Google reveals plans for futuristic cityscape campus, and new robot tech to make it configurable

Just about a year ago, I wrote about Square’s new offices in San Francisco, which were designed to be more like a city than a traditional office (see Another take on offices: something other than open or closed). The office design was led by Square’s head of office experience, Chris Gorman, who said in an article about the office,

“We were very inspired by city design and by cities in general–by areas where people cohabitate, come together, and share things in a quick and easy manner,” Gorman says. “We wanted to bring that same sensibility to the office.” And so instead of talking about a main hallway when describing the office, Gorman explains how there’s a large “avenue” running from end to end. A coffee bar in the middle acts as a sort of “town square.” Glass paneled meeting rooms are named for San Francisco intersections, “6th and Divisidero,” “6th and Ashbury,” and so on (Square’s offices are principally on the 6th floor of its building).

The design of the office “motivates people to move around the office and interact in casual, unscheduled ways,” he explains–just like the well-planned public spaces of a great city. Early concepts for the office were motivated by old 18th-century maps of cities. “When I think about a city,” Gorman says, “I shop, I go get coffee, I go to the park, I go for walks. We wanted to create that same variety in the office.” In addition to its in-house café (and in-house debugger/barista), Square has been experimenting with pop-up stores and artisan merchants appearing within Square’s own offices.

Square’s offices

This week, Google presented a plan to redevelop its Mountain View California campus, taking the ‘headquarters as a city’ model several steps — or maybe parsecs — farther.

The plan — developed by London design atelier Heatherwick Studio and Danish architect Bjarke Ingels — would add 2.5 million square feet of enclosed space on top of the existing 4 million square feet of today’s campus.

Indoor pathway
Glass canopy enclosing offices
A foyer of one of the planned structures
Swooping canopies have high tech capability to deal with sunlight

The plans do not include housing, so it does not aspire to being a fully self-sufficient city. However, the plans include a great deal of retail space — for restaurants, health clubs, and shops — so the integration of work and play is a key element.

Much of the plot would be reconfigured to be carless, with existing parking taken out, and a large single parking area would be mostly underground. Note that even though the design leads to an additional 10,000 workers, the same amount of parking is planned.

Much of the lot is being designed as parkland, and two creeks will be restored.

It’s unclear if Google’s proposal will be approved by the Mountain View authorities, who are concerned about the impact on city services and traffic.

I think the trend toward ‘office as city’ has found its mirror image here, with ‘city as office’. One of the more innovative aspects of the design involves the use of innovative materials and structural design, to allow the offices to be rapidly reconfigured, as the Silicon Valley Business Journal reported:

Four futuristic structures where basic building elements — floors, ceilings and walls — attach or detach from permanent steel frames, forming whole new workspaces of different sizes. With help from small cranes and robots (“crabots”), interiors will transform in hours, rather than months.


Here is how it will work, grossly simplified: Inside the glass canopies, Google imagines stationary steel support columns upon which lightweight, modular building pieces can be inserted, removed, raised or lowered at will. Think of the floors sort of like oven racks; the walls between them can be added, or not. Crabots (which Google calls “a range of small flexible and manageable cranes and robotic machines”) would lift and move these building segments around almost like furniture.

“We envision there will be some more permanent structures like stairwells and restroom cores and things like that,” said Radcliffe, who is Google’s vice president of real estate and workplace services. “Then we think there will be other components you can actually take out and put in.”

The canopies themselves would generate electricity, while movable shades embedded in a second canopy layer control glare and keep the interior cool.

This would allow for rapid reconfiguration of work and non-work spaces under the canopies. As I wrote last year, in the post about Square’s offices:

Perhaps in the future businesses will allow for the flexibility that cities afford inhabitants: so long as individuals keep within the city’s building codes people can do many different things, and the results can’t be completely unanticipated. A new store opens, another closes. In the workplace, a new project kicks off and a group of people take over one corner of a floor in the headquarters, moving walls and furnishings to house that temporary activity. And meanwhile, a dozen other project teams are doing something similar. Folks working on multiple products migrate from one area to another over the course of the day, like medieval traders or nomads.

And it looks like Google is bringing that future into the present, and inventing technologies to make it possible for others to do so, soon after.