John Pastier

John Pastier

Courtesy BIG / Heatherwick Studio

In its 70-year plus history,

For Google, BIG and Heatherwick Studio propose mysteriously hovering, flexible, translucent roof membranes perched formlessly over reconfigurable buildings. If they can flesh it out it will be the most architecturally laudable suburban tech campus in Silicon Valley.

Facebook aimed for the moon by hiring Gehry to design its HQ, but then seemingly hedged its bets and asked for an anonymous building internally similar to the architect’s own skylit open plan studio. The result is surprisingly self-effacing (no pun intended). The headquarters is a single ten-acre room built above ground-level parking, filled with workstations arranged in undulating rows. Mark Zuckerberg, the boss, calls it the largest open floor plan in the world, and will in theory occupy the same space as the mailroom staff (assuming that tech firms still have mailrooms). Its signature will be a fully landscaped roof—a very nice gesture, but less than what one would expect from the author of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum and L.A.’s Disney Concert Hall. Nearing completion, this one must be seen before forming any opinion.


Google’s preliminary plans, released a few weeks ago, are predominantly in soft-focus perspective form (no precise representations here). They are radiantly seductive, feel-good images, full of promise, more atmospheric than informative. They are a response to the city of Mountain View’s request for proposals that will help it to allocate 3.4 million square feet of development rights, among as many as seven developers (including heavyweights such as Microsoft and LinkedIn), in its Baylands tech zone. Google appears to be asking for the full share of rights for itself. Hopefully Mountain View will insist on more employer diversity than that, or free up more building capacity for the other qualified applicants.

Google’s proposal quickly generated mainstream enthusiasm for its promise of adaptability, greenness, and sociable placemaking that will, in places, welcome the public as well as Googlers.


BIG and Heatherwick Studio propose mysteriously hovering, flexible translucent glass roof membranes perched somewhat formlessly over reconfigurable kit-of-parts buildings that in turn are built over underground parking. Intra-campus transportation will largely be on foot or on Google’s communal, whimsically painted bicycles, available for the public as well as the staff, with paths for both occasionally penetrating the buildings.

A portion of the ground-level spaces will be devoted to food and retail use, and some of those will be run by local businesses rather than the company. There will be the by-now ubiquitous array of sustainability features—if there are design directions that Silicon Valley has “gotten,” it’s good landscape design and green building techniques.

Google’s proposal has two 50-year old antecedents that are major unbuilt monuments of modern architectural history. Its glass membrane is conceptually similar to (but smaller and more free-form than) Buckminster Fuller’s audacious proposal for a two-mile-wide geodesic dome over midtown Manhattan. And the principle of modular, re-locatable, and reconfigurable structures beneath the canopy brings to mind Archigram’s pop-art, high-tech visions of buildings and cities that morphed from one form to another, walked on their own, and even built themselves.

Neither of these iconic 1960s visions was remotely practical when first published, and they still remain impractical today. In its present nebulous form, Google’s Arcadian vision also inspires questions about its feasibility. The real test of this proposal will take place only when it is further defined. Can BIG and Heatherwick flesh out their optimistic proposition in a way that stands up to real world conditions (albeit with generous funding), while still preserving its promised character and freshness? If so, then Google will have the most architecturally laudable suburban tech campus in Silicon Valley. What will then remain for its successors to tackle will be the interlinked, region-wide issues of walkability, workable urban fabric, severe working hours, vehicular congestion, effective public transportation, and the nation’s highest housing costs.