Google doesn’t have a reputation for doing things on a small scale. When they wanted to create a better way to access information, they transformed the way we view knowledge. When some people were making maps, Google captured the world. When they wanted to figure out how to turn a profit on the internet…well, their shareholders would agree that Google did a pretty decent job of that. Now Google wants to build a new headquarters and is attempting to redefine what that means.
The new Google HQ plans for Mountain View were unveiled this week and they’re breathtaking. There is going to be community backlash and there are people who think the company might have too much power over community planning, which is fine. After all, the great power and promise of the internet, mobile tech, and the information revolution is that everyone can be a reporter or an activist. Debate is a good thing.
The struggle over Google is a reflection of Google’s mission. In the same way, the building that Google has planned is a reflection of what makes them Google. (Apple is also building an HQ, but it is, well…round.) It’s a reflection of the best of mobile tech and its values could point the way toward a new architecture that matches our dizzying technology.
The Reimagining of Space
It seems weird to say that Google has reimagined space. After all, the internet is hardly a physical space. Still, Google, along with their Silicon Valley brethren, took the idea of cyberspace – a weird, ethereal network – and made it something for everyone. They gave it form even before the hardware brought it into our homes and, eventually, our pockets. Now they’re doing the same thing with the new HQ – they’re taking the land and repurposing it with an eye on sustainability and regeneration of natural water systems.
When the Bay Area suburbs really started booming in the 50s, it was the peak of the car era. Nature was something to be shoved aside for speed. Google plans to recover the river systems that once existed (see video below) and the make the space what it once was. This isn’t really recidivism. It is taking an old paradigm – the idea new buildings have to pave over what was under them – and replacing it with the idea that new buildings can be created in tandem with their surroundings. This isn’t completely new to Google, but few private companies have attempted it on this scale.
The Introduction of Openness and Accessibility
Being open and accessible is the beating heart of the mobile revolution. For whatever downsides there are, the ultimate promise is an equal playing field. That is observed far more in the breach than in practice, and there are obstacles, but in theory, anyone can access any information and use it how they see fit. In your purse is the equivalent of a thousand libraries. In the same way, the new Google headquarters promises to provide open spaces for the public. The new lands it is creating, especially the new/old rivers, are going to be accessible for anyone. (No, yu don’t have to pass one of those irritating Google quizzes for people much smarter than I am in order to have a picnic.)
An Eye on Innovation
This is where the campus is really special. Google is planning to use state-of-the-art technology to create, essentially, a “living greenhouse” for its main HQ. This clear building will allow air and light and warmth to come in, making things not just more pleasant, but far more energy-efficient. This isn’t purely altruistic, of course – see cost-savings and shareholders above – but so what? One of the other lessons we learn from some mobile tech and information companies is that doing good doesn’t mean not doing well.
There’s no doubt that the driving innovative and capitalistic spirit that has powered Silicon Valley has changed our world, for good and ill. It’s fascinating to see that applied to physical spaces. Architecture is certainly one of the world’s older professions. Despite that, it has always kept up with the times, shifting with our cultural philosophies. It has embraced technology to change itself. Now, it seems, technology is embracing architecture.