not drafted with the human experience as a first concern. That pattern persists. A Google data center in Finland, housed in a former paper mill designed by the revered Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, regularly gets so hot that the company orders people out of the building. (“We have what we call ‘excursion hours’ or ‘excursion days,’” a Google executive told Wired in 2012.)
Over the course of the Industrial Revolution, workplace safety regulations have made some of these industrial spaces more hospitable to people. For example: The Health and Morals of Apprentices Act of 1802, informally known as the Factory Act of 1802, required that mill buildings supply adequate ventilation. (They also prohibited mill apprentices, an estimated fifth of whom were under the age of 13, from working more than 12 hours a day—so humane.)
But the current wave of automation is affecting spaces that were once specifically designed around human interaction: the front desk at the medical office or the hotel check-in counter, for example. At Yotel, an outpost of the affordable hotel chain in New York City, guests are greeted not by hotel staff, but by a row of check-in kiosks, as well as a luggage storage robot called the “Yobot.”
Yotel is easy to navigate because it’s small. But at larger hotels and office towers, automation can leave a building visitor feeling slightly adrift. “Many buildings no longer have a receptionist,” notes Hyde. “Which is fine if you work there and you know where you are going, but it’s extremely disorienting to everyone else. The legibility of the architecture breaks down.”
The Oakland-based medical consortium Kaiser Permanente, which employs self check-in for patients at some locations, has solved some of this disorientation by placing markings on the floors of its medical buildings indicating a patient’s next stop. (Aesthetically, it’s the sort of thing that would make an architect gasp: large sketches of arrows and cutesy paintings of footprints.) Other buildings are less clear. On a visit to Las Vegas last year, my husband and I checked in at the lobby kiosks at the Planet Hollywood Hotel—and then spent what felt like a small eternity looking for the poorly indicated elevator bank that would lead us to our rooms. There wasn’t an employee in the vicinity who could provide direction.
“There’s a sense that things are losing their focus,” says Hyde. “That’s what you are seeing happen now in bigger public spaces: the airport check-in or the supermarket. You lose your focus. It’s the strange flattening condition of technology or modernity.”
To a large extent, that is how people increasingly want it.
A survey conducted by the brand research firm YouGov and the Victoria and Albert, as part of the museum’s design future exhibit, shows that 69 percent of Britons prefer a human cashier to a self-checkout system. But that statistic shifts when segmented by age: 53 percent of 18 to 24 year olds prefer self-checkout compared to 13 percent of those aged 55 and over.
I’m in my forties, and I’ve acquiesced to all manner of automated systems. I use the self-checkout at Target when I have a few items because it saves time. I check into my flights online so that I can navigate LAX in a more timely manner. I am certified for Global Entry, which means that when I re-enter the United States after traveling internationally, I scan my passport and my fingerprints at a kiosk and enter the country without so much as having to acknowledge a sentient being.
American Airlines tested its first self-check-in kiosks in 1984. It deployed a prototype at Dallas Love Field 14 years later and installed the first fully functioning automated check-in system at Albuquerque International Sunport on Halloween Day of 2000. Currently, a majority of American’s 350 airport destinations feature some form of self check-in.
“Kiosk check-in will typically be shorter than a counter check-in,” says Melody Anderson, who serves as director of customer experience for the airline. “We have the business-savvy traveler that wants to do everything themselves and is very experienced in what they need to do—so whether it’s online or at the kiosk, they want that experience.”
As at retail stores and parking lots, this has changed the nature of the space. Customers entering the terminals at LAX, for example, are first greeted by rows of check-in kiosks rather than a customer service counter. And it has changed how airline agents interact with customers. Rather than being stationed behind a counter, agents are more likely to roam the floor.
Anderson describes it as a “concierge” style service: “The employees meet the customer in the process rather than queuing up … So it’s more, ‘I’m here to help you through your journey’ rather than ‘you wait in line until I’m ready.’”
The system can be more pleasant for customers like myself, since it means I don’t have to stand in line if there’s a problem. I simply flag a roving agent. But for the airlines it’s a big money saver. A 2003 study by Forrester Research showed that it cost 16 cents to check in a passenger with a self-service kiosk, compared to $3.68 with an agent.
“It’s part of a general drive for the airlines to reduce their costs so that they can, in theory, have fewer employees staffing counter or marshaling people into queues,” says Derek Moore, a director at the New York office of the global architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), which has designed airport terminals in Mumbai, Saudi Arabia, and New York’s JFK Airport. “Airlines as companies are trying to do more with fewer staff.”
Even so, Anderson tells me that the human element will likely always be a part of check-in. Leisure markets tend to demand more human assistance than business-centric ones. And emerging markets—with more inexperienced or first-time air travelers—often do so as well.
Automation will nonetheless be a greater part of the airport experience in the future. As part of ongoing automation efforts at Miami International Airport, the airport’s immigration systems are now employing biometrics, like face scanning, to match travelers to their passport pictures. The Australian airline Qantas offers its regular customers a permanent electronic bag tag (designed by the award-winning industrial designer Marc Newson) that allows them to check-in online, then drop their suitcase directly at bag drop without having to stop and print out a tag.
Moore says automated gate boarding is already in use at some airports in Asia.
“You scan your own card and the glass doors open and let you through,” he explains. “In Australia, they have incredibly fast automated international arrivals. Everybody presents themselves at a kiosk like Global Entry, but it’s even slicker. Then you walk by some people and then you’re out.” (All of it leads me to wonder if one day the airlines will just punch identifying tags in our ears and put us on an automated conveyor system all the way to our seats.)
All of this automation requires adjustments at the architectural level. The grandest part of airport terminal architecture used to be the check-in area—a shared public space where a traveler’s journey officially began. But over the years that space has increasingly shrunk. “Conceptually, it could be half the size of what it was two generations ago,” remarks Moore.
It has been eaten up by security screening checkpoints, but also services such as automated baggage handling—which occupy a large part of an airport’s footprint. Automation, he notes, “hasn’t made baggage handling systems any smaller.”
If anything, it’s had the effect of taking space in which humans once gathered and turned it over to the machines.
“Will airports of the future have that kind of processional, ceremonial feel that a lot of airport terminals have had?” asks Moore. “Have we reached the end of the terminal as a civic building? Are we going to be back to the days when they were simply processors—almost industrial-type buildings?”
As air travel has become more popular, more crowded and more strained, that certainly seems to be the case. A departure concourse once functioned as a public gathering space. In the future, that space may simply be a wall of ATMs.
Architecture moves slowly. An ATM might get inserted into a building from the turn of the 20th century. Self-check-in systems at LAX reside in terminals that date back to the 1960s.
“There is a memory that architecture preserves—the different ways of working,” says Hyde. “You might go to a bank and it has a beautiful ornate teller [window], but it’s empty because there’s an ATM in them.” Sometimes, Pestana explains, a building’s architecture is “the last place” to reflect automation.
As new banks go up and old airports remodel, architecture is beginning to catch up. If buildings once had been awkwardly repurposed to integrate automation, now they can be designed to streamline machine interfaces from the start.
But what does it mean to design a structure that focuses human attention on technology instead of other humans? Architecture, says Lynn, should be about “trying to make things as humane and rich and meaningful as possible”—yet increasingly people are thrust into spaces where their attention is devoted to swiping and punching and scanning devices and machines.
Moore notes that it’s possible to move through a crowded airport without interacting with anybody. “Even at eateries, you now sit down at a table and there’s an iPad and you punch in your order and someone will bring it to you,” says Moore. “And that may be the only time you’ve seen a person.”
It’s a phenomenon architects might want to think about before they sit down to the drawing table. “It’s seemingly trivial encounters that are important to society and their health,” Hyde says. “We have to remember the value of those little encounters as we automate them all.”