The new corporate habitat

Last week I toured Yale University with my high-school-junior son. Two new “residential colleges” — dorms — are under construction. Designed by Robert Stern, they are luxe tributes to the neo-gothic, early-20th-century buildings on campus designed by James Gamble Rogers. They are copies of copies of English copies of medieval architecture! To clear space for the new buildings, Hammond Hall was demolished.

Hammond Hall c. 2009

Hammond Hall was a burly, 100-year-old former metallurgical lab repurposed as an anything-goes sculpture studio. In the late 80’s I spent many late nights in my studio there, cutting, welding, and assembling. I stared with wonder when Yanagi Yukinori’s hand-reconstructed jeep rotated the huge-scale, steel hamster wheel that contained it, and I admired the ambitious early work of Matthew Barney, among other spectacles. Open studio nights were legendary. Now the sculpture studios are housed in a handsome new building with a sophisticated curtain wall facade.

Sculpture Building at Yale

Very impressive — but I can’t see them letting students tear giant holes in the walls to accommodate their work. Can the anarchic spirit of Hammond Hall rekindle in this proper, code-compliant, engineered building? It’s a tall order.

Walking around Yale, I compared it to my memory of Stanford’s stately, extensive campus, which my family visited in February. Both are exclusive properties, of course, but while there are complicated issues we won’t get into here, Yale’s is distinctly urban, both in how the campus fits into the city of New Haven and in the organization of the campus itself, dense with buildings, walkways, streets, and landscapes. (And those complicated issues of how the campus relates to the city are part of what charges the learning experience there.) At Yale, my son was excited by the buildings (new and old) and spectacles at every turn. Even in a short visit, the intrigue and energy of a dense campus built up over many decades was palpable to a 17-year-old. By contrast, our tour of Stanford was in a golf cart.

I thought back on these experiences reading Nikil Saval’s astute piece in the NYT style magazine depicting the forthcoming, fraternal-twin silicone-chip headquarters for Google and Apple. He compares both to futuristic visions from the 60’s, from hippie groups to 2001.

Apple HQ (artist’s rendering)
Google HQ (artist’s rendering)

The contrast between images of the buildings illustrates differences between the ethos of each company: Google looks sprawling, unfinished, like an experiment underway. Apple is a perfect stack of gleaming rings.

Saval remarks that Google is moving from a renovated but old, generic office park, and Facebook is (for now) in an old lab. Finally Internet companies are deploying their disruptive attitude in ground-up building architecture, and Apple is flexing its dominant muscles to build the ultimate mothership. It’s a fascinating moment that for me brings to mind two critical questions: How do we foster creativity, continued experimentalism, and fruitful collaboration in our work spaces? And most important, what do these designs say about the future of urbanism, how we inhabit our increasingly dense cities? Both companies have chosen to locate their headquarters in verdant suburbs, but they are also trying to capture a sort of urban energy in the scale of their creations.

Saval cites Stewart Brand’s early work as exemplary of the connection between counterculture and tech culture. Later, Brand wrote How Buildings Learn, something of an anti-architecture manifesto. He describes Building 20 at MIT, a temporary WWII shed that remained beloved well beyond its intended lifetime precisely because of its lowly construction. It wasn’t too precious to drill, paint, or screw into.

Building 20 at MIT

Brand observes, “Grand, final-solution buildings obsolesce and have to be torn down because they were too overspecified to their original purpose to adapt easily to anything else.” He quotes the famous dictum of Jane Jacobs, “Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must come from old buildings.” This is in part because new buildings are too expensive to afford experiments, which fail more often than they succeed, but also because old, obsolete buildings are versatile—whatever program they once had has long expired. Building 20 is like Hammond Hall, an oversized box capable of holding whatever you want to install. Already divorced from its original purpose, it is up for anything.

Foster’s Apple building in particular is the opposite of Hammond Hall. Not only is it as pristine in its finish as the products to be designed inside, it is round. It can only ever be a hermetic, Platonic object surrounded by space— never modified or expanded. Like an iPhone, it will beautifully serve its purpose until, obsolete, it is dumped for the new model.

Google’s design by BIG and Thomas Heatherwick, perhaps appropriately, is more connective and open, purporting to develop a relationship between workplace and nature, with bike paths, gardens, and habitats weaving through the campus. This is a familiar motif in architecture today, where most forward-thinking building designs feature green roofs, bioswales, sinuous garden paths, and alternative energy. The laudable ideas, however, are still deployed firmly in the context of a suburban office park. While there is no sign of the usual endless parking lots or ribbon-windowed boxes in the renderings (in fact you will barely see a car anywhere in the Google HQ images, although you know everyone will drive or, er, be driven), the buildings sprawl over a wide area.

There is a romantic, alchemical notion here that the fusion of nature and high tech will forge a sort of utopian urbanism. The variety of spaces—indoor and outdoor, athletic and cerebral—will add up to the exciting, heterogenous environment we find in great city centers. Will an engineer and a designer run into each other spontaneously while biking to a garden-stand lunch spot, as I run into friends and colleagues on the cobblestones of Dumbo, Brooklyn?

I connect the university campus experience to these corporate projects because, acknowledged or not, the campus is the model for these massive, heterogenous digital-age companies. They have outgrown first the garage then the repurposed shed then the office-park assemblage to require campuses of their own for departments of research, design, software, testing, marketing, business, etc. In conceiving the campuses, corporations can choose between a recognizably urban, intensive organization featuring density and proximity or a more extensive, suburban organization.

It’s worth observing that interior office design has also taken cues from universities lately. Large, enlightened offices feature lounges, libraries and carrels, classrooms, snack bars, and places to spontaneously hang out everywhere.

Like any thoughtful university, the companies must ask themselves, what environment will lead our employees to be inspired to do their best, most creative and brilliant work, leaving them happy and fulfilled while contributing to our continued growth? At the same time they must say, we know that the world is going to change a lot in unpredictable ways, as will our company. How will our new campus enable us to respond adroitly to change — expansion and contraction, new kinds of work, new forms of energy and infrastructure?

Cities have demonstrated over centuries that their dynamics tolerate change well, if not without serious problems from time to time (think of the blights of the 60s and 70s), and almost exclusively foster cultural development. We also know that the Building 20s of the world promote innovation and experimentation.

In recent years, tech companies like Uber, Amazon, Twitter, Etsy, and the platform I’m using right now, Medium, have chosen to locate in city centers because their employees prefer the stimulation of urban life.

Amazon HQ under construction in Seattle

Conventionally, the tech titans are too big for that and must create their own neighborhoods (although until recently Google’s full-block NYC building was larger than its “Googleplex” in Mountain View).

The architects of Google’s new HQ recognize the pitfalls of this approach — blandness, sameness, and a lack of physical connection to the outside world and thus are manufacturing diversity in the design.

I am fascinated to see if Google can pull it off. It is notoriously difficult to construct an urban environment quickly, without the benefit of the evolutionary process that shapes cities over time. I saw this firsthand designing buildings in Seoul’s Pangyo “Techno-Valley” and Digital Media City, where I watched business districts spring up over the course of a couple of years. It will take more years, however, before these areas become vibrant neighborhoods, if they ever do. However, fittingly, Google is shooting for something higher. They hope to transcend the limits of Building 20 and the hurdles to building your own city. In their efforts, they may discover how to solve our tricky problems of building quickly and adaptably in developing an inspiring, hospitable, diverse environment.

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