The World's Most Spectacular Offices
The Week Middle East|August 05, 2017

From California to London, the tech giants are employing top architects to build spectacular symbols of their immense global power. But these edifices have their critics, says Rowan Moore

We know by now that the internet is a giant playpen, a landscape of toys, distractions and instant gratification – plus, to be sure, ugly, horrid beasties lurking in all the softness – apparently without horizon. 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 the limits to our freedom. We’re talking here of virtual space. But those grown-ups, the tech giants, are also in the business of building physical billiondollar 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 pools, climbing walls, basketball courts, hiking trails, massage rooms and hanging gardens, performance venues, amiable art and lovable graphics. They’ve been doing this for a while – what is changing is the 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, Victorian railway companies – whereby their size and wealth find expression in spectacular architecture.

The tech tycoons have colossal resources. 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. Most, though not all, of their new structures are in the gathering of towns, suburbs and small cities that goes by the name of Silicon Valley. There is Apple Park in Cupertino, the new Apple HQ designed by the mighty Foster and Partners: 2.8 million 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 its Frank Gehry-designed complex in Menlo Park, 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, the firm that gave the teenage Steve Jobs his first break. According to Wired magazine, the building preoccupied Jobs in his last months. In June 2011, visibly ailing, he appeared in person in front of a star-struck Cupertino City Council, 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, “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 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.” The height would not 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”.

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