Since it was founded in 1998, Google has hardly been a pioneer in office architecture. But, last March, the company submitted a proposal to the city of Mountain View, California, that radically reimagines the concept of the suburban office park. The extraordinarily innovative 2.5 million-square-foot project, designed by a team led by Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) and the Heatherwick Studio of London is composed of four immense, translucent tentlike buildings'a far cry from the many spec office buildings Google currently owns and occupies in Mountain View. Since 2004, its main headquarters, known as the Googleplex, has been in a corporate office park originally designed by STUDIOS Architecture (a member of the BIG/Heatherwick team) for Silicon Graphics and completed in 2000, then refitted by Clive Wilkinson.
Unfortunately, the city of Mountain View has only approved 500,000 square feet of the BIG/Heatherwick plans, one fifth of the proposal. While the architectural team continues to work on the design'perhaps to take it to another site, though no one is commenting'it's worth studying the original, to see how Google has come up with an entirely new idea for the office of the future. The hugely ambitious design breaks open the hermetic office park, dramatically lowers energy use, and invents demountable structural components that could vastly simplify future renovations or retrofitting.
These innovations could transform architecture.
For the four buildings, Google proposed to demolish more than a dozen of the aging spec structures the company is occupying and to replace acres of surface parking with extensive landscaping, public space, and a restored waterway. With city incentives to reduce commuting by single-occupancy vehicles, 4,700 bike-parking slots'but only 2,500 parking spaces for cars'would serve the entire complex (that's one third the car space Apple is providing at its new headquarters in Cupertino, for a similar head count of around 10,000 employees). A public 'green loop' would link these parcels, via bike lanes and walkways, with several other Google sites in Mountain View, including the Googleplex, which would remain.
Supported by a cable-net grid, the tentlike structures rise on widely spaced columns, well outside and above the stacked floors of workspace, which permit a finely tuned exterior for daylighting'as well as natural ventilation and solar-heat control'while allowing unprecedented layout flexibility. Between the tent and workspaces, the generous ground-level perimeter would be largely dedicated to sun-drenched gardens and shared services.
The tent membrane is proposed as a lightweight system, with two layers separated by an insulating airspace about 5 feet deep. The insulating-glass outer membrane integrates PV panels and roof vents to exhaust hot air or smoke in case of fire. Within the cavity, leaflike shades wrap pipes that hold the layers apart. They would deploy umbrella-like elements to control shade and light diffusion. Glass, ETFE, or a composite material could form the interior layer.
But most radical is the workspace structure. The plans call for up to eight stories using a modular column, beam, and floor-tray system that the designers think of as akin to furniture'with components easily added or removed. If such floor-space flexibility can be affordably manufactured, it could open enormous possibilities for transcending the current limitations of corporate real estate'reducing the disruptions of renovation and the expense of unused space.
The system's building block is a 45-by-15-foot metal tray, deep enough to accommodate plenums, ducts, ceiling sprinklers, and data cables. The trays bolt together to form 45-foot-square floor modules that attach to columns. Users could pull up magnetized wood floor panels to reconfigure utilities. The idea is to use replicable utility layouts as much as possible and bring the trays on-site with utilities pre-installed to minimize on-site labor. The plans show widely varying configurations, from loose stacks of modules to dense rows, suggesting just how flexible the system could be. Daylight reaches almost every square foot via atria, light chimneys, and crevices.
The giant tent structures, rising above suburban greenery, may be a riff on Buckminster Fuller's utopian bubbles and owe a debt to Frei Otto. But the commitment to the deep exploration of design and technology by BIG and Heatherwick suggests that Google now sees dramatically reimagined physical facilities as essential to its ongoing competitiveness. The question is just how'and where'the company will turn such visions into pragmatic reality.
James S. Russell is an architecture critic and author of The Agile City: Building Well-being and Wealth in an Era of Climate Change.