This past year, many of the best known technology firms were actively designing and building new corporate offices. It's the first time Silicon Valley giants like Apple, Google and Facebook have done so from the ground up. The same is true for Amazon, which is building in Seattle.
All of these projects are still in their early stages, but perhaps the most talked about and architecturally ambitious project that broke ground this year is the Apple headquarters building in Cupertino, Calif. It was a project near and dear to the late Steve Jobs.
"It's a pretty amazing building — let me show it to you. It looks a little like a spaceship landed, but there it is," the late Apple CEO said in 2011, when he unveiled the drawings at a local city council meeting. "It's got this gorgeous courtyard in the middle, but a lot more. It's a circle, and so its curved all the way around. As you know, if you build things, this is not the cheapest way to build something. There's not a straight piece of glass in this building."
The four-story doughnut's walls of glass curves stretch around the building for nearly a mile. The price tag: several billion dollars.
David Gissen, an architect and architectural historian at the California College of the Arts, says the building fits Apple's product design.
"That building is so fascinating," he says. "The purity of that design — it invokes or recalls the types of products that Apple releases. It's seamless, it's beautiful."
But others suggest that its vast scale might not be user-friendly. Employees, who are slated to move in in 2016, might have quite a hike to meet colleagues in another part of the building. In contrast, plans for the new Google facility in Mountain View, Calif., which is still being designed, call for no one to be more than a two-and-a-half minute walk from anyone else.
The architectural firm NBBJ is designing Google's new headquarters, as well as those for Samsung North America in San Jose, Calif., and Amazon in Seattle.
"What they are asking for is a building that reflects an identity and a personality," says NBBJ consultant Naomi Stanford. "They want the space to reflect their organizational values."
Historically, Stanford says, companies often viewed buildings as simply a cost. Now they're beginning to think about them as an asset — something that can be used to drive creativity and performance and attract and retain talent.
Nature plays a prominent role in all these new buildings, Gissen says. He notes there will be three immense plant-filled spheres at Amazon's new headquarters.
The largest sphere will be 95 feet tall and 130 feet in diameter. Next to it, on either side, will be slightly smaller spheres. The faceted clear glass structures will face the street with an open plaza and green space connecting them to three large office towers.
"We literally see imagery that you would normally associate with a botanical garden," he says. "That is a very unusual and striking image for a corporate office building in a major American city."
Architect John Savo of NBBJ explains the idea of a plant filled-conservatory was to create a place where Amazon employees could think and work more productively and creatively.
"There's ample studies out there that indicate that people walking in an urban street are thinking and feeling very differently than people walking in a park. In the parkland, they're both more relaxed and can concentrate better," he says.
The spheres are slated for completion at the end of 2016. The entire three block project will be finished a year after that.
Amazon's John Schoettler, who oversees the company's global real estate, says the project will allow Amazon to add 12,000 new employees in Seattle. He emphasized the company's decision to build in the heart of the city rather than in the suburbs.
"I think it differentiates us from other companies and allows us to attract the type of employee that wants to be urban and live in an urban environment," Schoettler says.
Architecture critic Allison Arieff, who writes for the New York Times and other publications, says tech companies talk a lot about serendipitous exchanges fostering new ideas. But she's not convinced the deliberately self-contained suburban buildings will facilitate that.
"The only people that you're really running into are your coworkers, and at a certain point that leads to a certain level of naval-gazing, I think, because you're only ever talking to people who sort of agree with what you're saying," she says.
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