Google’s “Plex” vs. Apple’s “Ring”; What Corporate Architecture Conveys about Digital Platforms

The two biggest names in technology, Apple and Google (rechristened Alphabet), each introduced compelling designs for their future corporate headquarters in the past few years.  Nearly opposite in their design approach, what these companies – respectively, the 1st and 4th largest companies in the United States by market capitalization – envision for their new offices is an extension of how they each conduct research and generate the design for their own products.

In the design of their office space, how each company foresees the future of employee productivity is emblematic of how they prioritize between innovation, aesthetics, and control within their competing technological ecosystems. While Google is anticipating the unrelenting changes of our fast-paced 21st century world by visualizing what the future of collaboration could mean for an adaptable Architecture, Apple’s stately design proposal suggests a rigid realization of their aesthetic idealism.

 

GOOGLE’S “PLEX”

Google is a corporate culture of trying new ideas constantly (Google X, Self-Driving Cars), where, besides the obvious successes, there is an assumption that projects can fail when necessary (Glass, Buzz, Wave, Reader).  Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin remark in the 2004 Google IPO, and reiterate in the 2015 launch of the new parent company Alphabet: “We would fund projects that have a 10% chance of earning a billion dollars over the long term. Do not be surprised if we place smaller bets in areas that seem very speculative or even strange when compared to our current businesses.”  This speculative and iterative research environment translates into the Architectural ideas for the Googleplex.  But, technological progression in the digital world can be substantially easier to implement than in Architecture, because a building cannot be replaced when new ideas come along.  So how can we achieve a similar level of upgradability with Architecture?  According to Google’s vision, and their Architects Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, the building must update itself.

The Google design dismisses centuries of conventional concepts about what an office or a wall means, and dispenses a wholly unique type of assemblage.  Underneath an enveloping transparent roof, modular floorplates – which contain reprogrammable offices, conference rooms, collaborative spaces, cafes, etc. – are to be arranged and reconfigured as needed.   These lightweight modular floorplates can be agglomerated, moved, stacked, and removed by a kind of portable crane-robot, or crabot.  The canopies covering this reconfigurable program allow for daylighting and ventilation, incorporating green spaces and outdoor program in a never-ending dance with the reprogrammable spaces throughout the structure.  Says Ingels: “The architecture of the building becomes almost like giant pieces of furniture that can be connected in different ways.”

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Ingels/Heatherwick Diagram and Rendering

The architectural concept is therefore to incorporate the ideas of technological progression into the adaptive architecture of the new building.  The design team is conceiving a way to allow for the cultural changes and building technology advancements that assuredly come with time to be unrestricted by the stationary nature of a standard building – a metaphor for how software and technological upgrades should not be restrained by the otherwise rigid nature of electronic hardware.   In other words, to keep up with software modifications and to incorporate new digital improvements, a consumer is apt to purchase a new smartphone every two years, an unsustainable cycle in the built world.  For Google “The architecture will evolve as times evolve,” says Ingels.  Practically all buildings lack this feedback mechanism to reinvent themselves for new information.  Google attempts to solve this ubiquitous conundrum by having the building adapt itself to the ever changing behavioral patterns of human collaboration, innovation, and technology.

This adaptive approach has a multitude of benefits.  It allows for the redesign of spaces on demand.  It scales down the enormity of a full block building to the modular scale of the moveable floorplate.  At roughly 2,000 square feet, each modular space would arguably be a comfortable space for groups to work.  The design also allows for changes to building technology to be incorporated incrementally, such as new mechanical or energy systems, rather than the typical 30-50 years until a full retrofit is necessary.  A recent Bloomberg article goes so far as to call the design “a future-proof office,” as there can be ongoing feedback between the operations of the building and the systemic opportunity to alter the physical environment to relate better to human use and actual behaviors.

Says Ingels: “Silicon valley has been the cradle of this series of innovations that over the last decades have propelled technology and [the] world economy.  But, all of the resources, all of the intelligence, has been invested into the immaterial, the digital realm, the internet.”  Google, Ingels, and Heatherwick have ventured to transcribe the silicon valley goals into built form.  Over a decade ago Google had been credited with installing one of the earliest tech-styled open-office plans at their current headquarters.  Now, they are again dissolving the preconceived notions of how to construct an innovative office for the next generation.

 

APPLE’S “RING”

Apple is a company that invests heavily in focused consumer research, doggedly pursuing gaps in the consumer experience of technology.  Crafting products that are unrivaled in their beauty, simplicity, and intuitive user experience, Apple often breathes new life into underutilized innovations and repackages them into advanced hardware and software (the mouse, mp3 player, smartphone, etc.).  Remarking on Apple’s focus on the quality of their products over the quantity of their ideas, Apple CEO Tim Cook paraphrases their mission statement in his keynote speech at the 2013 WWDC, by saying that what drives Apple is “to make the best products that people use more and love more than anyone else’s.”  The resulting impressive cohesive experience is formalized into the minimalist aesthetic and closed platform, apparent in all the Apple products and stores.

The new Apple Headquarters is meant to be an extension of this Apple brand, an advertisement of their hardware’s aesthetic purity.  From its inception, the Apple design was meant to preference material gratification.  Steve Jobs was adamant that the building’s details be more similar to the kind you would find on an Apple product than a standard building, insisting on gaps between architectural elements no greater than 1/32 inch.  Interestingly, the building was conceived at roughly the same time as the double glass-sided iPhone 4, itself an expression of material fetish over function.  Many believe that phone to be attractive, but it is certainly open to debate whether it is desirable to have breakable glass on both sides of a phone.

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New Apple Campus

In June of 2011, during one of his last public appearances, Jobs presented the circular design (currently under construction) to the city of Cupertino.  But, since then, there hasn’t been much conclusive evidence for why the building is designed as a giant circle.  The history of the round structure can be traced back at least to c. 1775, to the first fully planned “company town,” Saline Royale at Arc-et-Senans, France.  A quick poke around the web’s opinions about the Apple Design will compare it to an alien spaceship or the GCHQ in England.

In an interview with Architectural Record, Sir Norman Foster, the Architect for the Apple campus, mentions studying the squares of London as precedents for the design, and relating them to the scale of the Stanford Campus.  He adds, “These studies finally morphed into a circular building that would enclose the private space in the middle — essentially a park that would replicate the original California landscape.”  But, if the Stanford campus was truly an inspiration, then surely a multiple building approach would be less hypocritical, or, at least a strategy that demotes the “ring” to that of a site organizing element for a campus with multiple buildings. The only reference to a round object during that interview is when Foster references how California became “the fruit bowl of the United States.”  Such a reference, if truly informing the design, would remain purely symbolic.

Encouraging the circular design, press releases from Apple have emphasized an attempt to reduce the building footprint on the site by maximizing the amount of natural green space; a feat which could be accomplished by either increasing the proposed height of the building or by burying parts of it, not by changing its shape.  Similarly suspect, the “naturalness” of the landscape may seem more artificial when you realize the 24+ acres of internal gardens are circumscribed by what is essentially a fortress to a common squirrel.

Foster’s firm preaches “incorporating design and use flexibility to respond to future business needs” as another reason for the “Ring.”  This is akin to saying a convention center or a Las Vegas casino is designed with ultimate flexibility, which it is.  So then the design of the Apple building is essentially an infinitely continuous warehouse?  Perhaps a better answer comes from Apple’s chief financial officer,  Peter Oppenheimer, who says the circle form is all about workflow. “We found that rectangles or squares or long buildings or buildings with more than four stories would inhibit collaboration.  We wanted this to be a walkable building, and that’s why we eventually settled on a circle.”

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Apple “Ring” in scale comparison to 5 other notable places

Even if we were to accept the simplistic shape of the geometry, the gargantuan scale of the construct could conceivably overwhelm any notion of human nature.  The Apple “Ring” is roughly the same size in circumference as the Pentagon at over a quarter mile in diameter, and it could fit an entire NFL stadium within its center courtyard.    Minimalist forms work well at the scale of an Apple Store, or a Dwell Magazine featured living room, but not necessarily for 13,000 workers.  At the proposed scale, it has frequently been suggested that such oppressive shapes create a sense of isolation for inhabitants, seemingly a contradiction to the proposed collaborative environment Apple is seeking.

As we delve deeper into the politics of the Apple culture, we will find a technological ecosystem much defined by its gatekeeper status.   In order to provide their consumers with an unprecedented cohesive experience, Apple produces and controls their own hardware, software, and operating systems.  Myopically, the “Ring” design therefore presents itself as a possibly schizophrenic Apple corporation.  On the one hand there is the innovative and intensely consumer driven culture of research.  And, on the other, there is the purist, authoritarian, closed ecosystem which can inhibit innovation.  The circle is a locked geometry, with no obvious opportunities for expansion or alteration.  What will happen when behaviors and technologies change?  You can’t buy a new $5 billion building every two years. 

 

HOW THEY COMPARE

Both projects are practically equals when it comes to sustainability.  They each desperately cling to the suburban office park paradigm, rather than incorporate themselves into a urban community with abundant mass transit.  Google does, however, attempt to incorporate their plans within a culture beyond their walls by planning to integrate their project into the adjacent urban fabric, leaving the new campus open as part of a connected pedestrian and bicycle network.  Apple’s campus is planned to be entirely closed to the public.

“Restoring” nature is common to both proposals as well.  The googleplex will plan to restore estuaries along San Francisco Bay, while Apple plans to plant twice as many trees as were on the site before.  Though admirable, incorporating landscape amenities for either project is mostly a question of budget, as the number of trees and bodies of water for either project is directly related to how much underground parking is planned; it can cost up to 20 times more for a covered space as one on a surface lot.

There is probably little question which proposal will take better photographs, or be “prettier.”  Indeed, there is quite a messy ad-hoc quality to the google proposition.  Apple’s “Ring” will have the sleekness that you expect from their design team.  There are google critics who doubt the practicality of their supposedly flexible design.  These critics tend to focus on the given pragmatic constraints, such as how to configure a stable electrical system in a set of modular spaces that will be hoisted and moved around by crabots.   If anyone can figure that out, it would be google.  While Apple is spending an estimated extra billion dollars on perfecting their details of curved glass to 1/32 of an inch, Google is poised to create the framework to reimagine the entire concept of how we can build adaptable buildings and offices for the future.

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