In their designs for Google's new headquarters, released last week amid much excitement, Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick have taken cues from the utopian visions of the past to create a radical solution for the sprawling tech campus in Mountain View, California. Citing the lack of identifiable architecture in the technology sector, a promotional video on Google’s own blog reveals how the company plans to embrace nature, community, and flexibility with the new scheme.
Chief among the company’s concerns was creating a building capable of adapting to future uses in addition to serving as a neighborhood-enhancing environment to welcome visitors from the surrounding community. As with any news related to Google, the design has already attracted the attention of the media - read on after the break for our rundown of the most salient reviews so far.
“What likely sealed the deal for Heatherwick and Ingels was something different: an appeal to Google's conscience.”
Writing for the Los Angeles Times, Christopher Hawthorne begins with a psychological narrative to interpret Google’s corporate motives behind the design:
“The Heatherwick-Ingels design is meant, above all, to send a restorative message. It aims, in no particular order, to: hide the scars inflicted by car culture; bring nature and (small-scale) agriculture back to the Silicon Valley landscape; sit lightly in a drought-stricken region on a warming planet; undo the mistakes and loosen the rigidity of modernist office-park architecture; and in very clear terms reject the privatized, exclusive posture of the new Apple headquarters now under construction in nearby Cupertino.”
He highlights the notion that Google is attempting to repair their friendly image that has been marred in recent years by attempting to transform the physical landscape and some of its most critical issues. On the dream of creating a garden paradise beneath a glass ceiling, Hawthorne says:
“The symbolism of this approach is utopian but in many cases tinged with anxiety about environmental catastrophe. In the hands of Heatherwick and Ingels, it is ambitious enough to seek to repair the damage of suburban sprawl while rebalancing the relationship between architecture and nature.”
Echoed by many other critics, Hawthorne goes on to describe how the design represents a ”charismatic sort of Arcadian retro-futurism.” By creating a serene and pastoral atmosphere open to the public, Hawthorne sees Google’s design as a direct response to Apple’s new campus design by Norman Foster which “has been heavily criticized for closing itself off from the public realm.” This idea is further reinforced with a quote from Ingels stating that the Google campus "can't be a fortress that shuts away nature, that shuts away the neighbors.”
“The designs for Google‘s huge new Mountain View HQ look oddly like a vision of the future from somewhere in the past.”
Edwin Heathcote of the Financial Times is unimpressed by Google’s attempts at creating a utopian vision of lush greenery and transparency and once again classifies the design as “retro-futurism.” Citing precedents such as the 1851 Crystal Palace, Buckminster Fuller’s proposal for putting Manhattan under a glass geodesic dome, and Archigram’s Plug-in City, Heathcote makes sure to emphasize the supposed unoriginality of the concept and even compares it to a “Truman Show-style nightmare” that is “fading to dystopia.”
He continues to suggest that the campus may not be as open to the public as it claims to be, calling it a “hubristic and overtly suburban vision of corporate life.” Criticizing what he believes Google fails to do, Heathcote is straightforward:
“Google has the opportunity, the power and the money to build an entire city and anchor a new vision of urbanity — but instead it has retreated into a predictable, perhaps even slightly sinister vision of a private world enclosed under glass."
“A Silicon Valley Truman Show, entirely calibrated and controlled by Google’s optimisation analytics. What could possibly go wrong?”
Writing for The Guardian, Oliver Wainwright takes a milder approach to the building’s form but questions how well the supposed design features would actually work:
“It’s a charming idea, and Heatherwick has a track record of making exquisite and ingenious things at the smaller scale, but countless are the buildings whose experimental responsive sun-shading systems have gone wrong. From Jean Nouvel’s mechanical lenses at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, which ended up singeing holes in the carpet, to the mechanical blinds in Foster’s London City Hall and Sanaa’s Novartis campus, both of which malfunctioned soon after opening and have plagued their occupants ever since. Still, if anyone can make responsive tech work, you would hope Google can.”
Revealing why Google is suddenly so conscious of creating a space for the public, Wainwright says:
“The other key tenet of the whole plan is to make the campus more than just for Google employees alone. The company has come under fire from local residents for generating vast amounts of traffic, jacking up property prices and giving little back in return. There’s no sales tax on Google’s search or advertising businesses and no tax on the free meals that Google gives to employees either.”
Overall he is particularly skeptical of the feasibility of such an enormous glass roof and the responsive technological features inside, and yet again makes an allusion to the monitored dystopian vision of The Truman Show.
“There’s an inherent flexibility in the organic configurations in the Google form that doesn’t exist in the severe geometry of the Apple form.”
For Fast Company, Mike Wilson interviews the architect behind the original Googleplex, Clive Wilkinson, for his thoughts on the new headquarters. Taking a very positive view, “Wilkinson sees the new Google campus as a milestone in reusable, flexible architecture—something that can be literally reshaped to create collaborative environments as Google's teams and projects evolve.”
Wilkinson appears convinced by the inherent novelty of such a future-minded proposal, but also questions the engineering realities behind many essential features:
“They have a massive tech challenge with making a roof like that. For one thing, you still need to modulate the amount of sunlight that comes in. Almost everyone is working on a screen. Most screens under a lot of sunlight are hard to read, meaning working outside has mostly been a fantasy.
"The roof has to be light-sensitive, and temperate, vis-a-vis heat build up of the sun, and heat loss is an issue also. Bringing nature in, like trees into a building, hasn't been easy either. That’s a challenge this roof will have to adapt to. How do you get the right sunlight within the building so nature thrives and doesn’t wither?”
Wilkinson is most skeptical about the proposed flexibility of the project through reconfigurable interior elements, but understands the merit of this ultimate free plan beneath a tent:
“I think the reality is, from the point of view of practical engineering, it doesn't make sense to make things movable on a large scale. But, to make them adaptable with minimal impact in terms of sustainability is very valuable….
"That’s the beauty of the tent, if you have stacks of power, plumbing, air, and data [in the tent on a permanent grid that you can attach to], everything inside could be considered furniture. I’m thinking that’s really where the idea is going to go. You can change bits of the building.”
Wilkinson concludes with a comparative criticism of the new Apple campus to praise the organic form of the tent and assert:
“That goal of sustainability is about building things that are manageable over time. That you don’t have to blow them up because they aren't working anymore is a really positive change.”