The rumors are true: WeWork, the company known for its flexible co-working space, has an agenda far beyond offices.
The company made it official last week by bringing Bjarke Ingels on board as “chief architect”—an executive-level position compensated in equity rather than with a salary. The move confirms conjecture about the strategy of the co-working giant, which has been gradually rolling out a series of new projects over the past few years, including a primary school called WeGrow—which Ingels’ firm is designing—and two rental “co-living” buildings in New York City and the D.C. area.
“The overall idea is really to focus on buildings for now,” Ingels tells RECORD, “then take it to campuses and neighborhoods, then entire cities.” The Danish architect says his new role entails defining the character and nature of such projects. More ground-up construction is on the horizon, but further details are unclear.
As chief architect, Ingels will work with WeWork’s in-house design team to build internal capacity and hire other external architects for company projects—a role he’s relishing already: “To be in a situation where I can actually give commissions to some of the colleagues whose work I admire is very exciting,” he says.
It sounds like an architect’s dream, to work with a singular client that controls most aspects of the project in-house—especially when that client has an eye toward building a global empire. But there’s more to WeWork than a hegemonic dream driven by more than $6 billion of investors’ money. Though Ingels’ new role at WeWork is big news, it’s not a complete shift; good design has been part of WeWork’s mission from the beginning.
The importance of design was the seed that grew into Ingels’ new position and was first planted about a year ago when Ingels, after meeting with WeWork for a commission still under wraps, had a series of conversations with the company’s CEO and co-founder Adam Neumann.
“They were getting increasingly involved in more significant renovations, additions, ground-up buildings, even campuses,” says Ingels. “[Neumann] wanted to have architecture and design play a more essential role in where they were going.” Naturally, Ingels wanted in—and the feeling apparently was mutual.
“We’re a design-first company,” says WeWork’s head of design, Federico Negro, an architect who trained at Parsons’ School of Constructed Environments and the University of Illinois. “Building the best design team we can is central to our core business, so having someone like Bjarke come in and do this just makes sense on all levels.”
It’s a fact that could be missed among headlines speculating about the company’s valuation, its potential IPO, or its CEO’s affinity for tequila. WeWork’s lesser-known co-founder, Miguel McKelvey, is also an architect by training, and the company’s first acquisition back in 2015 was of an architectural and building systems consultancy called Case, which Negro and two others had founded in 2008. Following the deal, Negro and his partners became WeWork employees heading up various groups within the company.
Negro now oversees WeWork’s in-house design team, which numbers about 700 as of press time but is rapidly expanding, and has studios in New York, San Francisco, London, Bangalore, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Buenos Aires. The design team includes muralists, electrical engineers, product designers, interior designers, fire and life safety experts as well as architects.
By 2020, Neumann says the team will be designing “the cities we live in.” A recent economic impact report by the company and HR&A Advisors claims that in New York alone, businesses housed in WeWork offices generate an estimated $16.7 billion, which represents about two percent of the city’s GDP.
“I really see WeWork as a scaling device,” says Ingels, who views the company’s growth trajectory as “almost doing in the physical world what a lot of other technology companies have done in the digital world.”
Ingels will remain at the helm of his firm, Bjarke Ingels Group, which will continue its normal operations for the foreseeable future—though likely with a few more WeWork commissions on the boards, such as the company’s recently-announced new Manhattan headquarters.