Making a Corporate Statement

The Financial Mail
6 February 2014

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“Unbridled displays of money and power have always captured the public imagination, be it from the perspective of an Ayn Rand symbol of an individual’s triumph or a curious enchantment with superbling in a very unequal world. Architecture, like glossy stationery or a slick website, is seen as central to a company’s image, branding and recruitment strategy.

Office buildings and particularly company headquarters have come to embody the spirit of the firms they represent.

While the architectural quality of corporate headquarters is often sidelined by profit-focused developers, a number of iconic and beautifully designed buildings grace the skylines of global cities.

Consider New York’s Chrysler Building, Hong Kong’s Bank of China, or London’s 30 St Mary’s Axe (the gherkin) and Lloyd’s of London headquarters just down the road. Not only did these buildings challenge architectural conventions at the time of their design, but they’ve also set new office space design standards.

Global tech giants are the Chrysler equivalent of our age, and they’ve continued to challenge and improve both design and working standards. Not only do their buildings enhance the allure of their brands but they help ensure that they attract the best minds and keep them as happy and invested in their corporate culture as possible. “I want to work for Google” — you hear it all the time.

The appeal of catching a game of netball with your colleagues after a quick pow-wow in a room fashioned on a central Asian yurt seems inescapable. The famous Googleplex in California has set the standard. More theme park wonderland than architectural classic, Google’s sprawling campus headquarters have in part been replicated in their offices worldwide.

Similarly, Apple, Amazon, Samsung and Facebook all are set to challenge Google by building their own architectural icons along the US west coast.

Apple, considering itself far more sophisticated than brightly coloured and serif-fonted Google, has turned to Britain’s king of the iconic office building, and designer of the gherkin — Sir Norman Foster — to design its new Cupertino headquarters. Modelled on the rounded-corner elegance of Apple’s products, Foster & Partners’ design for the new headquarters does away with angles completely, creating a single, massive ring of a building.

Rendered in a romanticised natural landscape, images depicting casually cool staff chatting in a field of wild grass and flowers en route to grabbing a chai latte with their best-friend colleagues abound. The building will be aggressively energy-efficient, with reliance on natural ventilation over heating or air conditioning.

Apple has translated the image and lifestyle associated with its brand into a building that not only captures the essence and exquisite lines of an Apple product but confronts the banal, sprawling, car-centred California parking-lot landscape with a glistening gem of a building, technologically superior but cradled by nature.

Intriguingly, the Apple headquarters challenges the celebration of technology seen in global architecture’s hi-tech moment of the late 1970s and 1980s, when buildings like Lloyd’s of London, Paris’s Pompidou Centre, or Hong Kong’s HSBC tower put their pipes, elevators and structures on show in an overt display of technological advancement.

Of course the most advanced technology today is to be found in minuscule chips and powerful networks. The new Apple captures this. In fact the absence of any architectural flexing is its most poignant statement — we’re so advanced, and our technology is so integrated that you don’t see it.

Much further up the west coast, in Seattle, ground has been broken on Amazon’s new headquarters. Designed by global architecture firm and tech-company favourite NBBJ, the building, like Dropbox, Tumblr and Twitter, occupies a central-city urban site, unlike the peri-urban campus trend we’ve seen with Apple and Google.

Amazon’s new “neighbourhood-inspired” building stretches across three urban blocks. Three 38-storey office towers, two midrise towers and a meeting centre make up the design.

An idyllic Eden is contained in the building’s meeting centre. Designed as three bubbles, the plan is to kit out the striking structures with natural mounds of grass, tall leafy trees, dog parks, and cycle lanes that extend beyond the building’s perimeter, embedding it in the larger Seattle community. The biome bubbles make climate sense by providing a warm outdoor setting in a city famous for its cold and wet winters.

The new trend for tech firms to be located in inner-city environments is easy to understand. City centres are the “campuses” that the likes of Google have had to build. Urban environments allow employees unparalleled access to entertainment, clients, friends and other cities — they’re essentially hyperconnected.

In the case of Amazon’s new headquarters, the company chose an underperforming part of the city and developed extensive, inclusionary plans before presenting its designs to the city council. Amazon planned to partner the city in improving a part of town, and the city responded with immediate support.

Both Facebook and Samsung have started designing their new US headquarters, to be built in Silicon Valley. While “starchitect” Frank Gehry’s Facebook design is reminiscent of the playful Googleplex, NBBJ’s Samsung building at 10 storeys has a more urban appeal.

As tech firms wrestle over intellectual property rights, innovative technologies and their latest branding strategies, their new headquarters throw architecture into the arena. Divergent approaches abound to make each building revolutionary in its own way. However, much like the market’s top two smart phones, similarities abound.

Almost all new corporate headquarters favour the comfort of their employees above everything else. Though many might argue that it’s all really in the quality of the coffee, these buildings allow a free flow of air, enable sunlight to penetrate deep in the building, facilitate chance encounters between employees, make them feel at home and provide enhanced visibility between floors and departments.

South Africa is no stranger to the global game of one-upmanship that fuels the design of new corporate headquarters. New office spaces have to be taller, shinier, bolder and “greener” than their counterparts.

While many new buildings in commercial nodes like Sandton embrace principles like health, visibility and good coffee, their skyline tussling has resulted in a mixed bag of odd corporate statements. A careful edit of design decisions could go a long way in refining the nature of our expanding skylines.

In the case of Amazon, a corporation had the initiative to enliven what was essentially a commuter corridor, benefiting surrounding communities, the city and themselves in the process. Development in Johannesburg, for example, falls dramatically short of this ideal, with secured corporate enclaves being built to serve the interests of the property developer only. The power of creating a building that embraces the street is seldom exercised in Sandton, Rosebank or Illovo, nor do such buildings trigger an appreciation for “cityness” or provide their occupants and the city with top-notch facilities and services.

Clients and developers could embrace the architectural spirit shown by Amazon and Apple. Instead of demanding banal structures with awkward trims or stylised monuments, clients and developers could work with top architects to create buildings that shape cities by building public plazas, embracing pedestrians and connecting with their surrounds.

The world is full of great examples. And architects can extend themselves beyond reproducing variations of a formula and start to imagine the kind of future city they wish to take part in designing."