The tech giants, Apple, Facebook, Google and the rest, are also in the business of building physical billion-dollar enclaves for their thousands of employees. Here too they create calibrated lands of fun, wherein staff offer their lives, body and soul, day and night, in return for gyms, Olympic-sized swimming pools, climbing walls, basketball courts, running tracks and hiking trails, indoor football pitches, massage rooms and hanging gardens, performance venues, amiable art and lovable graphics. They have been doing this for a while – what is changing is the sheer scale and extravagance of these places.
For the tech giants are now in the same position as great powers in the past – the bankers of the Italian Renaissance, the skyscraper-builders of the 20th century, the Emperor Augustus, Victorian railway companies – whereby, whether they want to or not, their size and wealth find expression in spectacular architecture. As Deyan Sudjic, formerly of this parish and now director of the Design Museum, wrote in his book The Edifice Complex, the execution of architecture “has always been at the discretion of those with their hands on the levers of power”. Having as much sense of their own importance as those previous powers, tech companies probably don’t mind commissioning structures that define their time.
A clue to their ambitions lies in their choice of architects, who are at the very to extremely famous end of the professional spectrum. They have, plainly, colossal resources, with the ability to do almost anything they like. They can have new materials invented, or make old ones perform as never before. They can build the biggest and most expensive workplaces yet seen. They can change cities. They have already redefined “architecture” in the sense that the word can now refer to the structures of software and hardware. Now the old-fashioned version of architecture finds itself an adjunct of the new sort. One sign of the shifted balance of power is the fact that Apple, having commissioned the mighty Foster and Partners to design its new HQ, chose not to name them even after they had unveiled the plans. The project is still not on the Foster website. The Apple brand had to come first.
Most though not all of these new structures are in the gathering of towns, suburbs and small cities that goes by the name of Silicon Valley. There is the Foster project, Apple Park in Cupertino, 2.8m sq ft in size and reportedly costing $5bn, at its centre a mile in circumference, visible from space, a metal and glass circle that is now nearly complete. There are the planned Google headquarters in Mountain View and London by the high-ego, high-reputation pairing of Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick. Facebook has hired the New York office of OMA, the practice founded by Rem Koolhaas, to add to the Frank Gehry-designed complex in Menlo Park that was completed in 2015.