One Giant Room: Gehry and Facebook Open Up the Office

One Giant Room: Gehry and Facebook Open Up the Office

We’ve all heard the stories from the Bay Area. From the lavish, ego-driven spending of the young techies to the stark income rifts developing in San Francisco real estate, no Gold Rush comparison feels unwarranted. And so in 2012, when the poster child for the current hyper-valued tech-boom, Facebook’s multi-billionaire CEO Mark Zuckerberg, tapped one of the world’s best-known architects to design the corporation’s new expansion of their West Campus in Menlo Park, CA, no one was particularly surprised. But what may surprise onlookers is what Zuckerberg and Gehry actually have planned: a thoroughly green and decidedly open-plan monument to collaboration, not individual achievement.

Known for his signature dynamic and deconstructivist buildings—exemplified by his legendary rippling, metallic Guggenheim Bilbao and the smashed-guitar shock of Seattle’s Experience Music Project —Gehry’s Facebook campus seems downright functional, and even a departure from form, by comparison. The significantly and deliberately toned-down effort is clearly geared toward kindling creativity inside its walls rather than reveling in ostentatious and eye-catching forms.

As seen from above, the 22-acre structure might not even register as a building at all. The West Campus will be covered by an expansive green roof that acts more like a sizeable and functioning park than the standard, token collection of decorative foliage that has accompanied the ‘greening’ trend. Native grasses, sizeable trees, and even a vegetable garden will sprawl over the space. Cafes, grills, and workbenches will facilitate outdoor employee interactions, capitalizing on the Bay’s temperate climate. And of course, green roofs have a cost-cutting effect, reducing the need for excessive heating and cooling.

The green roof also allows the 430,000 square foot building to blend in with its marshland surroundings more seamlessly, easing neighborly tensions and maintaining the affluent Menlo Park neighborhood’s character. Facebook made significant contributions to the town to gain approval for its expansion, including civic donations and building low-income homes in the area.

The new campus extension will also be linked to Facebook’s nearby main offices by an underground tunnel. The tunnel will include an airport-style people mover and a bike lane, allowing employees to access the main office’s considerable suite of amenities—including a full gym, a number of restaurants, a bank, and even a dentist’s office.

The West Campus, which will sit atop a massive surface-level parking garage, fluctuates in height between 45 and 73 feet. It is unlikely to draw the kind of architectural tourists that flock to Gehry’s Dancing House or his Walt Disney Concert Hall. What is most distinctive about the building is inside: the West Campus features an unprecedented amount of open-plan space. To encourage conversation and interaction among employees from various departments, the building eschews conventional closed-off office spaces in favor of a more social, dynamic plan.

The whole campus has been designed to take into account Facebook’s way of working and culture. It is one large office that will be broken up by conference rooms and breakaway spaces, with a parking structure underneath. There will be a rooftop garden, as well as a ground-level one. The building is designed to be simple—almost like a giant warehouse; its emphasis is on functionality, rather than extravagance. Housing up to 2,800 employees, it will be an engineering-only office. Facebook will keep its old campus and use a tunnel under the highway to connect the two.

In a field where roles, tasks, and titles are comparatively malleable, and where most work is being done on laptops anyway, the work environment has been built to match the tasks at hand. And so, the majority of the campus’s 2,800 engineers will be toiling, coding, and poking away in a giant, single room. Angled walls and meeting spaces peppered throughout were introduced to reduce the potentially alienating feeling of working in a giant hangar.

With 70% of all modern offices including an open floor plan, Facebook is not inventing anything new. But as with its social network, it’s certainly the largest-scale experiment yet. A common criticism of the open-plan scheme is that it encourages constant, focus-ruining distraction and seriously cuts down on privacy—two critiques that could be levied at Facebook itself. However, the positive aspects are clear: encouraging serendipitous sparks of collaboration and breaking down the silos of conventional corporate organization. Slated to open in the spring of 2015, the campus is sure to encourage reflection and speculation.

Facebook’s campus extension comes as part of a recent construction boom of giant tech projects, along with new Silicon Valley behemoths for Google and Apple and an ambitious new headquarters for Amazon in Seattle. Flush with record-breaking profits, the tech giants are moving beyond their former rental spaces and into flexible but massively ambitious and progressive campuses. Considering the industry’s past volatility, one hopes that they never become the hubristic ruins of the future. If they do though, at least they’re already covered with trees.

Originally Published in:

THE NETWORK / SEPTEMBER 2014 – Amazing Buildings