With the recent announcement of the Googleplex proposal, the prediction from writer Dave Eggers, in his 2013 book, The Circle—that a web-centered megacorporation would launch a world takeover from a utopia campus in Sillicon Valley—seems closer to becoming a reality. The design, by the unlikely team of BIG form maker Bjarke Ingels and category-busting conceptual designer Thomas Heatherwick is breathtaking in both its vision and its deliberate vagueness. It proposes to bring all of Google’s local activities (having spawned rambling outposts all over the world) under a big tent, where flexible structures will prevent either the Googlers from ever being caught in Dilbertland or the company from being stuck with purpose-built structures as they continue to evolve towards a driverless future in every medium and mode of communication.
The proposed Googleplex is the anti-Apple Omega, designed by Norman Foster, Hon. FAIA. That headquarters, which you can now see in its nascent perfection from airplanes flying overhead (as I did last week flying northward from LAX) or on your screen from periodic amateur drone surveillances, promises to be the perfect office building, the ohm and ode to the minimalist tradition, corporate subdivision.
In between the extremes of shambolic biosphere and perfect form lies the Facebook campus, a condensation of the Valley’s sprawl aestheticized by Frank Gehry, FAIA, into something that looks cool, works well, and reflects Facebook’s ability to surf on existing social structures and technologies to create today’s alternative to family, state, community, and all other forms of human cohesion, all hiding under a roof that is not just green, but forested.
Together, these three projects represent the spearhead of virtual urbanity’s attack on traditional notions of how to give shape to the built environment. Between extreme order so minimal it disappears and extreme disorder that tends to equal dissolution there will be little room for form-making of the monumental sort that ties us to place and history through clear and three-dimensional imagery while trying to constrict and construct the future. If this is going to be the way we live and work (and, for these companies, there is little difference between those two modes; in The Circle, there is none), then architecture will have to lose habits based on age-old principles of endurance and framing, let alone languages built on the syntax of traditional building materials.
And yet these are still essentially corporate campuses that bring people together to idealized suburban settings to perform tasks. They are also translations of part of the vast caches of cash these three companies have built up into physical form–sunk investments that make real the size, character, and sheer reality of entities built on unreal activities.
Which brings me to a note of caution: It used to be a rule that the moment a Silicon Valley company went from making due with either rented space or buying existing buildings, and created its own signature headquarters, it was time to sell the stock. One of the most obvious examples was Silicon Graphics, which went from working in lofts to larger warehouses to purpose-built add-ons, almost all designed by Charles Dilworth, FAIA, then at Studios Architecture, before the SGI enlisted Dilworth to create its own campus, a marvel of dancing blocks and open structures grouped around a landscaped commons. They promptly went belly-up in Dilworth’s masterpiece, and that campus is now the Googleplex that ambitious company is outgrowing.
So then the next question is the age-old one for all monuments to vanity and utopian ambitions: Which structure—the Apple circle, the Facebook warehouse, or the Google circus—will make the better ruin?