This post was originally written for inclusion in our list of the decade’s best architecture, but then excluded, both for fit and because we realized the novel it references — Darwinia — was published in 1998.
[We haven’t got any images of the Large Higgs Field Galatic Archive, for reasons that will become obvious, so this fantastic and mathematically-precise digital drawing by Andy Gilmore is standing in. Ably.]
A nasty prediction: in somewhere around one thousand billion years, sentience will, unfortunately, still be dealing with climate change. Unfortunately, that climate change will not be global, but universal, in the form of heat death, the entropic decay of energy as it spreads ever more distant from itself and is increasingly-evenly distributed over expanding space-time.
Robert Charles Wilson’s novel Darwinia speculates about the forms that existence might take in such a future:
Noospheres, huge constructs which housed the remnants of planetary civilizations, had drifted for eons among the fossil stars of the galaxy’s spiral arms. They had re-complicated and segmented themselves, meeting in million-year cycles to exchange knowledge and to create hybrid offspring, metacultures embedded in infant nooshperes dense as neutron stars…
In this distant future, Wilson suggests, death has been abolished. Sentiences at the end of their lifespans are absorbed for the duration of the universe into noospheres — but the duration of the universe grows short.
[The heart of our galaxy in false-color, seen through the Hubble]
In response to this threat, Wilson’s sentience constructs the Large Higgs Field Galactic Archive, a self-aware Seed Vault for life itself, which confronts heat death as an architectural problem:
…the noospheres gathered above the ecliptic of the dying galaxy, their immense new labors fed by plumes of antimatter that seethed from the pole of the central singularity. The Archive, when it was finished, would contain all that the galaxy had been… Age by age the archive grew, a physical object as wide as a dozen stellar systems, braced against the tides of its own mass by systemic distortions of local space, A machine operating at stellar temperatures, it radiated a burnished amber light into an increasingly lightless void — even this sparse radiation a residual inefficiency that would be eliminated over the next several million years.
The archive was a temporal telescope, a recording, a memory — in essence, a book. It was the ultimate history book, fed and refreshed by temporal discontinuities built into its matrix, a record of every known sentient act and thought since the dawn of [the universe]. It was unalterable but infinitely accessible, aloof and anti-entropic. It was the single largest act of engineering ever attempted by galactic sentience.
As a piece of speculative architecture, the Galactic Archive is unmatchably large. One could also produce an argument for it as an example of architecture fiction — though in the comments of our Best-Of list, Tino makes a compelling suggestion that The Wire is a better candidate, and I agree with him.