Silicon Valley’s less-than-revolutionary office concepts

Rather than regenerate the areas in which they are based, the tech titans have constructed private fiefdoms
Apple’s new Norman Foster designed headquarters in Cupertino, California © Reuters

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The tech titans of Silicon Valley never seemed to care too much about architecture. Their mythical origins were in suburban garages, their actual offices were in generic business parks. Now all that has changed. Suddenly they appear to have realised that to attract workers they need to create places that feel good to be in and they have hired architecture’s biggest names to see what they can do.

Apple’s new Norman Foster-designed headquarters (with a reported price tag of $5bn) in Cupertino is slowly opening its doors. Facebook hired Frank Gehry, the architect of Bilbao’s Guggenheim museum, to design its new Menlo Park headquarters and Google has commissioned probably the hippest young architect, Bjarke Ingels, alongside Thomas Heatherwick to design its Mountain View offices.

So what does disruption look like when it is applied to the slowest of the arts, architecture? The answer, perhaps surprisingly when you consider the huge piles of cash being spent, is not really that disruptive at all. If there is a change, it is a sign of an acknowledgment that the office might not be enough — what goes on outside might count too.

To understand why, we need to switch our minds back to a moment, not that long ago, when the internet was supposed to mean the end of the office. From now on, went the schtick, everyone would be working from home in their pyjamas. The grind of the daily commute would remain only as an urban myth. The office was over.

It didn’t happen. People, it turns out, quite like to be around other people. Coffee shops appeared as the fabled “third space” and freelancers and coders started lounging around lattes as the enchantment of being able to work anywhere began to be realised. But the office survived. The much-heralded revolution in working turned out to be a collection of childish tropes borrowed from ad agencies — the foosball and ping-pong tables, the breakout spaces and cafés in caravans, the nagging feeling that you were in an adult kindergarten rather than a place of serious thinking. The giants of Silicon Valley have added pretty much nothing to the way we work other than making it possible to be working all the time — in the hotel, in the airport, at home. The effect of the internet was not to make the office redundant but to make everywhere a potential office. Tech’s ultimate impact on office life has not been its end, but its endlessness.

Glass and more glass for Apple © Nigel Young/Foster+Partners

Apple’s Norman Foster-designed office appears to be at the top of the pile for architectural ambition. Its sleek new ring is a remarkable building, but the new Apple HQ appears to be an object as much as it is architecture. Steve Jobs’ last public appearance on June 7 2011 was his pitch to Cupertino city council to build it. “It’s a little like a spaceship landed,” he told the meeting. And it is. There is something of the boyish sci-fi fantasy in this great UFO. There are huge curved glass doors that open the café up to the landscape. “There’s not a straight piece of glass in this building,” said Jobs. There is a passive ventilation system which allows air to trickle in beneath the eaves. The windows do not open, of course, as that would interfere with the smoothness of the curve. This building is, like the iPhone, a closed system. It does not allow adaptation and cannot be extended if the company needs to grow or change. When it is fully populated there will be 12,000 people inside.

There will be 9,000 parking spaces outside. There will also be 9,000 trees. Yet for all its green credentials and its undoubted elegance, Apple’s new HQ is still a suburban business park, a campus in the mould of 1950s corporate planning for a fossil-fuel age.

Industrial influences at Facebook’s Menlo Park head office © Getty

Mark Zuckerberg’s association with his big-name architect, Gehry, has had a rather different outcome. The 88-year-old did something rather different with Menlo Park. It might not sound particularly revolutionary but when Gehry was outlining the designs just before the building was completed in 2015, he said: “Look, this is the largest open-plan office building in the world!” He was clearly enthused. Unlike Apple’s HQ, Gehry’s is a bit of a deliberate mess. “We want our space to feel like a work in progress,” said Zuckerberg at the time. “When you enter our buildings, we want you to feel how much left there is to be done in our mission to connect the world.”

“It is not,” said Gehry emphatically, “a grand design statement. Mark wanted an unassuming, matter-of-fact space. He did not want it over-designed,” Gehry said. “And it was cheap. Under budget and on time.”

If there is a similarity between Apple and Facebook’s new HQs it is their suburban location. But that is about it. Facebook’s offices are a throwback to Gehry’s early Los Angeles architecture, an ad hoc assemblage of the industrial and the mass-produced to make a quirky, unpredictable landscape with colliding, slightly chaotic volumes. This is a super-sized mash-up of the urban loft, the self-consciously youthful advertising studio and the creative mess of an architecture school. Its volumes are continuous and huge but broken up by booths and boxes affording a little privacy. The stairs are spacious and frequent — intended as spaces of serendipitous encounter. At ground level there is parking and, on the roof, a garden.

A tent-like canopy is part of the Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick design for Google’s new Mountain View offices

The HQ Google is planning for itself in Mountain View is something different again. It is a kind of revival of the 1960s ideal of a free space beneath a megastructure roof — allowing flexibility and adaptation as demands change. “It’s space that anyone can actually hack if they want to,” Ingels said earlier this year, “more a workshop than an office, and it could be updated by construction robots.”

These titans of tech have fundamentally altered the way we communicate and consume, the way we work and the way we live. The question is whether, with these buildings, they have done anything that will change the places in which we work? The answer seems to be: no.

The last major change in office culture arrived in the 1950s with the Bürolandschaft (office landscape), a German innovation that was a reaction to the rigid regimentation of Nazism through the creation of a non-hierarchical open-plan interior intended to foster collaboration. Between then and the launch of Facebook not that much has happened. Perhaps there were more rubber plants then, more soft-play areas now, but that is about it. To underline how little has changed, we might also want to consider the spaces where, for instance, many of Apple’s products are made — Foxconn’s factory in Shenzhen, China. Apple may boast of accommodating 12,000 people in one beautiful building but the company that makes its products has perhaps 450,000 workers labouring under a fierce regime in its plant. Similarly, we could look at Amazon’s vast warehouses populated by workers struggling to meet strenuous targets and having to run between the high-stacked shelves to keep up. These are every bit as much the workspaces of the digital economy as the flagship HQs.

Back in Silicon Valley, the biggest change in the wake of these huge projects appears to have been a sudden recognition that the office is not enough. The landscape is as important as the interior. Facebook has hired architects OMA to design a new “village” beside its Menlo Park campus. The renderings show generic parkland but also an attempt at building streets and even housing.

But these token efforts might not suffice. Just as millennials are shunning their parents’ flight to suburbia and returning to live in the cities, the companies that want to attract the best of them are stuck in the suburbs. Today’s youngsters want to be urban. They shun cars in favour of bikes, eschew taxis in favour of Uber. Their relentless search for authenticity keeps them in coffee shops with bare brick walls and naked lightbulbs — city structures stripped back to the bare bones. The dream of a perfect industrial modernism is stuck in an infinite loop (which is also, coincidentally, the address of Apple’s current HQ).

Residents of San Francisco — the magnet all young techies seem to be attracted to — are annoyed by the extra traffic and the property-price inflation. Why, you might ask, are these companies not building in those areas of cities that are desperate for regeneration, using the existing fabric of factories and derelict buildings as a skeleton for their vision? Imagine the boost they could have given to nearby cafés and restaurants if their staff left the office, and walked or cycled to nearby outlets to buy their lunch instead of having free buffets inside. Could the technology giants not build whole new cities rather than isolated corporate campuses? If there is a resentment towards them it is because they do not seem to give back to society. The companies’ transnational nature means they pay their taxes where they are lowest and they feed off cities like San Francisco without feeding anything back in. Health in the workplace is as much about a healthy city as an ergonomic office chair. This includes the spaces to walk to and from work, the parks to run in or eat lunch in, and the other features of public infrastructure of everyday life.

The big new headquarters were the perfect opportunity to show that the technology titans could contribute. They could have built places that were at least in part open to the public rather than private fiefdoms. They could have built streets and squares, the seeds of new cities. So far, that has not happened.

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