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Why are the two companies spending billions to build offices that look lifted straight from the 1960s?
For all the talk of “disruption” coming out of Silicon Valley, one thing that has tended to remain stubbornly stuck in the past is tech companies’ architecture. Many of today’s most innovative companies are housed in deadly dull, boxy and glassy suburban campuses: Google lives in the rehabbed buildings of long-defunct Silicon Graphics, Facebook in a laboratory from the 1960s. Though the interiors might have advanced lighting systems, state-of-the-art fitness facilities and cafeterias serving farm-to-table fare, the exteriors — flat, unarticulated facades; ribbon windows; hard right angles — could come from any suburban office corridor anywhere in the country, and from any moment in the past half-century.
This is why the recently revealed plans for the new campuses of Google, in Mountain View, Calif., designed by Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick, and Apple, in Cupertino, from Sir Norman Foster, are so striking: They, like the companies they will house, point to the future — the future, that is, as it looked in the 1960s. Images of the projected Apple campus — a four-tiered ringlike structure nestled in a thickly wooded landscape — evoke the landing of an alien spaceship. The central structure in Ingels’s and Heatherwick’s design is canopied by a sinuous glass membrane, a protective bubble or amniotic sac, shielding an entire section of the campus — not just buildings but bike paths and desks — while letting the abundant Northern California light stream in. In aerial renderings it looks like larvae, incubating a new and possibly terrifying future.
Like the rest of Silicon Valley, however, this future is in fact rooted in the past. It comes, transfigured, from the wrecked dreams of communal living, of back-to-the-land utopias, of expanding plastic spheres and geodesic domes that populated the landscape of Northern California around the time (and around the same place) that the first semiconductors were being perfected. This is the world of what a recent exhibit at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis has termed “Hippie Modernism.” Out of the ferment of the ’60s came a spectacular brew of experiments that softened the edge of the bureaucratic architecture of Modernism and explored new shapes and styles of building, new ideas about how to live and work. In the world of the counterculture, round and pliant was good; sharp and angular was bad. These concepts found their way into the cinema — into the soft plastic finishes of the circular, rotating space station in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” where it was the antithesis of the sourceless, death-bringing black slab monolith, itself almost the clone of that icon of corporate Modernism, Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building. Now those same undulations have found their way back to us, in the form of impregnable corporate campuses for the future-plotting, world-dominating, “don’t be evil” tech industry. […]