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Culture / Feb 2019

Trend: Temples to Technology

We look at the mega-campuses that are shrines to the success of some of the world’s most powerful technology companies.

Anyone who has read Dave Eggers dystopian The Circle (or seen its 2017 film adaptation starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson) cannot regard Apple Inc’s Apple Park headquarterswithout reference this story of “the most influential company in the world” and it’s omnipresent and insidious march to “complete the circle”.  Reportedly costing $5 billion and taking over 5 years to build, its circular design and extreme scale have earned a media nickname of “the spaceship”. Located on 175 acres in Cupertino, California, and designed by British architecture firm Foster+Partners, the colossal circular structure surrounds a large outdoor park containing two miles of walking and running paths for employees, an orchard, meadow and man-made lake.

Inside the pristine glass and steel structure, which is more than a mile in circumference, it houses more than 12,000 employees in a four-storied circular building of approximately 260,000 square meters.  Open-plan layout used in much of the building.  Most employees situated around large tables instead of separated into individual offices in a bid to promote collaboration.  One of the most important additions to the Park is the Steve Jobs Theater,  His wish was that the whole campus looked less like an office park and more like a nature refuge.  Today eighty percent of the site consists of green space planted with over 7,000 drought-resistant trees and indigenous plants to realise his vision.

Facebook’s new Menlo Park campus has taken the open concept office and supersized it.  Officially the largest open floor plan in the world, the 430,000-plus square foot building holds about 2,900 employees.  The goal was to “create the perfect engineering spacefor our teams to work together,” according to CEO Mark Zuckerberg.  “There are lots of small spaces where people can work together, and it’s easy for people to move around and collaborate with anyone here.” Designed by Gehry Partners, architect Frank Gehry said Zuckerberg wanted a space that was “unassuming, matter-of-fact and cost effective.”

The building is based on a “main street” spine off which sprout office ‘neighbourhoods” designed to reflect the social networking company’s culture and its stated mission of bringing communities together.  Despite its gargantuan size, it is more utilitarian than indulgent, and features a rooftop of park lands, gardens and native Californian redwood trees.  This landscaping is brought down to the core of the office level in “town square” configurations so workers can look out to pockets of nature.  As such, the interior is light and airy, with open workspaces to foster collaboration between teams, as well as quiet areas for focused work. Across the length of the building you traverse five unique dining options, 15 commissioned art installations commissioned, and a 2,000-person event and meeting space where Mark Zuckerberg intends to hold weekly question-and-answer sessions.

Although not a new structure, Google’s “Googleplex,” headquarters in Mountain View, California is the ultimate Disneyland-meets-Silicon Valley mashup.  Multi-coloured bicycles and fleets of Google electric cars zip around the precinct and whimsical art such as the famous life-size Tyrannosaurs Rex skeleton, quirky stone busts of celebrities and scientists, and jumbo cartoon figures depicting each version of the Android operating system.  The primary colour palette continues the spirit of play and whimsy that the company is known for.  And yes, there are plenty of slides for when taking the stairs or elevator is just too serious.  Undergoing two major upgrades since Google first moved in in 2003, the sprawling university-style working campus has ballooned from 2 million to 3 million square feet of office space that now houses for 20,000 of its almost 90,000 global employees. And the tech giant shows no sign of stopping, witha further 8 million square feet of office space– housing another 20,000 workers, slated for the adjacent San Jose area.

For the interiors, Google worked with South African architect and interior designer Clive Wilkinson who was instrumental in moving the company away from “humiliating, disenfranchising and isolating”cubicles. Concessions to private offices and meeting spaces are made by using indoor-outdoor design and lightweight moveable structures such as “demountable igloos” and sound-absorbent glass “tents” that can grow and change with the company.  This supports a flexible working style, but also allow for continual modification and expansion as the company and its facilities expand.

Samsung has also cemented its presence in Silicon Valley with a $300 million campus specifically designed to stimulate officecollaboration.  In stark contrast to its traditionally hierarchical culture, the site’s open design features vast outdoor areas sandwiched between layers of the 10-story towerto lure workers into public spaces and enable those “impromptu, spur-of-the-moment interactions that are the genesis of many great ideas.” Says Scott Birnbaum, a vice president of Samsung Semiconductor.  Designed by NBBJ, the 1.1 million square-foot building is located on the same corner in San Jose’s tech corridor where Samsung’s original campus was first built more than 30 years ago, The building is currently home to about 700 Samsung employees, but can accommodate as many as 2,000.

Whilst the exterior is looks like a giant white Rubik’s cube, the interior is made up of overlaying glass rings reminiscent of a velodrome and overlooks the sweeping central lawns and gardens.  Looking outwards are unimpeded views of the mountains that frame Silicon Valley.  Inside, open floor design reigns supreme, allowing natural light from both sides and maintaining the collaborative style preferred by technology companies.  The building is LEED Platinum Certified, and features a large solar farm.  Onsite facilities include a full-service café, a fitness center, basketball and tennis courts, and a recreation and relaxation area. 

Amazon occupies almost 10 million square feet of office space in Seattle, however, unlike the campus-style headquarters mentioned above, for most of its 24 years, the world’s largest internet companyhas preferred to keep a low profile.  Its $4 billion office portfolio has been inconspicuously spread over a dozen freestanding buildings and integrated with the neighbourhood, alongside small public gathering spaces and amenities Amazon provides.  Without a clearly defined demarcation, founder Jeff Besos wanted to create a heart or spiritual soul of the precinct, an architecturally ambitious focal point where Amazon employees could gather.  The result is an amazing three interlocked glass-and-steel geodesic domes known as The Spheres, designed by architecture firm NBBJ.  The largest sphere, in the center, is four stories tall and has 3,000 m2of space.

The dome are filled with over 40,000 ordinary and exotic plants – which is also about as many people as the employs in Seattle.  Inside is a vertical living wall—one of the largest in the world— stretching 90 feet high and holding 3,000 plants. The centrepiece tree is “Rubi,” a 49-year-old fig tree planted in 1969 at a California farm and trucked to Seattle.

Although the Amazonian rainforest feel is captivating, the Spheres are primarily a workspace. Banks of tables, secluded meeting nooks and benches strewn throughout the complex can seat up to 800 people.  The space is meant for internal use by Amazon employees, for meetings, impromptu gatherings, solo work, or contemplative breaks. Breaking away from the emphasis on collaborative working, Amazon envisions the building as a change of pace for its workers, a place to “feel differently, to think differently”.