Google reveals plans for futuristic cityscape campus, and new robot tech to make it configurable

Just about a year ago, I wrote about Square’s new offices in San Francisco, which were designed to be more like a city than a traditional office (see Another take on offices: something other than open or closed). The office design was led by Square’s head of office experience, Chris Gorman, who said in an article about the office,

“We were very inspired by city design and by cities in general–by areas where people cohabitate, come together, and share things in a quick and easy manner,” Gorman says. “We wanted to bring that same sensibility to the office.” And so instead of talking about a main hallway when describing the office, Gorman explains how there’s a large “avenue” running from end to end. A coffee bar in the middle acts as a sort of “town square.” Glass paneled meeting rooms are named for San Francisco intersections, “6th and Divisidero,” “6th and Ashbury,” and so on (Square’s offices are principally on the 6th floor of its building).

The design of the office “motivates people to move around the office and interact in casual, unscheduled ways,” he explains–just like the well-planned public spaces of a great city. Early concepts for the office were motivated by old 18th-century maps of cities. “When I think about a city,” Gorman says, “I shop, I go get coffee, I go to the park, I go for walks. We wanted to create that same variety in the office.” In addition to its in-house café (and in-house debugger/barista), Square has been experimenting with pop-up stores and artisan merchants appearing within Square’s own offices.

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Square’s offices

This week, Google presented a plan to redevelop its Mountain View California campus, taking the ‘headquarters as a city’ model several steps — or maybe parsecs — farther.

The plan — developed by London design atelier Heatherwick Studio and Danish architect Bjarke Ingels — would add 2.5 million square feet of enclosed space on top of the existing 4 million square feet of today’s campus.

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Indoor pathway

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Glass canopy enclosing offices

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A foyer of one of the planned structures

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Swooping canopies have high tech capability to deal with sunlight

The plans do not include housing, so it does not aspire to being a fully self-sufficient city. However, the plans include a great deal of retail space — for restaurants, health clubs, and shops — so the integration of work and play is a key element.

Much of the plot would be reconfigured to be carless, with existing parking taken out, and a large single parking area would be mostly underground. Note that even though the design leads to an additional 10,000 workers, the same amount of parking is planned.

Much of the lot is being designed as parkland, and two creeks will be restored.

It’s unclear if Google’s proposal will be approved by the Mountain View authorities, who are concerned about the impact on city services and traffic.

I think the trend toward ‘office as city’ has found its mirror image here, with ‘city as office’. One of the more innovative aspects of the design involves the use of innovative materials and structural design, to allow the offices to be rapidly reconfigured, as the Silicon Valley Business Journal reported:

Four futuristic structures where basic building elements — floors, ceilings and walls — attach or detach from permanent steel frames, forming whole new workspaces of different sizes. With help from small cranes and robots (“crabots”), interiors will transform in hours, rather than months.

[…]

Here is how it will work, grossly simplified: Inside the glass canopies, Google imagines stationary steel support columns upon which lightweight, modular building pieces can be inserted, removed, raised or lowered at will. Think of the floors sort of like oven racks; the walls between them can be added, or not. Crabots (which Google calls “a range of small flexible and manageable cranes and robotic machines”) would lift and move these building segments around almost like furniture.

“We envision there will be some more permanent structures like stairwells and restroom cores and things like that,” said Radcliffe, who is Google’s vice president of real estate and workplace services. “Then we think there will be other components you can actually take out and put in.”

The canopies themselves would generate electricity, while movable shades embedded in a second canopy layer control glare and keep the interior cool.

This would allow for rapid reconfiguration of work and non-work spaces under the canopies. As I wrote last year, in the post about Square’s offices:

Perhaps in the future businesses will allow for the flexibility that cities afford inhabitants: so long as individuals keep within the city’s building codes people can do many different things, and the results can’t be completely unanticipated. A new store opens, another closes. In the workplace, a new project kicks off and a group of people take over one corner of a floor in the headquarters, moving walls and furnishings to house that temporary activity. And meanwhile, a dozen other project teams are doing something similar. Folks working on multiple products migrate from one area to another over the course of the day, like medieval traders or nomads.

And it looks like Google is bringing that future into the present, and inventing technologies to make it possible for others to do so, soon after.

 

Another take on offices: something other than open or closed

I have read dozens of articles in recent months about office design. Some advocating the open workplace as a source of inspiration, cameraderie, and social workology. Others arguing a return to the closed offices and cubeland of the past, where focus and quiet make getting things done possible. Recent research from the London Business School suggests the average worker is interrupted every three minutes in the office, so we have reached some breaking point where more people will demand working outside the office.

Or perhaps offices could be rethought to seem more like ‘outside the office’ in the first place?

Square has recently occupied new quarters in San Francisco, and the company’s head of office experience (that’s a first), Chris Gorman, was motivated to make the office work like a city, and less like a headquarters.

David Zax, Why Square Designed Its New Offices To Work Like a City

“We were very inspired by city design and by cities in general–by areas where people cohabitate, come together, and share things in a quick and easy manner,” Gorman says. “We wanted to bring that same sensibility to the office.” And so instead of talking about a main hallway when describing the office, Gorman explains how there’s a large “avenue” running from end to end. A coffee bar in the middle acts as a sort of “town square.” Glass paneled meeting rooms are named for San Francisco intersections, “6th and Divisidero,” “6th and Ashbury,” and so on (Square’s offices are principally on the 6th floor of its building).

The design of the office “motivates people to move around the office and interact in casual, unscheduled ways,” he explains–just like the well-planned public spaces of a great city. Early concepts for the office were motivated by old 18th-century maps of cities. “When I think about a city,” Gorman says, “I shop, I go get coffee, I go to the park, I go for walks. We wanted to create that same variety in the office.” In addition to its in-house café (and in-house debugger/barista), Square has been experimenting with pop-up stores and artisan merchants appearing within Square’s own offices.

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Last year, I wrote,

The new way of work is as big a break with the industrial model as the industrial model was with the time of artisanal and agricultural work that preceded the rise of steam power and electricity. Unlike that transition, however, we will not be looking for inspiration from armies, or the slave battalions that built the pyramids. No, instead we will look to nature, or the growth of cities for inspiration.

The fast-and-loose business that is emerging as the new way of work runs more like a forest or a city than a machine. We need to learn by imitating rich ecosystems, where the appearance of chaos yields to emergent order, and reject order imposed by fiat.

Perhaps in the future businesses will allow for the flexibility that cities afford inhabitants: so long as individuals keep within the city’s building codes people can do many different things, and the results can’t be completely unanticipated. A new store opens, another closes. In the workplace, a new project kicks off and a group of people take over one corner of a floor in the headquarters, moving walls and furnishings to house that temporary activity. And meanwhile, a dozen other project teams are doing something similar. Folks working on multiple products migrate from one area to another over the course of the day, like medieval traders or nomads.

This is the start of a discussion about workplace which isn’t stuck in the open/closed dichotomy. And it’s  likely to be another area of the business where centralized planning will yield to decentralized and localized activities, and so the office of the future will not be designed top-down by office experience experts like Chris Gorman but grown, bottom-up, by the decisions of hundreds or thousands or individual workers.