Facebook’s future Menlo Park outpost is one step closer to reality this week, after Frank Gehry’s "toned down" design was unanimously approved by the city council. What exactly does toned down mean, you ask? According to Gehry partner Craig Webb, Mark Zuckerberg was a little put off by Gehry’s original design. "Facebook told us they wanted a building that’s very anonymous, a building that blends into the neighborhood, that doesn’t call a lot of attention to themselves," Webb reported. The revised plan is a series of white boxes that house one of the largest open-plan offices ever created—all topped by a flowing roof garden.
So why hire a champion of expressivity and iconic design, if you want something generic? The answer lies both in the general misperception of Gehry and Facebook’s hacker culture. Frank Gehry is America’s best-known architect at the moment, largely thanks to photographs of his gleaming, frenetic facades. The majority of us, though, haven’t even stepped foot inside one of his buildings, which are almost entirely nondescript, boxy, and white inside. Gehry has a reputation as a wild man—but once you get past the bombastic facade, it’s pretty vanilla stuff.
Which is exactly what Facebook needs. Zuckerberg is known for his "hacker ethic," which he’s described as "extremely open and meritocratic." Hackers, goes the Facebook mantra, "believe that the best idea and implementation should always win." Those ideas extend to Facebook’s offices, where employees are free to hack their spaces as they see fit. In a way, Gehry’s white boxes are the perfect framework to house 3,400 employees who are encouraged to hack the spaces around them. As Ryan Tate intelligently noted in Wired, the design is a bit like Zuck’s shower sandals-and-hoodie combo, "an unassuming wrapper around a remarkably capable entity."
There’s actually quite a bit of precedent for this concept. We tend to think of zany theme rooms and sundae bars when we talk about tech offices, but if you look at the history of innovation architecture, you’ll find tons of buildings that were described as simple, inexpensive, or even in some cases badly designed, and still ended up as innovation hubs. The progressive historian Stewart Brand famously termed these kinds of structures "Low Road" buildings, referring to the low value placed upon them by occupants and architects. The funny thing about Low Road structures, though, is that they often turn into hotbeds of creativity.
There’s no better example than MIT’s Building 20, the prefab-and-asbestos nightmare built to temporarily house the schools’ radiology lab during World War II. MIT kept it around to house a weird jumble of programs after the war, and it became an expected powerhouse of incredible work. In his 2012 New Yorker piece on collaboration, Jonah Lehrer described how the "plywood palace" was hacked by academics: "Scientists in Building 20 felt free to remake their rooms, customizing the structure to fit their needs. Walls were torn down without permission; equipment was stored in the courtyards and bolted to the roof." What’s more, a confusing room-numbering system and a cramped circulation corridor forced scientists to run into each other. Building 20, despite being under-designed, ended up becoming home to some of the 20th century’s most important work.
Gehry and Zuckerberg, in a way, are trying to engineer their own Low Road building that’s still a pleasant place to work, thanks to the expansive roof garden. Assuming that’s actually the thinking behind Facebook West, it’s refreshing to see an architect, known for championing form, focusing on function. It’ll be exciting to see how the building progresses—construction is expected to start immediately. For a bit more information on the design, head over to Wired.