Exclusive Preview: Google’s New Built-from-Scratch Googleplex

Posted on February 26, 2013

Google occupies some of the most famous offices in the world—think cafés everywhere you look, treadmills with laptops attached to them, pool tables and bowling alleys, green buildings, and vegetable gardens—but not one of the places in which the company’s 35,000+ employees work has been built by the company. The core of the “Googleplex,” as the headquarters in Mountain View, California, is generally known, consists of a suburban office park once occupied by Silicon Graphics that Google remodeled to suit its needs; in New York, Google occupies (and owns) the enormous former Port Authority headquarters in Chelsea. The company has been similarly opportunistic around the world, taking over existing real estate and, well, Google-izing it. “We’ve been the world’s best hermit crabs: we’ve found other people’s shells, and we’ve improved them,” David Radcliffe, a civil engineer who oversees the company’s real estate, said to me. Under Radcliffe, the company’s home base in Mountain View has expanded to roughly 65 buildings.

For the last year or two, Google has been toying with taking the plunge and building something from scratch. In 2011 it went so far as to hire the German architect Christophe Ingenhoven to design a brand new, super-green structure on a site next to the Googleplex, but that was a false start: the company abandoned the project a year later, when it decided to build in another part of Mountain View, closer to San Francisco Bay, and went looking for another architect. Now Google has partnered with the Seattle-based firm NBBJ, a somewhat more conventional choice. And the renderings of the new project, which Google has made available to Vanity Fair, show something that looks, at first glance, like an updated version of one of the many suburban office parks that Google has made a practice of taking over and re-doing for its own needs.

The more you look at the complex, however, the more intriguing it is. The new campus, which the company is calling Bay View, consists of nine roughly similar structures, most of which will be four stories high, and all of which are shaped like rectangles that have been bent in the middle. The bent rectangles are arranged to form large and small courtyards, and several of the buildings have green roofs. All of the structures are connected by bridges, one of which will bring people directly to one of the green roofs that has been done up with an outdoor café and gathering space. And cars, the bane of almost every suburban office complex, including the Googleplex, are hidden away.

What is really striking about this project, however, isn’t what the architecture will look like, about which renderings can show only so much anyway. It’s the way in which Google decided what it wanted and how it conveyed this to its architects. Google is, as just about everyone in the world now knows, the most voracious accumulator of data on the planet. When it decided to build a building, it did what it did best, which was to gather data. Google studied, and tried to quantify, everything about how its employees work, about what kind of spaces they wanted, about how much it mattered for certain groups to be near certain other groups, and so forth.

The layout of bent rectangles, then, emerged out of the company’s insistence on a floor plan that would maximize what Radcliffe called “casual collisions of the work force.” No employee in the 1.1-million-square-foot complex will be more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk from any other, according to Radcliffe. “You can’t schedule innovation,” he said. “We want to create opportunities for people to have ideas and be able to turn to others right there and say, ‘What do you think of this?’”

What may be most significant is that the company’s research led to a design that isn’t substantially different from the existing Google buildings, just more so. The older buildings have a mix of private, quiet work spaces (though no private offices) and social and communal work spaces; so will the new one. The older buildings are full of cafés; the new complex will be, too. Radcliffe said that “the cafés were validated” in Google’s studies, as if anyone were surprised. The existing buildings have a relaxed and casual, even whimsical, quality to their interiors, as if to say that pleasure is a part of efficiency; I’m not sure how Google quantifies this except by seeing how many workers like it, but here, too, the plan is to continue on the same track, even if the new buildings aren’t likely to feel quite as improvised. And as the existing buildings have been retrofitted to conserve energy, the new ones will be even greener. And so on.

A lot of this seems like a statement of the obvious, but then again, lots of data is. And architecture, which is so often form-driven, doesn’t necessarily suffer from a bit more attention to factors other than shapes. “We started not with an architectural vision but with a vision of the work experience,” Radcliffe said. “And so we designed this from the inside out.”

Paul Goldberger, Vanity Fair.