Ian Burrell: Google hopes to wow us with a new HQ – but it will take more than that

Media Studies

There are many museum buildings that attempt to recreate how we lived in the past but Google will this week try to show how we will live in the future. Google House, which is being established in a property in London’s media district of Fitzrovia, north of Oxford Street, will give an insight into how gadgetry and gizmos (including Google Glass spectacles and the Chromecast video streaming dongle) might impact on the living rooms and kitchens of the next few years. It’s a 2020 vision, you might say.

But when we think of the future and Google, we should be looking not to a house in Fitzrovia but to a £1bn development behind the capital’s King’s Cross railway station, where the company is creating what will be one of the modern landmarks of the British media.

When it opens in 2016, it will be a physical symbol that the online age is upon us – the first real statement building by an internet company in the UK and the sort of thing we used to associate with big publishers. One thinks of the Art Deco Daily Express building in Fleet Street or the towering old Daily Mirror offices at Holborn Circus (now demolished).

The Google UK headquarters, which will range from seven to 11 storeys, is being designed by architects Allford Hall Monaghan Morris, which created the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea. It promises to be both state of the art and sustainable. The cost of the project is comparable with the BBC’s Broadcasting House redevelopment. The offices will enable Google to double its UK workforce, which currently stands at about 2,000.

Until now the company’s presence in the UK has been largely restricted to what we see on our personal computers and mobile devices. Its old headquarters in London’s Victoria was almost invisible and its current site near Covent Garden is shared with other companies.

Google’s profile in the UK has been deeply affected by its decision in 2008 to move its European headquarters to Ireland in order to minimise its tax bill. When we think of its relationship with the UK now, it tends to be in terms of tax avoidance. Last year, the company paid only £11.6m on UK revenues of £506m.

But the King’s Cross expansion may help with that. A positive article in Property Week, describing the deal as “one of the greatest in UK property history”, noted that the Treasury would be pleased by the prospect of new tax contributions from a beefed-up Google workforce of around 4,500 on good salaries. New jobs are expected to be created in a range of disciplines, including engineering, sales and marketing, legal services, public relations and human resources. There will also be an enhanced version of the YouTube Creator Club that gives specialist film-makers the space and facilities to work on their video channels.

Although the new building will be positioned above a range of shops, cafés and restaurants, the 1,000,000sq-ft King’s Cross site is big enough to bring something of the campus feel that we associate with Google’s global HQ at Mountain View in Silicon Valley, California.

Anyone who visits the “Googleplex” site, as I did last year, is struck by the deliberate attempts at every turn to reinforce a corporate culture (albeit one that embraces a neo-hippy value system). It’s an extraordinary place. Alongside the labs and special pods for power napping, there are model spaceships, dinosaur sculptures and beach volleyball courts. It’s somewhere between an elite academic institution and a kids’ adventure playground, where Googlers can go downstairs on a metal slide and travel between buildings on communal bicycles painted in the company’s primary colour scheme. No decision has been taken on whether these bikes will start showing up around King’s Cross.

The once notorious inner-city neighbourhood, famed as a magnet for hard drug users and the long-term homeless, is enjoying a renaissance. The Google project is part of a much wider development which will rebrand the neighbourhood as the capital’s “Knowledge Quarter”. That scheme is due to launch early next year and will group the UK Googleplex with the nearby British Library, Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design, Francis Crick Institute for medical research and Guardian Media Group.

The cluster of research, science, cultural, media and academic institutions is intended to be a hub for more such organisations, bringing “investment, innovation and regeneration”, I am told. Google is a valuable addition to that mix – but the internet giant will also benefit from being in an environment of British expertise. Let’s hope it pays its way.

Desmond’s ‘Star’ is letting the side down

According to an increasingly popular narrative, the chilling atmosphere of the post-Leveson climate has caused a crisis of confidence in the red tops: they have lost their je ne sais quoi, claim some tabloid veterans.

But there are no such inhibitions at Richard Desmond’s Daily Star, which has lately embraced an editorial style that makes the National Enquirer seem like a paper of record. “Killer spider lived in my head” was Friday’s nonsensical front-page splash story about a Sussex sculptor who felt an arachnid go into his ear and then up his nostril, before he sneezed it into the sink.

More seriously for a paper that contributed to the 100-plus defamatory articles which led to Express Newspapers paying £550,000 in damages to the parents of Madeleine McCann, the Star’s recent coverage of the search for the missing schoolgirl has been hysterical. “‘Maddie’ found in Greece” (its splash headline for 19 October) was followed by “‘Maddie’ found in Ireland” (front-page lead for 23 October), as false hopes were spread in the knowledge that they would deliver a circulation boost.

“Maddie’s snatcher killed by a tractor” was its emphatic front-page headline last Thursday, reporting Portuguese media claims that the McCann family described as “pure speculation”. As the press tries to convince the public that it can be trusted to behave responsibly without the need for meddling by politicians, the rest of the industry can’t be impressed.

If Yahoo! users thought that was Boris...

Poor Prince Charles. Branded “The Forgotten Prince” in a recent profile by Time magazine, he has been omitted from the publicity shot for a new animation series about the Royal Family – and substituted with Stephen Fry.

The six-part Yes Ma’am is a British comedy commission for Yahoo! The internet giant’s previous venture into UK comedy was Boris Johnson’s Alternative Guide to London, starring the outlandish impersonator Marek Larwood. Disturbingly, many Yahoo! users thought he actually was Boris.

Yes Ma’am is based on the spoof @Queen_UK Twitter account, which has more than a million followers but is about as funny as one of Prince Harry’s fancy-dress outfits. Harry appears as a bare-chested warrior. I’m not  sure why Fry is there.  But a highlight will  be Kate Robbins  voicing the Queen,  as she once did  on the 1980s  TV satire Spitting  Image. Yes  Ma’am  starts on 15  November.

Twitter: @iburrell

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