One of sustainability’s greatest shortfalls can also operate as one of its greatest strengths. As a term, sustainability has been criticized for lacking concrete definition and encompassing too many different topics and perspectives. Part of that is by design. The core components of sustainability revolve around balance and dynamic equilibrium, basic tenets of natural ecosystems–which are far from simple. The result is that the effectiveness of any efforts under the banner of sustainability can be weighed by a number of sources through a series of different lenses. While good for the environment, this can be cumbersome for parties wanting to make a “positive” impact without a series of more demanding benchmarks.
The flip side is that its encompassing nature can be used to reinforce vague or ambiguous efforts that are propped up buzz words and cosmopolitan trends while the environmental benefit is relatively small. The line between big ideas that carry many positive effects for the planet and big plans that provide little ecological effect due to lack of concrete goals is an important one for us to stay on the right side of.
The design of Google’s new corporate campus has radiated across the media recently complete with shiny renderings and a snappy video. Pulling no punches, Google went straight for design professionals known for making a big splash: Thomas Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingles. This dynamic duo hopes to help Google craft a physical image of a company that has helped define the digital universe. As can be expected, the company that sharpens the bleeding edge of virtual space did not want to stand beholden to an existing image of glass, corporate towers.
The first glance at preview from the design team shows renderings of a flowing glass canopy that undulates in waves over boxes of interior space that hold everything from work stations to yoga classes and retail business. These glass tents are surrounded by vistas of natural settings of trees and rivers and brooks with hiking trails and bike paths seamlessly sewn throughout. When looking at the marketing production, the three-pronged team hits all of the right spots to build a case for why people should love the project and why Google should be allowed to drastically expand their footprint in Mountain View, California. The musical score shies away from the triumphal overtures commonly used to strengthen the ideas of innovation and success, traded instead for calm tones as a groundwork for a message of cultural integration. The list of confidence-building themes includes: human scale, community integration, innovative urban systems, future flexibility and, of course, the environment.
“We have an opportunity to build new buildings, which is nothing unique, which people do every day all over the world. But what we’ve tried to do is take a step back and say, ‘how buildings work with nature.” – David Radcliffe, Google
Though the word “sustainability” is not used once, “nature/natural” makes an appearance seven times to serve as a conduit for making a new Google campus synonymous with environment restoration without running the risk of commitments. While the design is still in its early stages, there are still a number of challenges for the team to navigate in order for the outcome to accomplish all of its hopes and promises. From its first glance, the new Google home runs a number of the same risks as Apple’s new corporate headquarters in Cupertino.
World Beneath the Dome
As a fellow architect, it would be hypocritical to chide designers for proposing ideas that they did not immediately know how they would accomplish. The status quo is not going to solve all of our problems and most likely isn’t a great tool for forging new paradigms. The glass canopy that the designers hope to stretch over their pseudo-urban creation is probably still a bit of a question mark, but whether or not they can construct it is not its most complicated feat. With all the minds they have access to, I’m sure they can. The question is whether it will support or damage their notions of community integration that is connected to both nature and the rest of Mountain View (if that is actually the goal).
The idea of making paradise under a glass roof is not a new one, drawing back to Paolo Soleri’s “archologies”, constructed habitats encapsulating densely populated communities. Upstate New York residents will remember the early marketing images of Destiny USA, Bob Congel’s mythical mega mall dreamed for Syracuse, New York that envisioned a shopper’s heaven under the protection of a glass scrim. This particular constructed Eden was going to have every imaginable way for visitors to spend money including hotels, shops, theatres, rivers and even a golf course under a clear, protective barrier. Looking back at the renderings still coax out a smirk or two. What sounded far-fetched ended up proving to be just that with the project never becoming realized, but even if it had there were a series of functional and programmatic challenges that the complex would have had to solve.
The first potential issue revolves around cooling. In speaking to one of the consultants chosen for the exaggerated Destiny project, one of the chief worries for the vision of retail wonderland in upstate New York was not how to keep it warm through icy winters, but how to keep it cool. Even in a city like Syracuse, the combination of sunlight, mechanical equipment and throngs of people can generate a great deal of heat. How to keep air moving through the space while providing the very climatic filter that would cause one to build the cover in the first place can require some mechanical leg work and a great deal of energy use.
The larger question (and arguably more important) is whether or not these complexes would simply be creating a new city in a bubble rather than providing veins of cultural and economic support to the one around it.
“We’re really making sure that we make spaces very open and accessible, so it’s just not for Googlers but for anyone to lives in the area to come by.” – David Radcliffe, Google
Without a doubt, this is what most of us want to hear from a large corporation that is planning to dramatically expand their square footage in a relatively small city. The message of creating value for those beyond the company is a soothing one that improves public reception. Beyond that, it is a good goal from a planning perspective. Interaction between businesses and their employees and the rest of the community at large helps promote a social and economic balance for everyone that lives there. But even in the center of dense cities like New York this can be challenging let alone a setting like the relatively suburban archetype of Mountain View. If community integration is really the goal rather than a sound byte, is their current design the best way to do that?
One of the problems with Google’s campus is that it is a campus–a familiar drawback that is already being played out by Apple. The prospect that a non-corporate entity could use businesses or landscapes created for corporate clientele is not far-fetched, but the notion that people will regularly travel to it by car in order to visit it and experience it’s amenities seems a little less likely. If Google (like Apple) was expanding and infilling the fabric of the populated center of Mountain View this could make the goal of community integration stronger. Strengthening the walkability of a pedestrian environment is a boon to local communities. Creating a removed entity of commerce that is walkable for its employees is a different proposal.
This relationships highlights the biggest elephant in the room when it comes to sustainability, or whatever term is chosen for marketing an effort to respond to the natural environment. While it may be easy to walk around the campus once people are there, the vast majority of people will be getting to and from this place by car.
According to a New York Times article, among the many things that Google has brought to Mountain View are “skyrocketing home prices and intolerable gridlock” which will only get worse with an expansion of space and employees to fill it. One of the largest environmental problems with suburban office parks is that the vehicle-miles-traveled by large commuting crowds are worse for the environment (and arguably the community) than most of the sustainability measures companies can do on site. In Apple’s case, PVs on the roof of their new home did not come close to the amount of energy used for its employees to commute there.
Syracuse’s example of DestinyUSA was surrounded by similar questions, heightened perhaps because the construction in question was not creating specialized jobs, but rather a horde of low-wage retail. The mall is located on brownfield sites just off the highway and a few exits from the actual downtown. Surrounded by barren no-man’s-land the Destiny site was the epitome of a destination that counted on people driving, parking and shopping ad nauseum.
Despite the hopes of some fatter property tax checks, it was the best thing for the city that the final dream never came to pass. For a downtown that is already struggling from urban decline, a complex like Destiny would have done nothing to breath life into the local community, but instead quite the opposite. The last morsels of pedestrian activity in the downtown would be sucked away by a shopper’s paradise in a bottle. The success of business beneath the glass would have come at the cost of local businesses that comprise the actual community.
An Integrated Approach
All of these variables come back to the question of why build a business center so far away from the community–other than the fact that it’s how others have been doing it and the promises of cheaper land? Why not build new facilities that are built on an existing downtown rather than as a satellite of activity on the outskirts? Why not actively engage the community rather than stick to the sugar of writing checks for taxes and amenities to help the medicine go down?
Another solution would be to expand the program mix at the new campus to include housing. Every person that lives within walking distance to the Google campus is a person that doesn’t need to drive. Creating housing options that are close to work can not only expose more people to the (vastly under-appreciated) amenity of walking to work, but will cut down on both the pollution and the infrastructural strain of highway commuting.
Once again, given that we are still in the early stages of design I am willing to give the team and the company the benefit of the doubt that these goals and their solutions can be tied up, but the process raises the important issue of corporate America promoting an unsubstantiated dedication to “the natural” in order to capitalize on the groundswell of environmental awareness. Whether you call it a “sustainable campus” or a “campus connected to nature,” success means more than the integration of flora and fauna. There is a difference between a green city and a garden city. One option studies the components of nature and the urban environment and responds to them as delicate ecosystems of activity and energy. The other is just trying to plant things everywhere.
As we continue to learn more about the damage that we inflict on the environment companies should be adding levels of specificity to their plans to help promote sustainability on a global and local level.
Image Credits: Google Headquarters Design © Google / BIG / Heatherwick Studio