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Building the Future by Silke Bender | 6th December, 2019 | Personalities

It seems that technology isn’t the only arena where Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft are vying for first place. These five tech giants are making bold statements with the designs of their new headquarters – walk-in sculptures housing visions for our future.

Alexa, open the Spheres!” Those were the words spoken by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos when he opened the centerpiece of the company’s extended Seattle headquarters in 2018. “OK, Jeff,” said the digital assistant, and promptly made an LED ring beneath the dome pulsate like a halo. The man issued an order and the virtual woman obeyed. Is that meant to be the future? Whatever the case: The guests laughed – and the boss laughed with them. The Spheres is the name of the three gigantic, futuristic glass globes that now swell up in front of the black, 37-story Amazon Tower like soap bubbles. They contain 40,000 plants, 50 trees, waterfalls, treehouses and suspension bridges – a reminder of the rainforest that gave the online retailer its name. What they don’t have are enclosed offices, conference rooms or ordinary desks. Architecture firm NBBJ has very different ideas: Meetings in a bird’s nest perched around 20 meters above the floor? A surge of ideas under the waterfall? There’s certainly no shortage of space: The largest of the domes is more than 27 meters high and has a diameter of almost 40 meters.

For many years it was the Space Needle – an observation tower from the 1960s – that stood for Seattle’s love affair with the future. But its futuristic Star Trek aesthetic is starting to look its age. Today we picture the future differently: more ecological, more transparent, more human. Nobody knows that better than the Big Five, the digital companies that have turned our everyday lives upside down at the speed of light – and that are now setting out to design their future and ours. The Spheres isn’t the only evidence that the internet giants are eschewing towers. The time for a less phallocratic corporate culture has come. The GAFAM companies (as they’re known by their joint acronym) have turned the world into a global village: It’s the new paradigm of architecture and now goes by the name of campus. And it comes with parks, restaurants, cafés, shops, event spaces, sports facilities and leisure offerings.

The world is turning into a village and the firm is becoming the world.

Google too has opted for a new build that spreads outwards rather than upwards: The Charleston East facility in Mountain View, California, is due for completion any time now. Seen from above, the new campus looks like a cross between a manta ray and an armadillo, with solar panels for scales. Although it’s only two stories high, the tent-like structure’s footprint measures a good 55,000 square meters, the size of almost eight soccer fields. Thanks to the PV modules, the building is on track to produce at least 40% of its energy requirement cleanly. The complex is accessed via a park with pedestrian and bike paths; the parking facilities have been banished underground.

The extension was designed by Denmark’s Bjarke Ingels Group and Britain’s Thomas Heatherwick. In an interview, Heatherwick gave an insight into the new mentality of the GAFAM companies, who are openly competing to come up with the most original construction projects: “They’re interested in ideas. No one wants to look rich. They want to look clever no matter how much money they have. Google wants to be able to hold their head up high next to anyone and say, we spent x dollars per square meter.”

No figures are available for the Google building yet, not even speculative ones, but Apple’s new build in Cupertino is said to have cost more than $5 billion. With a circumference of 1.6 kilometers, the flat, perfectly circular ring (Apple Park) is bigger than the Pentagon and evokes the click wheel of the first iPods. Its floating structure rests on underground base isolators that allow the UFO-like building to move – thereby not just making it earthquake-proof but quite literally turning it into a kind of flying saucer. It’s the last product idea to originate from Apple founder Steve Jobs, who, shortly before his death in 2011, announced plans to build the best office building in the world, with space for 12,000 staff. From the personally selected stone tiles in the two-story yoga center to the fruit trees in the inner courtyard, the building sees itself as Jobs’ legacy. He entrusted Pritzker laureate Lord Norman Foster with its design.

Jobs loved the color white, Asian Zen and technoid coolness – and his Apple Park translates all that into round geometric forms made of glass, wood, stone and steel. The space station from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is said to have served as inspiration. The glass windows are almost 14 meters high and were made in Germany by Seele, a medium-sized company based in the southwestern region of Swabia. Whereas the other four tech giants allow public access at least to parts of their new headquarters, Apple keeps its doors closed. Guided tours of the ring will remain the exception, says CEO Tim Cook, because there’s no other way to protect all the confidential information inside the building. The Apple Park Visitor Center is located outside the campus.

Whereas Facebook is known to be untransparent when it comes to handling its 2.7 billion users’ data, openness is a key feature of the new extension to its headquarters in Menlo Park. Designed by Frank Gehry, MPK 21 (or No. 21, Menlo Park) is a lavishly glazed and sustainable building with 200 trees on its 1.5-hectare rooftop garden. The Town Square, a green space with 12-meter-high redwoods, brings the outdoors into the campus, as does The Bowl, an amphitheater-style courtyard that connects MPK 21 with the older MPK 20 building. Art installations, restaurants and an event space for 2,000 guests add the finishing touches.

“Companies are interested in ideas. They want to look clever no matter how much money they have.” THOMAS HEATHERWICK

At more than 30 years old, Microsoft’s Redmond Campus near Seattle is the oldest of its kind and is starting to show its age. It’s currently being remodeled to make it ecologically sustainable. Twelve old buildings are being demolished, 17 new ones will be added. A consortium of architects that includes NBBJ, the same firm that created the soap bubbles for Amazon, is overseeing the expansion of the complex, where 131 buildings will eventually accommodate up to 55,000 staff. Although the architecture might look rather conventional at first glance, Microsoft nevertheless scores points for having the only campus with a rail connection. From 2023, employees can use the city’s Link light rail system instead of getting stuck in traffic on the clogged freeways.

There’s one thing all the GAFAM new builds have in common: They blur the separation between work and leisure even more. Staff live and work in an almost self-sufficient cosmos with gyms, restaurants, doctors’ offices and dry cleaners. Facebook has already announced plans to build a development called Willow Village, which will provide thousands of affordable apartments next door to the campus. The world is turning into a village and the firm is becoming the world. But while Amazon’s soap bubbles in Seattle may shimmer auspiciously, its dream of building a second HQ in New York fell through. The brave new world of work that Amazon was planning to build in Queens – a huge waterfront campus for 25,000 staff – seemed more like a nightmare to the locals. Prompted by fears of rising rents, even more overcrowded subways and long-time residents being forced out, they protested – and eventually prevailed over the internet giant. Now Amazon’s HQ2 is going to Virginia instead. There’s no stopping the future.

IssueGG Magazine 01/20
City/CountryUnited States of America