How a cheap plywood temporary building became the inspiration for Google's new headquarters

Google interior
© BIG/Heatherwick Studio

We noted before that Google's new HQ, designed by BIG and Thomas Heatherwick, says a lot about the company. The more one learns about the building, the more interesting it gets. In Bloomberg Business, Brad Stone writes a long and fascinating article about it and the reasons behind the Apple, Facebook and Google headquarters.

One fascinating tidbit describes how Larry Page was inspired by a grotty old building at MIT.

building 20 1946 photo© MIT
Page talked to his real estate team about the old Building 20 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a 1940s wood-frame construction. It was ghastly to look at. But the “plywood palace,” as it was sometimes called, was beloved as an unruly nexus of interdisciplinary discovery. Wallboards and floors could be popped out and changed around, letting occupants—physicists, electronics researchers, linguists—mold their space however they wanted. Building 20 was a proto-incubator that begat a range of advances, from single-antenna radar to loudspeakers (Bose has roots there) to strobe photography, and was home to nine Nobel prize winners.

crabot© Google Crabot

To encourage such innovation at the new Google headquarters, the building has modular components that will be moved around by "Crabots"- a cross between cranes and robots. However, one critic notes that “Flexibility can become really expensive.”

building 20 MIT© Building 20, MIT

I wonder if they aren't missing the lesson of Building 20. Its occupants didn't make changes because of its inherently flexible design; they did it because it was cheap and old and temporary and nobody stopped them. Scientists were not afraid to make a mess of it. Professor Emeritus Paul Penfield is quoted in Wikipedia: "Its 'temporary nature' permitted its occupants to abuse it in ways that would not be tolerated in a permanent building. If you wanted to run a wire from one lab to another, you didn't ask anybody's permission — you just got out a screwdriver and poked a hole through the wall"

Jane Jacobs noticed this as well, writing about how "plain, ordinary, low-value old buildings", much like Building 20 are used, emphasis mine:

Cities need old buildings so badly it is probably impossible for vigorous streets and districts to grow without them.... for really new ideas of any kind—no matter how ultimately profitable or otherwise successful some of them might prove to be—there is no leeway for such chancy trial, error and experimentation in the high-overhead economy of new construction. Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings. New ideas must use old buildings.

Stewart Brand also wrote about this in How Buildings Learn. Alexis Madrigal quotes him in The Atlantic:

Stewart Brand argued in his pathbreaking essay, "'Nobody Cares What You Do in There': The Low Road," it's not hip buildings that foster creativity but crappy ones. "Low Road buildings are low-visibility, low-rent, no-style, high-turnover," Brand wrote. "Most of the world's work is done in Low Road buildings, and even in rich societies the most inventive creativity, especially youthful creativity, will be found in Low Road buildings taking full advantage of the license to try things."

Brand describes Building 20 as "The only building on campus you can cut with a saw." You didn't lift and move slabs, you just hacked it.

toy tankToy tank/Promo image

Years ago, I was in a fancy new office building that had expensive raised floors with removable panels so that they could run all the computer cables underneath. It was supposed be the latest thing in flexibility. The trouble was, when all the desks and file cabinets were placed, you couldn't lift the floor panels to change the wiring. So the building's engineer knocked the turret off a toy remote controlled tank and duct taped a flashlight on. He would lift two floor panels at either end of where he wanted a wire to go and would drive the tank from one to the other, pulling a string along. His hack was a lot easier that moving desks that sat on top of that so-called flexible flooring system.

Bjark Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick are two very smart designers working for a very smart client, but the lesson of Building 20 is probably that one should build a cheap, fast and hackable building. That's essentially what Facebook did: it's a big quick and dirty cheap barn of an open plan building that went up in about the time Apple poured its basement. Perhaps Frank Gehry learned the real lesson from Building 20 after he replaced it with his disastrous Stata Center, which Stewart Brand called "overpriced, overwrought, unloved, unadaptable."

Instead, Google is trying "another moon shot." Oh well.

How a cheap plywood temporary building became the inspiration for Google's new headquarters
It may well be more Jane Jacobs and Stewart Brand than it is Bjarke Ingells.

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