Google's London HQ Boasts a Rooftop Garden for the Ages

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Plans for Google's new London headquarters include a ridiculously lush rooftop garden, drawing comparisons to London's failed Garden Bridge project. . (Photo: Google)

Remember that enchanting, ridiculously lush bridge-park that was supposed to be built over the River Thames but instead was met with massive backlash — much of it well-deserved — before it fizzled out and was ultimately scrapped by London Mayor Sadiq Kahn?

Well, London's doomed Garden Bridge has been reborn — kind of, sort of — in the form of Google’s futuristic, flora-bedecked new headquarters in the British capital city. Or at least that’s what some cheeky journalists are suggesting. The two projects — the plant-topped bridge and the plant-topped corporate campus — do share a common designer in the form of Thomas Heatherwick, after all.

Envisioned as sleek skyscraper leisurely lying on its side near Regent’s Canal in Central London’s so-called Knowledge Quarter, this self-described “groundscraper” will be, at 300 meters (984 feet) long, longer than London’s tallest building, the Shard, is tall.

Judging from the first batch of design renderings released by Google, the gently inclining rooftop of the company’s new U.K. corporate compound — the first building built for and fully owned by the Silicon Valley-based tech behemoth outside of the United States — will be almost entirely covered in vegetation. That’s 300 meters of dedicated green space, just on the roof.

That being said, it would be unfair to refer to what’s going on atop this sloping, low-slung and, in the words of Guardian architecture critic Oliver Wainwright, “surprisingly sober,” structure as a simple garden. It’s more of a full-on multipurpose urban park, complete with an amphitheater and 200-meter “trim track” for jogs and brisk strolls set against a variety of different landscaped environments — wildflower meadows, grassy fields, ornamental ponds and well-shaded thickets — that provide upwards of 4,000 Google workers with “the opportunity to exercise, meet or engage, away from the office floors.”

Like with Amazon’s plant-stuffed spheres in downtown Seattle, all this foliage isn’t just an attractive place to unwind and socialize. It also provides the perfect cover to hide from one’s co-workers on days when you just aren’t feeling it.

You haven’t seen Marcus have you?

Have you looked for him in the woodlands up on the roof? He likes to hide up there.

Overhead rendering of Google's rooftop park in King's Cross, London
Google's rooftop park offers plenty of space for employees to spread out during lunch ... and then some. (Photo: Google)

The elaborate park topping Google's planned London HQ offers plenty of space for employees to spread out during their lunch breaks ... and then some. (Rendering: Google)

The one small portion of the roof that isn’t dedicated to employee-only green space will be home to a photovoltaic array with an annual output of 19,800 kilowatt-hours. There are plans for a rainwater harvesting system up top, too.

An abundance of employee-pleasing amenities continue inside the 1 million-square-foot office building (Google will claim roughly 65 percent of it and presumably rent the rest of the space out to like-minded firms). The plans call for a lap pool, gym, massage suites, nap pods and massive motorized blinds that swing into action on those very rare London days when the sunshine pouring into the interior becomes just a bit too much. Dominated by healthy, natural materials and greenery, the workspace itself is open and permeated by natural light; a single central staircase links the various levels of the structure, which rises from seven stories to 11 stories at its tallest. The ground floor of the super-long building will be lined with open-to-the-public shops and eateries.

Google's London HQ is adjacent to King's Cross Tube station
Google's lanky London space is saddled up directly next to King's Cross railway station. (Photo: Google)

A commuters dream: Google's lanky Central London space is saddled up directly next to bustling King's Cross railway station. (Rendering: Google)

What’s more, the complex couldn’t be more convenient to public transportation as King’s Cross rail station — one of the busiest rail hubs in the U.K. — and beneath that, the St. Pancras Underground station, is quite literally just a stone’s throw away. The design also calls for a sizable bicycle parking facility with room for 686 bikes — and just four parking spots for cars.

“The area is a fascinating collision of diverse building types and spaces and I can't help but love this mix of massive railway stations, roads, canals and other infrastructure all layered up into the most connected point in London,” says Thomas Heatherwick in a press statement. “Influenced by these surroundings, we have treated this new building for Google like a piece of infrastructure too, made from a family of interchangeable elements which ensure that the building and its workspace will stay flexible for years to come.”

Heatherwick isn’t the only big name attached to Google's plant-clad London groundscraper, which, if given the green light by the local council will commence construction in 2018. Just like Google’s flashy new mothership in Mountain View, California, the London project is a joint effort between Heatherwick Studio and BIG, the eponymous firm of unfailingly audacious Danish architect Bjarke Ingels.

A spacious park at Google's proposed London headquarters
Google's new London compound - the first building to be fully owned and built for the tech giant outside of the U.S. - will include a lovely public park alongside Regent's Canal. (Photo: Google)

Google's new London compound — the first building to be fully owned and built for the tech giant outside of the U.S. — is flanked by Regent's Canal. (Rendering: Google)

Aside from achieving a certain infamy with the ill-fated Garden Bridge, King’s Cross-based Heatherwick is behind another controversy-mired park project: Manhattan’s Pier55, an arts-centric offshore oasis backed by the husband-wife team of media magnate Barry Diller and fashion icon Diane von Furstenberg that would float in the Hudson River. He’s also responsible for Vessel, a monumental climbable public artwork — a $150 million “stairway to nowhere” — that’s currently being assembled just north of the stalled Pier55 site at Hudson Yards.

Back home across the pond, Heatherwork has designed everything from Olympic cauldrons, double-decker buses and a nature-infused cancer care center that harnesses the “therapeutic nature of plants.”

Charismatic and hyper-prolific Ingels — the subject of an excellent new documentary film — is a bit harder to keep up with. Recently commissioned BIG projects include a ying- and yang-shaped panda house at the Copenhagen Zoo and an uncommonly beautiful mineral water bottling plant in Lombardy, Italy. One of his most hotly anticipated projects, Lego House in Billund, Denmark, is due to open in September while his inaugural NYC building, a pyramid-shaped residential "courtscraper" named VIA 57 West, was completed last fall.

Interior rendering of Google's London HQ
Interior rendering of Google's London HQ. (Photo: Google)

In addition to the new HQ, Google will retain two other nearby buildings in London's Knowledge Quarter, home to the British Library, the Alan Turing Institute, the Royal College of Physicians and other institutions. (Rendering: Google)

Back in London, many critics have noted that — bonkers rooftop park and skyscraper-esque length, aside — the £1 billion Google-plex is a relatively restrained effort considering the involvement of Ingels and Heatherwick, two young architects whose respective oeuvres can easily be described as daring, unorthodox, impossible and outright bananas. The Guardian's Oliver Wainwright notes that the design has been toned down considerably from an earlier plan that was conceived by another architecture firm and ultimately scrapped by Google. (Ingels and Heatherwick were recruited by Google to take on the London project in 2015.)

"Eschewing the tech campus trend for increasingly wacky architecture, it appears Google may be trying to grow up," writes Wainwright.

I'm a fan — it's practical, green and not too aggressively weird, which it easily could have been. I’m also instantly reminded of one of my favorite buildings, the meadow-topped former corporate campus of timber product giant Weyerhaeuser in Federal Way, Washington. Designed by SOM in the early 1970s, this lushly landscaped edifice revolutionized the concept of open office design and has been referred to over the years as a “skyscraper on its side.”