Architecture, unlike other aspects of culture (such as fashion or music), can only really be experienced and understood in person. For highly branded companies, designing a new building can be a prime opportunity to signal taste and values - but also creates an interesting architectural conundrum. While the buildings will be inhabited (nearly 24/7) by company employees, they’re also very much populated by the imaginations of people across the globe. What is it like to be in these places?
This question is so compelling that it was essentially the plot device of the 2013 film, The Internship. Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson starred as two ‘loser’ guys so desperate to reclaim the coolness of their youth that they take internships at Google. While their hapless attempts to fit into a world they know nothing about makes the movie fun, it also does a lot of heavy lifting on the company’s behalf. Working isn’t cool... unless you do it at Google. The Google offices have swimming pools and barber shops, and all the food is gourmet and free. You could even take your conference call from a ball pit. Who wouldn’t want to work there?
It’s one thing to see this popular image presented in movies, but companies increasingly seem to be using architecture as a way to brand and signal their particular flavor of cool. And yet, you wouldn’t necessarily know this from the street.
Driving around Silicon Valley can be a disorienting experience. For all the creativity and innovation centered in the region, it’s nearly impossible to deduce this when you’re actually there. The landscape is suburban, punctuated more by strip malls and office parks than by the ‘town squares’ or ‘spaceships’ or you might expect to see.
Big-name (and occasionally BIG name) architects have, in the past few years, attached to tech campus projects in calculated alliances. Apple and Foster + Partners are both behemoths known for their sleek and uncompromising works; Facebook, BIG, and Frank Gehry all cultivate an image as rebellious underdogs, even though this is far from the truth.
That corporate offices are now the focus of this kind of branding is fairly obvious. After all, the companies say to the press, innovation can only happen when the space makes it happen. But can these highly-branded spaces actually provide for the needs of the users?
At Apple, results are mixed at best. The new campus is seductive in images: glitzy sheets of glass seem to appear to hover (just like an Apple laptop), every surface is polished to perfection. But employees have complained of indecipherable circulation, unpleasant working spaces, and long distances. For locals, the campus is even less generous (despite being a major presence): you’re welcome only up to a threshold. None of this comes as a surprise. In a review of tech campus designs published in Vanity Fair back in 2014, Paul Goldberger mused:
“…it remains to be seen whether this wave of ambitious new construction will give the tech industry the same kind of impact on the built environment that it has had on almost every other aspect of modern life - or even whether these new projects will take Silicon Valley itself out of the realm of the conventional suburban landscape. One might hope that buildings and neighborhoods where the future is being shaped might reflect a similar sense of innovation.”
What Goldberger seemed to get at, even if he didn't quite say it, is that these branded spaces don’t seem to be actual buildings. They’re products.
The press surrounding Bloomberg HQ’s recent Stirling Prize win make this even more clear, with keywords such as 'achievement' and 'most sustainable' cropping up throughout the award citations. "Bloomberg is an astounding commitment to quality architecture.” said jury chair Sir David Adjaye in his jury statement. RIBA president Ben Derbyshire similarly hailed the project as 'monumental achievement', saying: "The creativity and tenacity of Foster + Partners and the patronage of Bloomberg have not just raised the bar for office design and city planning, but smashed the ceiling."
The building may be a colossal achievment, but it has an equally outsized presence to those actually on the street. The much-lauded public passage is gloomy, the public plazas overly-groomed. This experience is echoed inside: “…[it] is an extremely deep-plan, inward-looking office environment, where glimpses of the outside world are secondary to views back in to Bloomberg’s hubbub of ‘collaboration and teamwork,’” said Olly Wainwright in his review of the complex for The Guardian. “You often feel very far away from a window, a sense exacerbated by the great bronze baffles that further block the view.”
The Bloomberg HQ is just one among many of these types of buildings that have recently seemed to gain more praise for their appearance by the statistics and on our screens than on the street. And this gap between the architecture’s remote experience (how it is photographed and advertised) and their actual presence points us to whom the design is actually intended: the remote viewers.
This should be a concern. When structures become a commodity for remote viewers rather than an engaged participant in the urban fabric, the essence of architecture is lost. And if companies continue to use architecture as an outsized branding strategy, its worth paying attention to who they’re selling to. Can design retain its worth for the general public when presented as a value proposition? Probably not.