Announcements this year that two of the largest, most (in)famous technology companies of a generation, Facebook and Apple, are building new headquarters is a chance to get a snapshot of the current role of architecture in creating bricks-and-mortar brands for high-tech digital companies fanatically concerned about their image, as well as to understand what it means now to create a “campus.” Unfortunately, on all accounts, this snapshot is a dismal revelation of how irrelevant architecture has become, how urbanism fails to enter into any present-day architectural consideration, and how the proud and storied history in America of creating campuses through hierarchical scales of interconnected buildings and landscapes, is finally extinct and merely rhetorical. Perhaps most disturbing is the absolute neglect, to the point of aggressive dismissal, of any concern for the neighborhood and surrounding city. Since it could be argued it is not a corporation’s responsibility to create value for anything other than itself, perhaps a better way of restating this rejection of urban context is that these companies are unable to see any value in an open, urban campus to the function of their company or the welfare of their employees. Nor do they see any value in contributing to their home city through the creation of a strategically placed headquarters that would have a positive catalytic effect on the area. (I remember similar arguments when the Getty chose their castle-on-a-hill site over a more urban site like the former Ambassador Hotel property in Mid-Wilshire.)
Both new headquarters are insulated, isolated, inward-looking fortresses. Both projects accept the recent trend of mistaking big buildings for urbanism, and of single massive spaces with fragmented floor plans for campuses. No matter how many bean-bagged ‘informal’ areas or ‘cafes’ are scattered throughout Facebook’s hyper-inflated space, it is not a campus, not a mixed-use place, but designed to seal off any intrusion from the outside world, or even the outside environment. Allison Arieff touches on this in her NY Times Opinionator blog, stating that in contrast to the simulated urbanism of the new isolated Facebook headquarters (which for some reason she calls New Urban-ish), Silicon Valley employees’ “most meaningful encounters occur not at work but while waiting on city streets for the now-ubiquitous corporate shuttles from San Francisco that take them south to Silicon Valley.”
Gehry’s scheme, from the few model photos recently released, creates the pretense of messy urbanism by playfully slicing and dicing a giant “warehouse”, and gratuitously altering the perimeter shape and materials to make the singular and monumental appear fragmented and contiguous. There of course is nothing wrong with doing this, and it is an architectural strategy employed through the ages (including by Gehry himself elegantly in the eighties). Yet what is hypocritical is the building’s pretense to be something that Facebook clearly doesn’t really want: an actual campus. Facebook itself, in the little it has released publicly about this project, alternates between calling the building a campus and a warehouse. Yet the two are opposite; one being a collection of buildings distributed strategically in a large space, and the other a large space enclosed in a single building. Now there are certainly interesting and provocative ways to explore a breakdown in this opposition, and what a 21st-century campus might be, but this, unfortunately, is not one of them. The idea of ‘landscape,’ one of the most important, central, and occupiable elements of a campus (whether academic or corporate) has in Gehry’s proposal been relegated to the roof as well as a careless perimeter buffer from the surrounding city.
Facebook’s claims of creating a sustainable and contextual campus ring hollow on all accounts- and the building compensates by rhetorically communicating these false premises. The slicing and dicing and massing fragmentation are merely signs representing “messy and variable urban conditions”. Similarly, the roof garden I suspect is merely a sign of “sustainability;” any true sustainability, especially in terms of ventilation and daylighting, are virtually impossible to obtain in such a massive, deep, continuous single floor-plate building.
Apple’s headquarters, despite similar urban deficiencies as Facebook’s building, at least represents exactly what I imagine Apple must thinks of itself. There doesn’t seem to be any architectural hypocrisy here. The building (and company) exude a powerful, insular, technologically advanced, secretive, almost oracular aura.
It is no surprise that Apple’s headquarters resembles the ultra-secretive GCHQ headquarters in Britain, or a smoothed-out Pentagon in Washington. Still, a campus it is not. It is a massive, isolated building, geometrically so pure that is is hard to understand how this “campus” can evolve and grow; it lacks the inherent flexibility of a typical campus. It’s as if the company is freezing itself in time, in some present-perfect state, fortifying itself against not just the city, but the inevitable future forces of corporate and market transformation.
And change, transformation, and evolution are what cities and campuses can accommodate best. Ultimately a campus, and a city, or any place for that matter, is not a singular ‘project,’ but a collection of buildings and spaces. Facebook and Apple can’t be faulted for attempting to control their massive undertakings as a single conceptually unified ‘project’, but it points to the current lack of value today of seeing one’s project as part of a larger fabric of making a place, and the intellectually lazy method of creating urbanism by simply creating hyper-inflated buildings. This is project-based urbanism, contained and wrapped up in a neat package, with clear boundaries and fortified envelopes. Both headquarters in their own way indicate the current fascination with controlled monolithic entities (corporate and architectural) over the often messy, subtle, complex, and heterogeneous places that may exist outside their secure perimeters.