Last updated: January 25, 2013 9:38 pm

A place for cyberspace

Do tech companies’ headquarters live up to the cool innovation of their products?
Apple’s proposed HQ in California, designed by Foster & Partners

Apple’s proposed HQ in California, designed by Foster & Partners

Companies that exuded youthful cool and technical innovation were usually to be found in bland, corporate business parks. But all that is changing – and fast. This week Google announced plans for a £1bn London office in King’s Cross, Apple has commissioned Lord Foster to design a huge headquarters in California, and Facebook is working on plans for its new HQ with the architect of the Bilbao Guggenheim, Frank Gehry.

Of course, it is Apple, one of the world’s most valuable companies, that leads the way. Last September, it was named the best design studio of the past 50 years at the prestigious D&AD Awards. All 16 members of Apple’s design team flew to London from their base in San Francisco to collect the award, including their leader, the recently knighted Sir Jonathan Ive, now probably the most influential industrial designer on the planet.

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Apple is not the first tech outfit to realise the value of design – both of its products and of its buildings. In 1956, IBM commissioned architect Eliot Noyes to oversee all aspects of its design. Paul Rand, a graphic designer, was commissioned to create IBM’s logo and he went on to attempt to bring all the corporation’s outlets, warehouses and factories into aesthetic line.

Apple learnt the lesson. Indeed, that Apple retains its cult status despite its industrial vastness derives in large part from the minimal, slick beauty of its products. So when Steve Jobs decided to build a new HQ in California, the design world might have held its collective breath, expecting something as cool and revolutionary as the company’s products.

Instead, Foster & Partners has designed Apple a doughnut-shaped building that not only looks like a UFO but is also a (very) literal interpretation of Apple’s current address at 1 Infinite Loop (a circular street off Junipero Serra Freeway, California). It is thus a programmer’s in-joke about a computing glitch. But it is also redolent of other things. Foster & Partners recently completed the world’s first spaceport for private travel in New Mexico, so the UFO analogy here seems clear. It also, rather sinisterly, resembles the Pentagon, a closed system with a hole in the middle, perhaps where the soul should be. Or perhaps the cloister of a futuristic cathedral – or cult.

This building (provisionally due to open in 2016) is, like the iPad, iPhone and others, a smooth, seamless and slick product rather than a piece of architecture. And that is the problem. A building should, ideally, be something that not only allows but encourages and facilitates other buildings to grow up around it. This is how villages become towns and it is how cities grow and adapt. But this Apple HQ is a symbol, a finished product that exists in suburban isolation.

Foster’s plan resembles the ideas of his mentor and collaborator, the engineer Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), who saw his sci-fi geodesic domes as the solution to every problem, the encasing of a community or entire landscape in a glass dome, isolating it from a messy outside world.

In architect Frank Gehry’s designs for the new West Campus in Menlo Park for Facebook, we can see a mild reaction to the suburban excesses of California tech culture in a pseudo-urban design. It is, essentially, just a big shed set in the suburban landscape, around San Francisco’s Bay Area. Gehry’s plan is an attempt to capture the benevolent chaos of urbanity, a complex plan in which workers interact on a single level, designed to resemble the streets of a city.

The Binoculars Building in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Gehry and now occupied by Google

The Binoculars Building in Los Angeles, designed by Frank Gehry and now occupied by Google

But West Campus is no city; this is a sprawling single-storey structure lifted on stilts above a huge car park, divorced from the ground, surrounded by green suburban lawns and freeways and containing a carefully-curated community of like-minded individuals. The actual friction and crowding, the rubbing together of social classes, of wealthy and poor, the slight tension and sense of unpredictability that characterises real urban life, is as entirely absent here as it is in Foster’s glass doughnut.

Google, meanwhile, has already moved into a Gehry building – not one it commissioned but the striking former offices of the advertising agency Chiat/Day in Venice, Los Angeles. The building is a weird and wonderful piece of pop surrealism dating from the late 1980s in which the main entrance is defined by a pair of enormous binoculars, designed by Claes Oldenburg. It was, and remains, a rare blend of art, architecture and wit.

Google’s current London HQ in St Giles might provide an even better model. The newish, candy-coloured office development, designed by Renzo Piano, the architect of the Shard, is situated tellingly between the traditional centres of London’s publishing (Bloomsbury) and creative (Soho) industries. Its interior is a cocktail of creative clichés, everything from giant passé “Cool Britannia” Union Jacks to kitsch lampshades and upholstered walls that occasionally veer a little too close to padded cells.

Now though, even this most self-consciously urban office is being superseded by Google’s announcement last week that it is building a huge £1bn HQ in King’s Cross.

Designed by London architects AHMM for developer Argent, the building will sit in front of the new Central St Martins College of Art and Design. The site is the perfect mix of grittiness and shininess, simultaneously a symbol of London’s industrial and engineering past and the creative present the city would like to portray.

Campus London, occupied by Google

Campus London, occupied by Google

What Google can do when it sets its mind to it has already been demonstrated by another of its offices, Campus London. Despite the name, which evokes academic seclusion, it is located in an undistinguished postwar office block near “silicon roundabout”, east London’s scraggy but lively tech hub around Old Street tube station. Completed last September, Campus London is a seven-storey tech hub, open to anyone who wants to use it – from web entrepreneurs and programmers to loafers. Google has taken to heart the idea that the web is a little like a city, a place of unpredictability, not necessarily always safe or perfect but a place in which chance encounters can take you to places you weren’t expecting to go – and might quite enjoy.

Unlike its Californian cousins, it is in the centre of the city. Its rough’n’ready interiors were designed by retail specialists Jump Studios and use the slightly tired tropes of industrial aesthetics (containers, plywood furniture) to create a robust, urbane series of social spaces including cafés. More impressive is the way Google has looked to the future in its use of an existing building revitalised, a far more sustainable pattern than the incessant desire to demolish and build anew.

No matter how slickly envisaged some of these companies’ new buildings may be, they are doing nothing to address the problems of consumption that their products create. Those products, whether they exist in physical or in cyberspace, can appear seamless and seductive. Their buildings, however, send a more mixed message. Tech companies default to the local condition. Space-age suburban for California, inner-city gritty for London. Suburban campuses are an easy answer but perhaps London provides the more interesting model. “Good design,” as IBM chief executive Thomas Watson Jr once said, “is good business.”

Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture critic

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