Facebook, Apple Embrace Great Architecture; Will Google?

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Several architects noted the irony in the choices. Two technology companies in a business arena considered among the most risk- and youth-oriented in the world have selected mature architects—both over 70, according to published reports—to guide them in their first forays into the international architecture scene. “There is no risk involved here,” said David Meckel, director of research and planning at the California College of the Arts. “These are two super well-known architects with huge bodies of work. I would hope that companies would look to partner with younger, more nimble architects.”

Hearst Tower Cafe by Norman Foster

Still, Meckel praised the departure from Silicon Valley practice, describing it as “historic.” He said: “It is a huge step. Once these campuses get built and people visit them, they will go back to their crappy tilt-ups and wonder ‘What the hell am I doing.’”

“If the difficulty of finding and retaining talent continues, which one logically assumes it would, [the work environment] will be the one thing to get the better coder or engineer because everything else will be the same—the pay and benefits,” he said.

All eyes should turn to Google in coming months. In June 2008, NASA and the Mountain View-based search engine, advertising sales and operating-system company said it would build a 1.1 million square-foot campus on land leased at NASA Ames Research Center. It is also building a 600,000-square-foot to 1 million-square-foot building at the heart of its existing campus in the Shoreline district of Mountain View on land it is leasing from the city.

The company has given some clues into its architectural expectations. In 2008, it said it expected to begin construction on the first phase of its NASA campus by the end of September 2013. The NASA site is separated from Google’s headquarters complex by Stevens Creek and a recreation and commuting bike trail that travels beside it. Google has worked with the city of Mountain View on whether and how to build pedestrian, bike and emergency-vehicle bridges over the stream to connect the two locations.

Not quite a year ago, John Igoe, director of design and construction, told the Northern California Chapter of CoreNet Global that Google would not use the headquarters’ architecture to brand the company: Its guiding lights are employees and promoting and reflecting Google’s core values, including sustainable, healthy living, Igoe said.

If anything the company wanted to improve the community and upgrade the environment, he said. It hoped to better the environmental condition of the sloughs and grasslands near the NASA campus so there would be more wildlife and the area would be a more attractive amenity for its employees.

Of the three companies—Apple, Facebook and Google—Facebook seems the most to need a signature building and to have to gain from it, said Cathy Simon, a design principal at Perkins + Will in San Francisco. With its botched initial stock offering and sagging stock price, the company could use a facelift. (Already!) By picking Gehry, it basks in his considerable glow. “It was a brilliant choice. He fits their gestalt,” she said.

“Facebook taking Frank Gehry has a lot to do with the image of this iconoclast who brings tremendous creativity and invention to everything. I am sure that is how Facebook sees itself,” she said. It also signals Facebook’s desire for a “permanent home.”

For Foster himself, the opportunity to work for Apple is significant. After having dinner with him on Martha’s Vineyard in late July Simon said: “It is a very important project for him, and it is a very special occasion.”

To understand the rising significance of design in corporate Silicon Valley, one need look no farther than federal court in downtown San Jose where a high-stakes court battle about design raged between Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd. and Apple, said Barry Katz, a consulting professor of design at Stanford University and a design professor at California College of the Arts. Similar fights will become more commonplace, he and many others predict.


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