Apple and Google: The 21st Century Mega Office as Starship Destroyer

In Cupertino itself the new Apple headquarters has been design by Fosters and in London the new Google complex is also being proposed. Both projects remind me that architectural modernism is still with us; but, maybe it has just been beefed up a bit with innovation and technology. Both projects seem to be 21st Century version’s of the West Office Building at John Deere World Headquarters in Illinois. Both the Deere Building and these projects are designed around a landscaped arena. Both epitomise a campus model of  urban design. Like the Deere building both attempt to make a productive working environment. Both are testaments in symbolic form to the success of corporate America.

I like the American comedy the Internship starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughan. These two buddies are sales hacks who need a job because the company they worked for has gone out of business. They manage to gain an “internship” at the so called Googleplex and then wreak havoc amongst the young software engineers. The Googleplex is depicted as a kind of sandpit or playroom for very smart well educated people.  Perhaps these companies can afford to build these mega buildings because they are not paying any tax. 

The proposed Google complex in London with its “climbing wall, indoor football pitch and a rooftop swimming pool” comes complete with an Eames, oh-so-designer, aesthetic (apologies to fans of the Eames). These buildings seem to propose a new kind of managerialism which allows employees the prospect of doing what they like. After all if you have spent your life studying software engineering and you go to Google or Apple straight after completing that PhD at Stanford you are probably going to want to have a bit of fun after years of studying algorithms. The London project stretches 300 metres along a new street, carved out between King’s Cross and St Pancras stations and as described in the Guardian “the new HQ will stand like a vast ocean liner run aground.” Like all good ocean liners or motherships this building is designed around a public promenade that lo0ps through the building. Of course there is nothing about the building’s facade or exterior that is in any sense ironic or hints at a self awareness. All the functional and playful programmatic gadgetry is internal and what we see on the outside is a pretty standard office facade (now apparently being reworked).

In contrast the new Apple complex designed by Foster is huge and its plan form is circular and it said to be one mile across. It is said to be 2.8 million-square-foot area and will house 13,000 employees.  It reminds me of the a 21st century version of the Italian city Palmanova. Palmanova was a defensive city built by the Venetians to protect the lagoon’s  hinterland from attack. Like Palmanova, the Apple complex is defensive in the sense it encircles and protects a central landscape. This internal landscape has been designed to recreate and evoke the landscapes of California. The Apple complex is decorative at a global scale. Like Palmanova, the Apple complex would quite likely be seen from space. A enormous circular wedding band adorning the Californian earth. We are all married to Apple now. Every inch of it has been designed and prototyped just like an Apple product. There will probably be a lot of burnished stainless steel. With its 300,000 square feet of research labs and almost seamless glazed walls, on both the interior and exterior it is, like Palmanova both a defensive and a counter attacking headquarters. A kind of starship, or mothership, for the Apple empire.

It is argued that its circular form will enable Apple employees to work more effectively because they are not subect to “rectangles or squares or long buildings or buildings with more than four stories” all of which according to Apple “would inhibit collaboration.” This naivety may disguise any real effort to create, what i would call, diverse teams or foster creative research and disruption in-house.

The building as an ocean liner has a long lineage in the history of Modern architecture and this trope seems to haunt these complexes. But now this iconic trope has been updated by technology and the virtual world. The corporate headquarters is now both mothership and starship destroyer. Both of these these proposals are 21st Century Ocean liners with their simulated internal landscapes, promenades, roof decks and campus like entertainment facilities. They are not unlike the SS Patris II which set sail with all the worlds most notable avante-garde architects across the Mediterranean from Marseilles on July the 29th 1933. The Patris II was the mothership for CIAM 4 the world’s congress of modernist architects. The debates and discussions that followed this voyage resulted in the formation of the Athens Charter: ‘the defining text of CIAM urbanism.’ Like the ocean going  liner, which was integral to the founding myths of modernist architecture, these buildings are integral to the myths of corporate capitalism in our time.

Motherships and starship destroyers now abound in popular culture and certainly both appear to be be gendered constructs. A kind of return to the protective womb in the case of the mothership and the maleness of empire and violence of colonisation in the case of the starship destroyer. I wonder if these buildings do contain really open organisational systems which foster innovation. Like the idealised and glamourous star architects that grace our newsfeeds these buildings are idealised tropes and are a great distance away from the low-fi technologies that provide the real engines of growth for the global cities.  These mega offices are quite different to the grungy data centres, Chinese productions lines or the sweat shops in the informal cities of the south. These buildings represent the points at which capital is aggregated, captured and then redirected to inhabitants of the kingdom of Richistan.

Call me utopian but I would like to see Google employ more Vince and Owen types and I would like to see the Apple complex constructed from all the bits and pieces of an IT landfill. Now that would be disruptive innovation.








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