AUGUST 30, 2012
This week, Facebook announced that it had retained the buzziest of brand-name architects—Frank Gehry, whose twisted confections are sought after by all cities trying to make a "statement"—to design its new headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Both parties could use a public relations boost. Facebook is flush with cash after its $6 billion initial public offering, but has seen nothing but bad news since. And Gehry took perhaps the biggest bath of his career earlier this summer over his plan for the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington D.C., which Congress defunded in this year's budget.
So far, it seems to have worked. Bloggers swooned at Gehry's vision for a vast, one-story warehouse on stilts, and urbanists pondered what it tells us about Facebook as a company—it's non-hierarchical, eco-friendly, eager to establish itself as an economic and cultural force on par with its blue-chip neighbors.
That's a frustrating response. As shrouded in moss as it might be, the 10-acre campus is fundamentally no different from the tech parks of old: Single-use, completely isolated, and shamefully wasteful of the kind of space that commands such a premium on the other end of the Bay. The designs highlight the accommodations they've made for pedestrian and bike access—like an underground tunnel to its other campus across the highway!—but only glancingly mention the subterranean lake of parking, with 1504 spots for a projected 2800 employees (that's a really high ratio, even for a suburban office). The horizontal layout might comport with Mark Zuckerberg's conception of a social universe in which relationships exist independently of any physical reality. But from a practical standpoint, it ignores one of the most important qualities of a creative place: Density, activity, and exposure to the ferment of ideas.
Facebook isn't alone in doubling down on suburbanism. A couple towns over, Apple is also planning an architectural wonderland—much more ordered in its U.F.O.-like circularity, but no less cut off from its surroundings, as the L.A. Times' Christopher Hawthorne pointed out when it was unveiled last fall. It's the corporate headquarters as ashram, utterly devoted to its visionary founder, inclusive of everything its inhabitants could possibly need as they withdraw from the earthly world.
The weird thing is, those isolated tech parks are fast going out of style. Silicon Valley succeeded in spite of its soul-sucking suburbanity, but now entrepreneurs and engineers have choices, and they're clustering in our most stimulating cities: New York and central San Francisco. Companies like LivingSocial in Washington D.C. and Amazon in Seattle have re-made whole sections of downtown in really exciting ways. Even Google has set up branch offices in urban centers, paying through the nose for more expensive real estate. Why? Because proximity to customers matters, and competition for tech talent is fierce—engineers who can afford to be picky would rather roll out of their apartments in hip neighborhoods and walk to work, even if tech companies will pick them up in a fancy WiFi-enabled shuttle.
Granted, it's hard to house thousands of employees in places as built-out as New York and San Francisco. And sure, maturing companies need maturing managers who live in the 'burbs as well. Even outside the urban cores, though, tech companies could think bigger by building truly sustainable environments where people live, work, and play without having to spend an hour on their commute.
Instead, Apple and Facebook are building themselves palaces in the desert. They're deluded if they think all the hot shots they're going to need will want to make the trek.
Disclosure: The New Republic's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Chris Hughes was a co-founder of Facebook and worked at the company through 2007. He remains a shareholder.