The best architects do more than create pleasant and useful spaces. Their buildings also have an agenda. That's why, when Facebook announces that Frank Gehry will be redesigning its Menlo Park headquarters, there's more behind the decision than, say, Zuckerberg's craving for beanbags and luxury innovation cubes.
Gehry is sort of infamous in the tech world for his Stata Center building at MIT, which Stewart Brand called an "overpriced, overwrought, unloved, unadaptable, much sued abortion" in his essay, "'Nobody Cares What You Do in There': The Low Road." Brand argued that "crappy," hackable buildings foster creativity and the new Gehry design for Facebook, at least from what we know of it, suggests that the architect has absorbed this lesson. The central edifice, after all, is referred to in the promotional materials as a "warehouse."
But there's a lot to make of this besides Gehry's return to tech. The design of the building can tell us a lot about how Facebook sees itself and about how it wants us to see it. They picked a superstar Pritzker-winning architect - and this starchitect in particular - to redo their campus. Looking at the plans can help us figure out what Facebook wants us to think it is. It can help us figure out what Facebook is in fact.
What does Facebook want us to believe it is?
Let's look at the official Facebook explanation of how the company came to pick Gehry and what they were thinking about when they worked with him on the design. The communication from the company's "Environmental Design Manager" indicates a level of casualness that's tough to buy when you're talking about a major tech company that's about to make a multi-million-dollar infrastructure purchase. On the Gehry selection:
A few months ago, I flew down to Los Angeles to meet for the first time with Frank and his team. His office is a giant warehouse overflowing with handmade, wooden models juxtaposed with state-of-the-art architecture software (some of which is designed by Frank's in-house team). His teams are filled with people who are unbelievably talented and love what they do. The whole thing reminded me of Facebook, so that when I met Frank, I already knew he was a perfect fit for us.
Facebook wants us to know that its values are Gehry's values. Further evidence of a creative mindmeld: Gehry works in a warehouse; later, we hear that this design that so shares Facebook's values will be like a "warehouse." Facebook isn't just saying we really get along with our architect. It's identifying the type of creativity that it takes to run and grow a successful social media company with the type of creativity it takes an artistically serious architect like Gehry to design a building. The comment about wooden models is also a gesture at the valuation of craft -- a central part of the artist's work - that puts it on par with "state-of-the-art" software. Why might Facebook want to associate itself with tactility, with craft, and with the physical world -- all those things that the Internet has been accused of disappearing?
Facebook is deliberately trying to project an image - an interesting one, and a bit of a devious one. Two ideas come up repeatedly in as the communication continues. The buildings are environmentally friendly, and also integrated into the landscape:
We've paid just as much attention to the outside as well. The exterior takes into account the local architecture so that it fits in well with its surroundings. We're planting a ton of trees on the grounds and more on the rooftop garden that spans the entire building. The raw, unfinished look of our buildings means we can construct them quickly and with a big emphasis on being eco-friendly.
The environmentally sound building thing is at this point practically a cliché of tech culture. Google's campus is eco-friendly. Apple's campus is eco-friendly. This is the Bay Area after all. But there's a second and slightly more sophisticated thing going on here too. In the past few decades there's been a resurgent interest in architecture in forms that blend into the environment rather than standing out. The interesting thing about this tendency in architecture is that it's presented by its supporters as a form of ecology - but for the visual environment, not the living one.
This can mean a building that uses visual elements of a region's vernacular architecture. The statement notes that the buildings will look "raw" and "unfinished," and that this will make them more environmentally friendly; this recalls perhaps the most ancient kind of vernacular architecture, a temporary dwelling. But it can also be a building that blends into the natural world itself - a building wearing a sort of camouflage, as it were. It's a little hard to tell from the images Facebook posted of the models, but Gehry designed the campus expansion to blend into the landscape. As Zuckerberg noted in a post on his Facebook wall, "From the outside," the new building "will appear as if you're looking at a hill in nature." Even more so if the trees planted are local varieties (we'll see).
Why all this emphasis on visual ecology? It seems weird for a tech company to focus on integrating its building visually into the natural environment, or to use a "primitive" seeming building style. Just compare Apple's futuristic glass ring HQ.
But Facebook's (digital dualist) critics often tar it for separating us from the world around us, visual and otherwise. More and more, they say, we choose the screen - a virtual world, both flat and infinitely deep - over the physical world, including natural landscapes.
I imagine that somewhere in the minds of the Facebook executives who worked with Gehry on the plans is the idea that Facebook needs to cover up or combat this sense that it separates us from reality. A new building that presents itself as a non-invasive insertion into a pastoral landscape is a clever visual move. Facebook isn't sucking you into the screen; no, the company's holistically integrated with the natural and physical worlds.
Or so says the aesthetics of its headquarters.
So what is Facebook, really?
The interior layout, per what we know about the plans, will reflect the management style we've come to associate with start-up culture:
Just like we do now, everyone will sit out in the open with desks that can be quickly shuffled around as teams form and break apart around projects. There will be cafes and lots of micro-kitchens with snacks so that you never have to go hungry. And we'll fill the building with break-away spaces with couches and whiteboards to make getting away from your desk easy.
This is practically a spatial representation of the startup ethos. It's nonhierarchical -- "everyone will sit out in the open," with no spatial differentiation (e.g. separate offices) of higher-ups. It's designed to react "quickly" based on need, a key advantage of startups over creakier, older companies. And it will of course employ the research-derived productivity best practices that have risen to prominence over the years. "Getting away from your desk" for a creativity-boosting break will be easy, for instance.
Fundamentally, this is not so different from the interior plan of many tech companies, which have tended to prize, say, reactive and reconfigurable spaces over static ones, in the interest of creativity. And if you look at the physical plant of the buildings after the proposed Gehry addition to the Facebook campus, they do not look that different from Google's. The campus will be more horizontal than vertical, made up of a series of low-slung buildings. (Fittingly, those models - with the proposed gardens on the roofs - resemble tufts of moss.)
What makes it different is the architect. Gehry is an interesting choice not just because he's known in the tech world for the Stata fiasco, but also because of who he's done his best work for. The most famous and maybe most successful Gehry building might be the Guggenheim Bilbao, which -- as you probably know -- is a museum. As rough-edged and "warehouse-y" as the Gehry Facebook design might be, you can read it not only a chance for Gehry to reposition himself as an architect, but also a chance for Facebook to position itself as a true blue-chip company. This is a sign of a start-up culture that wants to mature, just as Facebook's IPO was a sign -- if perhaps a premature one -- that the company had matured.
It may also be a way of announcing Facebook as a media outlet whose cultural resonance is on par with that of institutions in the world of "high culture." Note that the Facebook page for the redesign mentions two art-world-related commissions -- the Guggenheim and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in L.A. But even as the Gehry choice positions Facebook as a cultural institution, of course, Facebook is rewriting the rules of what it means to be one. It's radically populist and in many ways radically decentered. It does not act as arbiter, allowing the mass to perform that function instead by way of likes and recommends.
So maybe Facebook isn't signaling its arrival as a top-tier cultural force with the use of Gehry. It already is one, at least in the sense of its scope; and it will never be one in the sense of the exclusivity of the culture it mediates. The Facebook choice of Gehry indicates not just a total collapse of the high culture-mass culture distinction, but the banality of that collapse, or maybe the fact that there's nothing to collapse anymore. Postmodernism took pains to point out when it was mixing low and high culture; for a company like Facebook the distinction is irrelevant and uninteresting.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.