Corporate HQs tell us all we need to know about 21st-century culture

Read Sam Jacob, from the September 2013 issue

By Sam Jacob

Facebook campus design model. Courtesy Frank Gehry / Gehry Partners, Los Angeles

Over the last year or so, many of the giant digital corporations have unveiled plans for new headquarters. For Apple, Google, Amazon and Facebook these are a far cry from the dorm rooms, garages and startup spaces that spawned them. They look like nothing less than the palaces of a new technological cabal: Versailles of the twenty-first century, designed not for a Sun King in a powdered wig but twentysomethings in fleeces with a penchant for table football and iced lattes.

Apple is synonymous with the particular kind of sleek high-end product design that helped it rise to become, at one point, the world’s most valuable company. And the new HQ, nicknamed ‘Apple City’ (in Cupertino, where Apple has been since the late 1970s), seems part of that ethos. Designed by Foster + Partners, the building arranges 260,000sqm of office space into a metal and glass doughnut. It sits on a massive plot planted as a forest. The building forms a ring around a huge circular interior courtyard, also partially forested, according to the architect’s renders at least. In these scenarios, Apple workers stroll in endless autumn sunlight through a landscape that is part science-fiction metallic gleam and part abundant nature. If, in Versailles, the palace and its garden are organised to present the visitor with an extreme expression of omnipotence and divine rule, Apple City and the other new HQS might also reveal something of the ideology of West Coast digital culture.

For Apple, the giant zerolike plan creates a building that has fewer hierarchical qualities than a block with a top and a bottom. Its continuous circular form, without a beginning and end, seems to encapsulate something of the strange flat spatial organisation of digital information. But while this suggests a kind of equivalence, if not equality, across its plan, as with much of digital culture, apparent freedoms also contain their own controls. We can also see echoes of less liberating scenarios: arrangements of the Pentagon, Britain’s GCHQ and the Panopticon.

It’s worth remembering too that Apple was named by Steve Jobs as a reminder of his experiences at All One Farm, an apple orchard-cum-hippy commune shrouded, apocryphally, in Eastern mysticism and LSD. Perhaps there is something of this baby-boom fantasy recalled in Apple City’s vision of nature.

Google’s new California campus is designed by the firm NBBJ, whose corporate mantra reads, ‘Design lifts the spirit, unleashes human potential and transforms our world.’ Its architecture is far less striking than Foster’s Apple City, appropriately for a company whose own design culture is far less sophisticated (Google’s multicoloured logo originates from its founder’s dabblings with the free graphics program Gimp). But these generic architectural blocks have been twisted and bent by the stuff that Google knows best: data about human behaviour. Deformations generated by the working patterns of the employees who will occupy it, adjacencies of departments and so on mean that workers across the 102,000sqm development will never be more than two-and- a-half minutes from one another – creating a kind of hyperlinked organisation.

In Menlo Park, Facebook has employed the doyen of West Coast architecture, Frank Gehry, to design its new headquarters. Like Apple City, it uses an image from the natural realm, one that Facebook ceo Mark Zuckerberg described thus: ‘From the outside it will appear as if you’re looking at a hill in nature.’ Inside it will be the largest open office space in the world. Perhaps only minds immersed in Californian digital culture can conceive of these two apparent opposites merged into a literal bureau-landscape.

But it is Amazon’s new Seattle HQ that provides the most full-blown example of the digital obsession with techno-nature. It includes three 6,040sqm biodomes. Each glazed dome is conceived, according to the promotional literature, as ‘a plant-rich environment that has many positive qualities that are not often found in a typical office setting’. Amazon – named, after all, for an environment – seems to be becoming a habitat in its own right.

A corporate mantra: design lifts the spirit, unleashes human potential and transforms our world!

In each of these examples we see echoes of the hippy, pastoral techno-utopias of the 1960s, blended with management theory and marketeering. These are ideologies made of glass and grass, where office and orchard become indistinguishable from one another. They promise liberation from the tyrannies of traditional offices. At the same time, though, there’s the terrifying idea that nature itself might have become an office, thanks to the always-on connectivity of digital technology. An apple orchard was once a place for Steve Jobs to go, drop out and tune in. Now, perhaps it’s only another place to log on.

This article was first published in the September 2013 issue.