Insights into Facebook’s new headquarters


(Published in The Produktkulturmagazin issue 2 2015)

Sitting in front of our computer screens, we too easily forget that even something as virtual and intangible as a social network is constantly being further developed by a large team of highly qualified staff. At Facebook, there are approximately 2,800 computer scientists, graphic designers and content managers who ensure that we have a platform to individually express that we belong somehow. Now, the company has a new headquarters - designed by star architect Frank Owen Gehry. What does it look like? Naturally, it was built in the spirit of unrestrained communication.

During a first phase of growth in 2009, the Zuckerberg enterprise bought the office complex of Sun Microsystems in Menlo Park, California, which had just been acquired by Oracle, and moved in there. Back then, Facebook displayed operational pragmatism: the site was for sale and had about the right size. However, as architecture has always been about representation, the company soon desired its own building. To ensure it serves its representational character, a representative planner had to be found.

In California, there is only one that fits the job description, and this  was the person Mark Zuckerberg wanted to win for his construction projects as a partner was Frank Owen Gehry. The Canadian-born architect succeeds in transforming the common into something special unlike any other of his profession. Even after an almost 60-year career, he is still faithful to his maxim: architecture may affront. It does not need to be pure and even the materials being used may be simple if not even ordinary. That he himself often uses very sophisticated and expensive materials for important buildings is probably in the nature of his habitat. Gehry represents the contradictions of the Californian suburbs better than some Hollywood directors; to a certain extent he is both avant-garde and establishment in one. That makes him so interesting for Facebook. The social network service wants to maintain its fresh, innovative character even though it is already one of the most established players in its league.

In Gehry’s architecture, there are things that constantly resurface despite the immense variety he has worked on in the past 40 years. All of his buildings always have a strong sculptural shape. It is no coincidence that today proficiency in software for the creation and control of 3D models is a prerequisite to get a job at Gehry Partners. Gehry Technology emerged as early as 2002, a newly developed offshoot of the architectural firm, which offers digital design solutions from the aerospace industry for the construction sector. In a sense, the Gehry team programmes the software it uses itself.

That the company has not degenerated to a brittle high-tech machine is thanks to Frank Gehry’s career. It started as early as 1978, when he bought a house in Santa Monica for himself to remodel with the intention of combining everyday items to produce something unique. What used to be a regular suburban house before reconstruction, was encircled by this master craftsman with a protective sheath of corrugated iron, wooden and mesh panels. Exciting new spaces opened up between this new facade and the existing building.

Gehry gave the architectural response to trends that were taking place around the same time in the field of fine arts. Working with pop art greats like Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg most certainly had an influence on him. He later continued to develop his style further, dubbed ‘Ad Hocism’ by architecture critic Paul Heyer. He covered architectural icons such as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles or the Weisman Museum in Minneapolis with elaborate titanium sheet elements, which despite their exclusive character are direct descendants of American Suburbia’s sheet metal shingles.

Gehry succeeds in re-interpreting the lightweight construction systems of the West Coast in his own way as he blows up grids and seemingly makes components float. That his designs can actually be built is thanks to hordes of draughtsmen and engineers controlling every detail with the means of complicated software.

In MPK20, as the new Facebook building is called, all these typical Gehry elements can be found: from the shingles covering the outside wall, the plywood parapets through to a building shaped by edges and sloping surfaces. Even Gehry’s cardboard chairs “Little Beaver” are ubiquitous in the interior. Yet, the company headquarters are not designed to be as spectacular as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao for example.

Facebook does not need a monument just for the sake of form. Ultimately, the global market leader of social networks in its day-to-day business tries to create a special, dynamic unity of everyday yet unrelated content. Hence, it was over to Gehry to recreate the logic of the warehouse, a large, rather undefined space that can be populated as required, and to also apply it to the new company headquarters. The resulting “Work in progress” character is accepted deliberately. The message is conveyed anyway, or perhaps it is the message itself as Mark Zuckerberg at the opening of the offices underlines: “When you enter our buildings, we want you to feel how much left there is to be done in our mission to connect the world.”

The extent to which visitors of the company headquarters are actually cross-linked in real life is another matter. The space is densely occupied and designed in a manner that allows people to meet as if in the café or on the street corner next door. Admittedly, this fenced campus has not much in common with the idea of a city as Europeans know it or how Gehry‘s compatriot Jane Jacobs has imagined it. The fact that the place Facebook calls home, bears the word “park” in the name (MPK 20 stands for “Menlo Park, Building 20) underlines this non-urban character even more. Here in Silicon Valley, where high-tech corporations, elite universities and experimental micro-enterprises live in close proximity to each other, togetherness primarily rises from activity and is less defined as origin.

Gehry’s new building, it feels almost as if it simply belongs. In MPK20, workgroups can use various spatial situations to coordinate work either in a more collegial and focused way or as individually as needed. Another three hectares of roof are available as an additional meeting room or to tank up new energy during a long workday. The green roof skin thereby contributes to the climate-friendly concept and gives the building a unique character, despite its love for readymade poetry and the every-day flair of the warehouse. The distinction between landscape and building is blurred.

Inside, architectural art is used for creating spatial identity. In addition, Facebook has started a residency programme, which allows young artists to change and design parts of the building. The first results of this process can be seen in a series of photographs published on the company’s own image sharing service Instagram.

In these premises flexible team work is essential. This philosophy is consistent with architectural trends in contemporary workplace design. Over the decades, architects and operators have come to the realisation that in a conventional office building with its closed cells the best business ideas are developed in the canteen. Uninhibited communication should therefore be made possible even beyond the lunch break. This suits Facebook itself, as the best ideas arise from someone sharing content and making it available to others. Therefore, in the largest open-plan office in the world, spontaneous exchanges, informal collaborations and yet meticulous and painstaking composition of detailed solutions, are to be celebrated as cherished moments.

The fact that the corresponding structure can never be truly considered finished, despite the opening ceremony and moving into the premises, actually complements the concept of a  social network, where, by sharing continuously-produced  new content, a volatile and yet identity-forming unit is constructed.

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Picture credits © Christine Victoria Lloyd

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