Devs tells of a Silicon Valley that hides in broad daylight

In miniseries Devs, British writer and director Alex Garland unveils an eight-episode mystery and recounts through architecture the key concepts that characterize the way we think about existence, from free will to determinism.

How do you hide the world’s greatest secret from everyone? In order to create a believable scenario that can act as the glue holding the protagonists together and narrate such an obscure and desperate objective, Alex Garland, creator and director of Hulu’s miniseries Devs, has decided to exploit the power of architecture, which can hide or reveal its contents depending on the chosen container.

Based on the assumption that the Anthropocene has left a significant mark in every corner of the world, it seems obvious to anyone that crossing a “natural” place, like the countryside, can evoke very different emotions than walking around the city center during rush hour. These feelings, among other things, can also be conveyed through the design and construction of the architectural space. Through Devs’ narrative, Garland has deepened the relationship between individuals and the architecture in which they live and work, developing an idea that he had first come up with in the feature film Ex Machina (2014), of which Devs might be a perfect continuation. Two buildings, very important for the plot, perfectly capture the essence of Garland’s work: the “public” space represented by Amaya campus, the fictional tech company of Silicon Valley that forms a backdrop to the action, and the "private” space represented by Devs, a substructure of the company, which somehow represents one of the key points of a long investigation.

The contemporary world has allowed us to get used to the idea that a company communicates above all through the spaces in which it operates. Like many banks, consulting firms and other businesses that work in close contact with the public, CEO Forest (Nick Offerman) has chosen a predictable hybridization between cement and glass for his company: on one side there is the solidity of exposed concrete, as firm as the ideas and beliefs that motivate him; and on the other, there is the sense of transparency conveyed by the glass surfaces, which over the course of the series become the protagonists of some of the most important moments of the story.

Most of the scenes filmed inside the building are set in the McHenry Library in Santa Cruz, which was designed by Bora Architects. In Devs's world, it is clear from the very beginning that this building serves as some sort of “fake” facade, a reassuring filter that allows Forest to keep the right proximity-distance from its employees and visitors. In turn, just like in the real world, also in the series this space is immersed in a forest to create a bizarre ecosystem that isolates work from the outside world.

(Attention! Spoiler alert!)

If it is true that telling a story means breaking a paradigm of normality to embrace the extraordinary, Garland’s miniseries manages to break that routine so dear to Forest, by taking away all the certainties to which he aspires so much. The action starts with a “traditional” industrial espionage, when Lily’s boyfriend – she’s the protagonist of the series, played by Sonoya Mizuno – is brutally killed by Devs. This casus belli, according to the character played by Nick Offerman, is part of the chain of inevitable events that he wants to demonstrate: if, as he believes, this chain of cause and effect leaves no room for free will, then each individual should be relieved of all responsibility. A complex concept, which comes from Forest’s need to justify himself for the death of his daughter and wife, as we will discover later in the series.

Based on the assumption that the Anthropocene has left a significant mark in every corner of the world, it seems obvious to anyone that crossing a “natural” place, like the countryside, can evoke very different emotions than walking around the city center during rush hour

Soon, the people involved (against their will) in Forest’s plans will not resist the urge to try and cross this “stillness bubble”, in more ways than one, by turning those large windows into some kinds of filter that are apparently immovable if crossed “against” the company’s will. The most elegant example in this sense is, paradoxically, the moment when Lily uses this very concept to her advantage: there is a scene that takes place between the inside and the outside of an office when the woman wants to obtain valuable information about the death of her partner from Kenton, Amaya’s security manager, who’s a violent unscrupulous man with a long history of espionage - a representation of National interest in a corporate context.

The reflection of the external light on the glass window, which is certainly brighter than the interior, turns that transparent sheet, only a few centimeters thick, into an impassable wall for the characters and the viewer. In this scene, the wall looks opaque, even though in other circumstances they would have looked as transparent as water. With an excuse, the protagonist draws Kenton out, while an accomplice gets into the building and does the rest of the work. All to tell the same concept over and over again: if it is true that when you decide to go “against” the company’s reasons you only hit walls, it is also true that there is no defense system that you cannot circumvent and exploit to your advantage.

Lily chooses, takes risks, acts, and imposes at least apparently her free will by “breaking through" all the barriers imposed by Forest and his violent henchman Kenton, creating for the first time a barrier of her own in a hostile environment. Her behavior, no longer ruled by the only truth provided by the company, also change the space around her, transforming it into a filter made of glances, doubts and rumors that undermine an already very unstable balance. Beyond this theatrical stage hides a backstage that, if possible, tells even more things thanks to its architecture.

If there is a secret to be revealed, it surely lies in the heart of the structure: the very mysterious Devs lab that everyone talks about and nobody knows anything about. As I said at the beginning, it is a subsection of Amaya, where a very confidential project is taking place, the entity of which is known only to those who work inside of it. In the business world, it is hardly surprising that large companies tend to keep their secrets well hidden. But how does Forest manage to hide his secrets in broad daylight – secrets that are taking place at the heart of his company? Again, through filters. First of all, the halo of mystery and exclusivity is, in itself, a very effective deterrent for the company’s workers. The Devs structure is almost entirely underground. A bunker in the middle of a clearing which, in turn, is shielded by another forest. Again, nature acts as a filter for man’s work. If the colours of Amaya are the grey of the cement and the green of the trees, the color of Devs is golden, like the precious good par excellence and the symbol of the divine (a concept that will prove to be of primary importance in the story), starting from the golden circles that illuminate the forest, passing through the field surrounding the structure and the pillars that mark the entrance.

Devs is a different space, elegant and meticulously organized. Here, individuals are presented as the parts that make a larger modular gear, whose most important element is a central computer/valve: the beating heart of a secret utopia.

From a structural point of view, geometrical synthesis is the protagonist, from the external parallelepipeds to the perfection of the platonic solids (the cube) and the recurrent patterns on the structure of the square, a mix between a fractal and a mandala, geometries that have also played an important role in contemporary parametric architecture. In this sense, Devs’ structure is futuristic and in line with what we have just seen: from the beginning, it is clear that the future is being written in there, so it is understandable that the CEO desires to hide his business from prying eyes.

With Devs, Garland has shown that it is impossible to talk about social differences without including in the equation also what defines human existence: the architectural space, which is both a cradle and a trap, depending on the point of view

However, it is by going inside the building that you discover quite a few surprises. Unlike the double-blind procedure, which is typically used to preserve the internal security of a company, in this structure, everyone is fully aware of what is happening, so it makes no sense to keep internal “filters”. If you’re inside, you basically have access to every possible information that can help you achieve the common goal: the possibility of predicting events and analyzing those that have already happened, as if time was a tape that you can unwind and rewind as you please.

The architecture of the internal materials reflects this concept in an opposite way to the previous space: the desks on which the employees work are surrounded by transparent glass walls, while there is a total closure towards the outside. Concrete and electromagnetic force create a sort of modern-day moat that recalls the will to separate the medieval lords and their castles, with a clear reference to the idea of a clear division between feudal lord and fief, in a game of power that, as history has taught us, seems to be anything but stable and lasting.

And it is right here that all of Forest’s certainties start crumbling, just like the architectural empire that he has built with so much effort: Like Neo in Matrix, Lily is the “One”, and like a loose cannon she manages to disrupt the balance in the only possible way – destroying the old to make room for the new. Just like in Isaac Asimov’s The End of Eternity, even on this occasion, it is impossible to “access” time beyond a certain point, which in the case of the miniseries seems to coincide with Lily’s death. If it is true that every revolution comes with a bloodbath, the protagonist’s revolution to obtain the truth (and the ideal salvation) isn’t less violent: although Forest had already “foreseen” their confrontation several times, his ivory tower collapses before his eyes when the protagonist makes a choice, breaking the paradigm of determinism and lack of responsibility that Forest would like to prove to be true. The man/god loses control, and his futuristic architecture turns into his personal mausoleum, like the great pyramids that collapse to trap unwanted visitors. This time, however, the relationship between Pharaoh and subjects is subverted in the most classic of David vs. Goliath clashes.

With Devs, Garland has shown that it is impossible to talk about social differences without including in the equation also what defines human existence: the architectural space, which is both a cradle and a trap, depending on the point of view. Lily experiences a rite of passage, placing herself between the outside and the inside, between the known and the unknown, between what is permitted and what is forbidden. Like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods, the protagonist has stolen her freedom… but at what price?  Her own life. But was her choice strong enough to break the established order? The answer to this question comes in the form of a bittersweet ending that does not utterly condemn or absolve anyone.

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