The New Google Campus

Seminal Project for a New Era of Architecture

Google has revealed its new campus plan for Mountain View, and on first glance, it appears stunning. The masterful use of materials, innovation with form and program, and interaction with the landscape will define the Eco-Tech movement and set the bar for all who follow.

Up to this point, the technology sector generally defined itself with frequent repurposing of old office parks and urban lofts. Innovation moves quickly, and in the South Bay, poorly lit and cubicle laden offices stood as the only available options. More recently, companies flocked to San Francisco to enjoy the renovated lofts and unique spaces available outside of downtown. Ultimately, these environments create a disconnect that fails to embody the pioneering spirit of companies that are setting the tone for the 21st century.

While Apple, Amazon, and Facebook lead the charge with their new campuses, Google will define the built environment for tech.

 

Use of Materials

This theme is embodied by the transparent membrane that serves as the canopy for the structures. In design, concepts that solve for two issues are advantageous, but creating solutions that respond to three or more dilemmas are often profound. The skin of these buildings has the potential to be profound.

Obviously, allowing for natural light to fill the workspace is a benefit all can appreciate. Studies show that employees with workstations adjacent to daylight are more productive and have fewer sick days each year. Additionally, building projects can earn LEED points for appropriate minimum distances to exterior glazing.

A legitimate concern would be overly proliferating natural light throughout the space. Architects Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick have allowed for control of the amount of light passing through the membrane with responsive shading built into the system.

Since connection to nature is one of the major themes of this project, a critical point is to allow for those inside the buildings to be aware of the setting and not feel completely removed from the natural surroundings. Rather than have a strong, impenetrable building envelope, the exterior skin affords the experience of nature from inside the structure.

While perhaps a bit abstract, the buildings also provide an analogy of openness, something that the technology sector in Silicon Valley desperately needs. With locals’ perception of tech companies being ivory towers constantly disrupting their way of life, the transparency of these buildings can provide a platform for Google to lead the charge in shifting public relations with communities throughout the Bay Area.

 

Innovation with Form and Program

Avoiding stagnant workspaces and configurations is a constant concern for companies throughout the tech sector.  In moving away from cubicle farms and toward the open plan, companies are searching for variety, reconfigurability, and connectedness. What is most impressive about the design put forward by Ingles and Heatherwick is that they are taking these concepts and applying them to the building as a whole.

With a company as large as Google, reconfigurations of seating arrangements are a constant issue. As projects open and close, employees and entire teams are often moved from floor to floor or even building to building. Once these moves are completed, people may find that tools such as huddle rooms, dedicated team rooms, or even phone booths and white boards may not be as readily available. The ability to reconfigure layouts and physical space almost as fluidly as the people themselves has the potential to be the greatest legacy of this project.

  Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 project for the World’s Fair in 1967.

Moshe Safdie’s Habitat 67 project for the World’s Fair in 1967.

Aesthetically, the forms under the transparent canopy are reminiscent of early open office designs from the 1960's with views to other teams and areas of the building through the central atriums. Additionally, there is a striking similarity to Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67, but with the added dynamic of reconfigurability that greatly enhances the usability.

 

Interaction with the Landscape

“When you visit the Google campus, there’s lots of trees. But there’s this constant major undermining of that by the road system and the infrastructure required for all of those cars. It just feels like trees are street furniture.”
— Thomas Heatherwick

 

The connection to the landscape goes beyond merely blurring the lines between exterior and interior. While being mindful of ecologically sensitive areas, the design team aims to shelter certain habitats within the building. This goes so far beyond the sterile and aggressively contrived green spaces in so many corporate interiors. Google is not merely providing a synthetic experience of nature, but actually fusing the built environment with the local ecosystem.

In addition to these features, the project will focus on what have become the standard initiatives in most green projects of today. While innovations surrounding less energy consumption and diminished potable water use have become typical fare, there are some key features of the project which highlight the company's dedication to the environment. As an industry leader in sustainability, the level of dedication shown by reintroducing waterways that once connected to the bay continues that important legacy. 

Ultimately, this project will be a point of contention due to its magnitude. Critics may focus on the form and ignore the function. Environmentalists will be critical of Google’s greenwashing of the project. What is certain is that it has the appropriate amount of risk embedded in its core to be a project that revolutionizes how people interact with the built environment, experience space, and connect to the areas around them.

 

“We have a duty to reflect in the physical environment the values that have been manifested in the innovations that have come out from this part of California. A humanistic spirit is something that feels really important to embody in what we have built. So that’s shared between all of us and is exciting and driving us and will be, in its way, a revolution.”
— Thomas Heatherwick
John FerriganComment