The Billion Dollar Palaces of Google, Facebook, & Apple

We know by now that the internet is a giant playpen, a landscape of toys, distractions and instant gratification, of chirps and squeaks and bright, shiny things – plus, to be sure, ugly, horrid beasties lurking in all the softness – apparently without horizon. Graphics – rounded corners, lower case, Google’s primary colours, Twitter’s birdie, Facebook’s shades of blue – enhance the innocence and infantilism. It is a world, as Jonathan Franzen once said, “so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self”. Until we chance on the bars of the playpen and find that there are places we can’t go and that it is in the gift of the grown-ups on the other side to set or move the limits to our freedom.

We’re talking here of virtual space. But those grown-ups, the tech giants, Apple, Facebook, Google and the rest, are also in the business of building physical billion-dollar enclaves for their thousands of employees. Here too they create calibrated lands of fun, wherein staff offer their lives, body and soul, day and night, in return for gyms, Olympic-sized swimming pools, climbing walls, basketball courts, running tracks and hiking trails, indoor football pitches, massage rooms and hanging gardens, performance venues, amiable art and lovable graphics. They have been doing this for a while – what is changing is the sheer scale and extravagance of these places.

For the tech giants are now in the same position as great powers in the past – the bankers of the Italian Renaissance, the skyscraper-builders of the 20th century, the Emperor Augustus, Victorian railway companies – whereby, whether they want to or not, their size and wealth find expression in spectacular architecture. As Deyan Sudjic, formerly of this parish and now director of the Design Museum, wrote in his book The Edifice Complex, the execution of architecture “has always been at the discretion of those with their hands on the levers of power”. Having as much sense of their own importance as those previous powers, tech companies probably don’t mind commissioning structures that define their time.

A clue to their ambitions lies in their choice of architects, who are at the very to extremely famous end of the professional spectrum. They have, plainly, colossal resources, with the ability to do almost anything they like. They can have new materials invented, or make old ones perform as never before. They can build the biggest and most expensive workplaces yet seen. They can change cities. They have already redefined “architecture” in the sense that the word can now refer to the structures of software and hardware. Now the old-fashioned version of architecture finds itself an adjunct of the new sort. One sign of the shifted balance of power is the fact that Apple, having commissioned the mighty Foster and Partners to design its new HQ, chose not to name them even after they had unveiled the plans. The project is still not on the Foster website. The Apple brand had to come first.

Most though not all of these new structures are in the gathering of towns, suburbs and small cities that goes by the name of Silicon Valley. There is the Foster project, Apple Park in Cupertino, 2.8m sq ft in size and reportedly costing $5bn, at its centre a mile in circumference, visible from space, a metal and glass circle that is now nearly complete. There are the planned Google headquarters in Mountain View and London by the high-ego, high-reputation pairing of Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick. Facebook has hired the New York office of OMA, the practice founded by Rem Koolhaas, to add to the Frank Gehry-designed complex in Menlo Park that was completed in 2015.

The one that commands most attention, and has done since the designs were unveiled in 2011, is the Apple/Foster circle, built on a site vacated by the waning empire of Hewlett Packard, which as it happens was the company that gave the teenage Steve Jobs his first break. According to Wired magazine, the building preoccupied Jobs in his last months, and he would spend his precious time on five- or six-hour meetings on its design. In June 2011, visibly ailing, he appeared in person in front of a starstruck Cupertino city council, with members of the audience snapping him with what now look like Jurassic cameras, to convince them of its merits. He didn’t have to try too hard.

“We’ve had some great architects to work with,” he said, “some of the best in the world I think, and we’ve come up with a design that puts 12,000 people in one building.” The audience gasped. He’d seen “office parks with lots of buildings” but they “get boring pretty fast”. So he proposed, introducing a metaphor that has since stuck to the design like dust to a MacBook screen, something “a little like a spaceship landed” with a “gorgeous courtyard in the middle”. “It’s a circle and so it’s curved all the way round,” he said, which “as you know if you build things is not the cheapest way to build something. There’s not a straight piece of glass on this building.” At the same time the height would never exceed four storeys – “we want the whole place human-scale”. There would be 6,000 trees on the 150-acre site, selected with the help of a “senior arborist from Stanford who’s very good with indigenous trees around this area”.

When a council member said that “the word spectacular is an understatement”, Jobs didn’t demur. “I think we do have a shot at building the best office building in the world,” he said. “I really do think that architecture students will come here to see this, I think it could be that good.” He batted away mild requests for a few perks for the neighbourhood – free wifi, opening an Apple store, mitigating the increase in traffic – and in the nicest possible way reminded everyone that “we’re the largest taxpayer in Cupertino, so we’d like to continue to stay here and pay taxes.” If the city asked for too much, in other words, Apple would decamp to a rival municipality.

The mayor waved an iPad 2 (which also looks Jurassic now) and said how much his daughter loved it. “Your technologies really make everybody proud,” said another council member. “Well thanks,” said Jobs, “we’re proud to be in Cupertino too.” “Thanks,” she gurgled back, like a giddy teenager. In due course the project was approved.

Jobs was in fact understating the circle’s exceptionalness. Recently Steven Levy, a journalist for Wired, was let through Apple’s PR palisades to look inside the nearly-finished building. He described a high-precision Xanadu, a feel-good Spectre base, on which Lord Foster and his team were assisted by Apple’s famed chief design officer – also, as it happens, British-born – Sir Jonathan Ive. After a drive down a pristine 755-foot long tunnel, clad in specially designed and patented tiles, he discovered a world of whiteness, greenery and silver, with a 100,000 sq ft fitness centre and a cafe that can serve 4,000 at once, with the 1,000-seat Steve Jobs theatre, surmounted by a 165ft-wide glass cylinder, for Apple’s famous product launches, and with a landscape designed to emulate a national park.

It is a place where trees have been transplanted from the Mojave desert, where the aluminium door-handles have been through multiple prototypes to achieve their perfect form, where the stairs use fire-control systems borrowed from yachts, where the extensive glass has been specially treated to achieve exactly the desired level of transparency and whiteness, where even a new kind of pizza box that stops the contents going soggy has been invented and patented for the company cafe. The doorways have perfectly flat thresholds because, according to a construction manager reported by Reuters, “if engineers had to adjust their gait when entering the building, they risked distraction from their work”.

In life Jobs was ferocious about the detail; since his death his followers have striven to be true to his spirit. He specified how the timber wall-linings should be cut and at what time of year, to minimise its sap content. There is a yoga room, reports Levy, that is “covered in stone, from just the right quarry in Kansas, that’s been carefully distressed, like a pair of jeans, to make it look like the stone at Jobs’s favourite hotel in Yosemite”. There are the sliding glass doors to the cafe, four storeys or 85 feet high, each weighing 440,000 lbs – nearly 200 tonnes –, that open and close with the help of near-noiseless underground mechanisms. Apple Park uses the largest, heaviest single pieces of glass ever installed on a building, with the added complication of being curved.

It is certainly a wonder of our age, though to what end is an open question. Jonathan Ive told Wired that the main aims were the connection and collaboration it would allow between employees. For Foster it is “a beautiful object descended on this verdant, luxurious landscape … a true utopian vision”. One of its aims is to inspire future Apple workers with its perfection and attention to detail, to set a standard for them to follow in their work. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, called it a “100-year decision”.

Ever since the design was unveiled, however, it has provoked scepticism. The architecture critic of the LA Times called it a “retrograde cocoon”, “doggedly old-fashioned”. As a perfect and excluding piece of modernist geometry, set within lush planting and dependent on large amounts of car parking, it looks oddly like a corporate HQ of the 1950s or 60s, something that IBM or Bell Labs might have built, which you would have thought is exactly the look Apple wouldn’t want. And a circle is a frozen form, hard to modify or augment. At any given point, the relationship to the rest is much the same as at any other point, which seems to work against Ive’s hopes for communication and spontaneity. It is the shape of infinity and eternity, of mausoleums and temples.

Many of the greatest inventions in modern technology have been made in rough and ready, easy-to-adapt spaces – in the garages, front rooms and borrowed office desks where Apple, Google and others were hatched and in Building 20, the big wooden shed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where major advances were made in linguistics, nuclear science, acoustics and computing, to name but a few. And while it’s impossible for a company the size of Apple to recreate that exact spirit in its workplace, the big circle does look over-determined and too complete, as well as expensive and slow to build. Foster’s “beauty” and “utopia” may not make the best environment for fast-moving invention. As for Cook’s 100-year ambition, this seems strange and hubristic – as the decline of Hewlett Packard shows, there is little reason to think that any tech company can last that long, in which case the Apple circle will, like the crumbling art deco skyscrapers of Detroit, be magnificently redundant.

There is another line of criticism, which is that those awed and tax-hungry members of Cupertino city council didn’t push hard enough for the help that their community needs. If the presence of Apple is mostly an immense boon for them it also brings pressure on housing and transport, creating traffic jams and long commutes and pushing the median price of a home in Cupertino to nearly $2m. The design writer Allison Arieff recently argued in the New York Times that the project shows a “blatant disregard not only for the citizens of Cupertino but also for the functionality of the region”. It should, she says, have made more effort to connect to public transport and the city should try harder to address the housing need that Apple’s presence generates.

It doesn’t often pay to bet against Apple’s judgment, and there may be intelligence in the project that is not visible in the available information. The company’s wealth and power may in any case be enough to counteract any unhelpfulness in its architecture, but Apple Park looks like the sort of splendid monument that empires build for themselves – Lutyens’s buildings for the British Raj in Delhi, the skyscrapers that went up on the cusp of the Wall Street crash – after they have passed their supremacy. It may also be governed by excessive if understandable respect for Jobs. It is a place imbued with his biography and his dreams. They call it “Steve’s gift”. It had better not be Steve’s millstone.

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Source: The Guardian