Google and other tech companies continue HQ architecture race

Google just unveiled its plans for a new HQ design:

Apple is building a massive spaceship-like ring around a private eden dotted with apricot trees. Facebook is working on a forest-topped hanger, reportedly with a single room big enough to house 3,400 workers. Now, we have our first glimpse of what Google’s envisioning for its own futuristic headquarters: A series of see-through, tent-like structures, draped in glass, whose interior workspaces can be reconfigured on a massive scale according to the company’s needs.

In a new video released this morning, Google showed off an ambitious proposal for a future North Bayshore campus in Mountain View. The concept was produced by the firms of Thomas Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels, two of architecture’s fastest rising stars. Heatherwick Studio, based in the UK, was responsible for the torch at the London Olympics. The Bjarke Ingels Group, based in Denmark, is working on a trash-to-power plant in Copenhagen that will double as a ski slope.

The plan they came up with for Google is every bit as radical as one would expect. As Bjarke Ingels puts it, the structures proposed for the new campus would do away with rigid walls and roofs and instead “dissolve the building into a simple, super-transparent, ultra-light membrane.” Inside, giant layers could be stacked, Lincoln Log-style, into different work environments, using a fleet of small cranes and robots. Plant life is suffused throughout the campus, indoors and out.

It’s not an original idea but I was just struck by the juxtaposition of the tech companies more ethereal presence (online, information, brand status) versus their actual physical presence. The Internet may be revolutionary but how exactly do its architects and drivers translate it into physical form? Perhaps not surprisingly, into an open structure with lots of glass, light, life, and flexibility. Somewhere, however, there have to be tech companies operating in concrete Brutalist structures…

It will still be interesting to see how these buildings function. I’ve seen several articles lately about companies going to open floor formats (the anti-cubicle) even as workers don’t always like this lack of privacy. How much building flexibility is too much? Given Google’s plans, how will the architecture fit with the surrounding community of Mountain View? How many years is this expected to be used?

The relatively narrow geographic boundaries of TV sitcoms

TV shows often don’t have a very wide geographic scope as the characters interact in a limited physical space:

Most shows define their social universes geographically: They are populated by people whom circumstance has thrown together, physically. The throwing could take place in a bar (Cheers), in a coffee shop (Friends), in an apartment (New Girl), in an office (The Office), at a taxi dispatch service (Taxi), at a TV studio (30 Rock), or, of course, in a house (pretty much every other sitcom ever). Regardless, in the social—and, you could say, moral—cosmology of the typical sitcom, it is spatial connection that leads to social connection.

In part, these physical spaces are plot devices that explain to audiences why this small group of people seems to be always together, and always so insulated in their togetherness. In HIMYM, the friends’ go-to bar, MacLaren’s—conveniently located in the basement of the building where three of the five characters live—functions in the same way that Monica’s apartment (and Mindy Lahiri’s ob-gyn practice, and Greendale Community College) do: They allow the audience to suspend disbelief. They sacrifice the inevitable frictions of real-world social relationships—the vagaries of distance, the misalignments of schedules—at the altar of sitcomic convenience.

There are obvious production-side reasons for that social narrowness, too, of course: Actors are expensive. Contracts are a pain. TV programs, even in the age of the DVR and the stream and the binge-watch, need to offer their audiences some sense of stability, episode after episode. But what those constraints amount to, ultimately, are shows that embrace an eponymous approach to family itself: According to the most basic logic of the sitcom, one’s family is “the group of people that situation has thrown together, comedically.” So we get The Office‘s ironized treatment of the workplace family. And The Big Bang Theory‘s haphazard fusion of work life and home. And Modern Family‘s casual confidence that an entire TV show can be premised on demographics alone…

HIMYM may have done this for the same reason that, say, Sex and the City often treated its male characters as expendable—that reason being that that’s just how sitcoms are—but it amounted, in context, to a premise that was often misaligned with the realities of friendship as its audience was experiencing them. It’s worth noting that the show, which premiered in September 2005, came of age in the age of social media. (Mark Zuckerberg launched TheFacebook in 2004.) At a time when many members of its audience were experiencing friendship as newly expansive, and newly transcendent of geography, HIMYM‘s five characters hunkered down at MacLaren’s. They hung out in a single apartment. They dated one another. They married one another. And they used and/or ignored the people who existed beyond their tiny social circle. It was Central Perk all over again.

Sitcoms are bounded in numerous ways (limited number of characters, fairly formulaic storylines, similar kinds of jokes) but this analysis of space is quite interesting: for convenience and forced interaction, characters keep gathering in a public/private space. One question would be whether this geographic narrowness on TV matches reality for average Americans. At the least, they would have more knowledge about the outside world, whether current events or sports or celebrity news that simply isn’t included in most sitcoms (the info would be dated by the time it airs, etc.). Yet, good portions of our lives are spent in bounded areas like work and home. Meeting in third places like bars and coffee shops? Not so much.

Encourage research collaboration by overlapping daily walking paths

Lots of academics are talking about interdisciplinary research and teaching and a new study helps point the way forward: make sure different groups have overlapping daily walking paths.

Researchers who occupy the same building are 33 percent more likely to form new collaborations than researchers who occupy different buildings, and scientists who occupy the same floor are 57 percent more likely to form new collaborations than investigators who occupy different buildings, he said.
One of these assumptions is that passive contacts between inhabitants of a building—just bumping into people as you go about your daily business—makes it more likely that you’ll share ideas and eventually engage in formal collaborations. This assumption is based on the work of ISR researcher Leon Festinger, who studied the friendships that developed among dormitory residents in the 1950s.
Owen-Smith and colleagues examined the relationship between office and lab proximity and walking patterns, and found that linear distance between offices was less important than overlap in daily walking paths. They developed the concept of zonal overlap as a way to operationalize Festinger’s idea of passive contact. “We looked at how much overlap existed for any two researchers moving between lab space, office space, and the nearest bathroom and elevator,” Owen-Smith said. “And we found that net of the distance between their offices, for every 100 feet of zonal overlap, collaborations increased by 20 percent and grant funding increased between 21 and 30 percent.”
Owen-Smith and colleagues also found that the likelihood of passive contacts can be more simply assessed by using a measure of “door passing”—whether one investigator’s work path passes by another’s office door.

This sounds like a more small-scale study but it ties into the broader concept of compulsion of proximity. Put people in spaces where they are more likely to run into each other and they are more likely to interact face-to-face. This would go for making friends on a dorm floor in college (random assignments lead to college long or life-long friendships), finding marriage partners through social networks , and apparently works for researchers.