It was set to be a totem of the tech economy. Earlier this year, Google revealed its £650m plans for a new UK headquarters; situated in London’s King’s Cross, this 1 million sq ft low-rise “groundscraper” promised to be longer than the Shard is tall, with space for 5,000 employees.
But three weeks ago came the announcement that the design had been scrapped and AHMM Architects were starting all over again. Why the volte-face? A source close to the project told one newspaper that the firm wanted to make an even bigger impression – or rather “challenge [itself] to do something even better for Google, King’s Cross and for the local community”. As it stands, the building can’t open until at least 2017, much to the ire of local restaurateurs who were salivating over the imminent arrival of so many well-remunerated workers.
The episode reveals the scale of the new drive by the internet giants to assert themselves in the non-virtual world. Hitherto, that hasn’t been a priority for them. “The offices of most major internet companies have [so far] been a let-down,” agrees design critic Alexandra Lange, author of The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism, a survey of tech company HQs. “They [have been] more interested in their internal relations than the cities they’re located in.”
But whether those ambitions translate into anything aesthetically interesting is another matter. Google is currently tenanted in Renzo Piano’s Central St Giles development, which is as lurid – with its exteriors bedecked in red, yellow, orange and green ceramic tiles – as it is ungainly. But that shelved HQ blueprint wasn’t much better. A forgettable glass box notable only for bonkers gimmicks such as a rooftop running track, it looked as bland as boiled potatoes, a symbol of the hard cash raked in from advertising rather than of transformative social change.
Certainly a trip to the tech economy’s epicentre, California’s Silicon Valley, hardly inspires confidence. Visiting the area earlier this year, I saw a giant thumbs up billboard outside the entrance of the Facebook HQ in Menlo Park – but who would click “like” in appreciation of this building? Acquired from the now-defunct Sun Microsystems, it’s just a boring brick officeplex, always photographed inside, incidentally, because the outside is so dull. It says nothing about how Facebook has transformed the way the world shares kitten gifs. Why not a huge grumpy cat on top? Equally Apple’s current HQ, in nearby Cupertino, is a shinily nondescript complex which looks, weirdly, like Milton Keynes Central Station. And then there’s the original Googleplex, bought from visual effects company Silicon Graphics in 2006, where the “campus” is more like a giant play school, sloshed in primary colours and including infantile gestures such as sandpits.
It’s not surprising, then, that as they grow up along with their hoodie-wearing executives, these companies are belatedly dreaming of swankier premises. Mark Zuckerberg is evidently a fan of the “bashed-in sardine can” look: he’s hired Frank Gehry to design a new home for Facebook in northern California – set to be the largest open-plan office in the world – as well as interiors for Facebook’s satellite bases in New York, Dublin and London.
Elsewhere, Google has commissioned the 1.1 million sq ft “Bay View” campus of nine buildings next to the Googleplex, its first to be built from scratch and featuring, like Gehry’s Facebook plans, a plant-covered green roof. Meanwhile Apple has hired Foster + Partners to build perhaps the most dramatic HQ of all: a £5bn “doughnut”, housing 13,000 workers, further images of which were disseminated this month. But, striking shape aside, the design, as with Google’s and Facebook’s campuses, is still an inward-looking one, geared to patterns of workflow and employee integration. “[The] curved glass facade is actually a way of saying ‘we don’t need a facade at all, just connected workers’,” as Lange says.
Indeed, the central conceit of Foster’s building could be seen as an unwitting symbol of the digital economy: there’s a huge hole in the middle. Google’s main product is a box with a flashing cursor. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and Pinterest have grown rich because we all upload our photos, links, thoughts and feelings, gratis. There’s an emptiness to digital culture. The written codes that make tech work are mere strings of characters. This new world seems so fleeting. Is that why tech buildings seem to slip away from you as stare at them?
Contrast the vacuousness of 21st-century new media architecture with the explosiveness and determination of old media architecture. Newspapers, and their buildings, had something to say. Think of John Madin’s sleek 1964 Birmingham Post & Mail building, Sir Owen Williams’s deliciously futuristic 1930s trio of Daily Express buildings in Manchester, Glasgow and Fleet Street, and John Mead Howells and Raymond Hood’s imperious 1930 New York Daily News building; all were designed to suggest the forward-thinking work of the organs they housed. Tech buildings don’t talk like this: they serve their users rather than imposing a viewpoint.
In which case, perhaps the tech giants should ditch the high-profile architects. There is something pleasingly democratic – and on-brand – about the startups clustered in lofts around San Francisco’s South Park and east London’s Silicon Roundabout; they’re not boastful and neither are their buildings. And ultimately all these companies want is to render the physical environment subordinate to the virtual one. Which makes you wonder: why – and for how long – will they need offices at all?
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