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More flexible means less

Will Wiles

Corporate campuses are not what they’d have you believe

The corporate campus started life as a preparation for war. All the boskiness and radiant modern architecture masks the fact that they began as a vital component in an elaborate weapons system. The grass, trees and glass and steel aren’t even a disguise but the way the system works. Lakes and shady lawns at one end; craters and wastelands of ash at the other.

Among the first corporate campuses were those designed in the 1950s to house southern California’s defence contractors. These were the companies building munitions for Cold War America, but while they had the lucrative contracts they still needed to attract the best minds. In ‘Spaces for the Space Age’, Stuart W Leslie, a professor of science and technology at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, shows how this desire to lure the brightest employees to California shaped the corporate campus archetype. American architects William Pereira and Charles Luckman designed landscaped low-rise office complexes that showed off the sunny climate, and synthesised the West Coast modernist houses of Richard Neutra and others. The corporate headquarters intermarried with suburb and university.

Skip forward 60 years and we have a new generation of Californian corporate campuses on a scale that make the birthplace of the Atlas missile look like the home of a family firm producing heritage jam: homes for the 21st century’s information technology giants. Norman Foster’s new headquarters for Apple, under construction in Cupertino, does bear a strong resemblance to the ring-shaped General Atomics building. But the purest expressions of the form are the new headquarters for Facebook and Google: the nerve centres of the networked world. Part of these companies’ mystique is their well-rewarded staff surrounded by toys and comforts to see them through the long, long day administering what is essentially a global bureaucracy of unprecedented size and complexity. The best and brightest are already working there, or want to.

One gigantic office floor: open, transparent, flexible. Once you’re inside.

So what do the palaces of this new elite say about their priorities? The same message recurs: flexibility. Facebook’s Frank Gehry-designed expansion to its Menlo Park complex is the world’s largest open-plan office. ‘We want our space to feel like a work in progress’, said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, reported by Dezeen, taking the trademark Silicon Valley tone of sinister optimism. ‘When you enter our buildings, we want you to feel how much there is left to be done in our mission to connect the world.’ One gigantic office floor: open, transparent, flexible. Once you’re inside.

Google’s plans for a new headquarters at Mountain View, however, make Menlo Park look as modern and flexible as a Glasgow tenement. The campus, designed by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, has a Frei Otto-like canopy strung over demountable structures that can be reconfigured by robot cranes. It’s a plug-in fantasy worthy of Archigram or Kisho Kurakawa. Again the watchword is flexibility, keeping options open.

Buildings can help, or at least not hinder, a company’s evolution, but they cannot necessarily determine it. A flexible building does not guarantee a flexible company. The Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Lloyd’s Building in London were both designed to have flexible internal layouts, and over the years they have fossilised. Flexibility may be a desirable virtue, but it is more a wish than a plan – what Facebook and Google hope for. And in that you can see the fear that must creep across corporations blessed with that kind of phenomenal growth, that astonishing rush to omnipotence: the creaking, the nagging stiffness in the joints, the sense of not being quite as nimble as they once were. It’s the clearest possible sign that the companies entrusted with building the future have no idea what that future may be.

Hi, I’m Barry from accounts
Another feature of the open-plan, flexible office is its alleged ability to generate accidental meetings and chance encounters between colleagues, which in turn lead to more creativity, new ideas, innovative collaborations and so on. It’s a theory used to justify all sort of programmatic elements such as single entrance lobbies and shared recreational facilities, and the kind of charming bit of low-cost blue-sky unorthodoxy that clients might enjoy hearing. But is there any actual evidence that it works?