Heatherwick Studio, BIG lend tent-like lightness to Google’s new Bay View Campus

With an airship hangar inspired aesthetic, Google’s first purpose-built HQ is a mammoth collaboration incorporating principles of sustainability and flexibility in workspaces.

by Anmol AhujaPublished on : May 23, 2022

With a scale, scope, prestige, and assay associated with as massive a project as Google's first campus constructed from scratch, every part of its rather well documented journey - from conception to completion - has had no reservations in finding its space even in mainstream media. The sheer weight of the names involved in the undertaking - Google, Bjarke Ingels, and Thomas Heatherwick, the latter two probably crystalising their most iconic collaborations to date - makes this among the most widely anticipated architectural projects in the past few years. The opening of Google’s new headquarters in California last week is also concurrent with the prescient debate on remote working vs. operating from offices, with the former advocating for greater productivity and in some cases, the need for massive office buildings at all. However, conversely, along with the opening of a sprawling 42 acres campus in Silicon Valley, the global tech giant makes a strong case for the latter, being among the first large scale corporate workplaces to call its employees back to its physical workplaces. Intently so, while the campus and the tech multinational seek to move away from the conventional "floor-on-a-skyscraper" typology of workplace design, (a low-rise fortress surrounded by parking in the case of Silicon Valley), the campus' design by two world renowned firms, BIG and Heatherwick Studio, seems to follow up on a single question, definitively harbouring Google's design brief: How can you make the office more human?

  • Incorporating biophilic design principles and core attention to sustainability, the Bay View Campus is the largest to pursue multiple green building certificates | Google Bay View Campus | BIG + Heatherwick Studios | STIRworld
    Incorporating biophilic design principles and core attention to sustainability, the Bay View Campus is the largest to pursue multiple green building certificates Image: Iwan Baan
  • Aerial view of Google’s Bay View Campus in close proximity to NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley | Google Bay View Campus | BIG + Heatherwick Studios | STIRworld
    Aerial view of Google’s Bay View Campus in close proximity to NASA’s Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley Image: Iwan Baan

The most striking feature of the campus perhaps - even more so than the gargantuan yet horizontally expansive scale of the development, its form, or its ribbed, dragon-scale like skin - is that the entire spatial program of the building is accommodated in only two floors, marking a succinct, clear distinction in functional aesthetic. The entire low-rise expanse seems to spread like a village along the site's plane, closer in being to the Californian landscape, with the settlements' figurative (and literal) 'pitching of a tent' framing the overall appearance of the buildings in the campus. The progressive canopies capping the campus buildings and their tent-like enclosures are composed of waves upon waves of dragon-scale photovoltaic tiles, transforming energy generation systems into an incorporated design feature. At the buildings' roots, North America's largest geothermal pile system forms the foundation of individual structures. Bearing testament to the scale and scope of the undertaking, as referred to before, the Bay View campus, comprising three of the most sustainable workplace buildings in the world along with establishing a 17.3-acre park and wetlands reserve, is only the first phase of the development. The second site in the proposed campus, Charleston East, will soon begin work. 

  • The reflection of the well-lit Bay View campus in the above-ground rainwater harvesting pond | Google Bay View Campus | BIG + Heatherwick Studios | STIRworld
    The reflection of the well-lit Bay View campus in the above-ground rainwater harvesting pond Image: Iwan Baan
  • Along with the office building, event centre, and accommodation units, the site is also home to 7.3 acres of high-value natural areas including wet meadows, woodlands and marsh | Google Bay View Campus | BIG + Heatherwick Studios | STIRworld
    Along with the office building, event centre, and accommodation units, the site is also home to 7.3 acres of high-value natural areas including wet meadows, woodlands and marsh Image: Iwan Baan

The design of the new campus, according to Google, "proposes a new, greener, more flexible model for the workplace, in tune with Google’s values and ambitions". While the formulation of the building's forms displays disparate glimpses of an industrial aesthetic, owing to its inspiration from a 1930s airship hangar next to the Bay View campus, the buildings' functional striation and care expended towards making it as human-oriented as possible, despite the scale, is what lends it the qualification of productively housing hundreds of people through the day. A sandwich of layers, the campus emerges as a conglomeration of strata: a lightweight, power-generating canopy on top, followed by a 'village' of different function, infrastructure on the basement level, and finally, the site itself, seeking to reconnect with the landscape. Connecting all of these is a comprehensive lateral connectivity route that follows Google’s core ethos of crafting veritable user experiences through its products and technology: "focus on the user and all else will follow."

  • With an open plan, the team spaces are in the upper level and gathering spaces are in the lower level, thereby creating discrete spaces for focus and collaboration | Google Bay View Campus | BIG + Heatherwick Studios | STIRworld
    With an open plan, the team spaces are in the upper level and gathering spaces are in the lower level, thereby creating discrete spaces for focus and collaboration Image: Iwan Baan
  • The second floor adopts the concept of ‘neighbourhood area’ with variations in the floor plate to impart a sense of flexibility to the team | Google Bay View Campus | BIG + Heatherwick Studios | STIRworld
    The second floor adopts the concept of ‘neighbourhood area’ with variations in the floor plate to impart a sense of flexibility to the team Image: Iwan Baan

The rather democratised intervention of horizontal expansion as opposed to vertical, allows, even interestingly so, for the employment of microscopic urban planning principles in delineating work spaces under the canopies. “Everyone works together, under the same sky, instead of in cramped floors stacked above a spacious office lobby for guests,” states a release by Heatherwick Studio on the formation of their brief and how they responded to it. The planarly spatial layout of the massive space manifests as a mat of interconnected 'tables', connected through accessible ramps. These 'tables', or tectonic spatial masses, act as the roof for a town-like arrangement of ancillary spaces, including meeting areas, bathrooms, cafés, gyms, and the like. Each of these tables is further conceived as a neighbourhood for 40 to 80 people, organised around a distinctive courtyard that is activated by displays of art from local Bay View artists. Akin to a small city, a hierarchy of circulation routes apart from the linking ramps connects each of these neighbourhoods. Through a play in the scale of these avenues - from small laneways to main arterial routes - the interstitial spaces assume a character of their own, while the campus transforms into a giant canopy that is "human-centred, filled with life and prompting people to connect and experiment".

  • The first-of-its-kind, dragonscale solar skin along with nearby wind farms will power the campus in an attempt to operate on carbon-free energy by 2030 | Google Bay View Campus | BIG + Heatherwick Studios | STIRworld
    The first-of-its-kind, dragonscale solar skin along with nearby wind farms will power the campus in an attempt to operate on carbon-free energy by 2030 Image: Iwan Baan
  • The canopy takes shape in the dragonscale solar skin and clerestory windows which harvest and regulate light respectively | Google Bay View Campus | BIG + Heatherwick Studios | STIRworld
    The canopy takes shape in the dragonscale solar skin and clerestory windows which harvest and regulate light respectively Image: Iwan Baan

While the conception of the form melds utility with an obvious, required sense of iconicity, the campus' key innovations lay in its function, or rather the programmatic designs that reduces it. The canopy capping the structures, for instance, is a lightweight but rigid catenary structure, incorporating a rather complex assemblage that not only aims to make up for nearly 40 per cent of the building’s annual energy demands, but also regulates the percolation of daylight into the settled communes of Google's workforce beneath. Between the columns propping the canopy, the tension in the structure is adjusted, allowing the enclosure to peel back, resulting in the formation of wave-like clerestories. Employing parametric design tools along with sophisticated analytical modelling tools, the teams aimed for an ideal balance between solid and glazed areas in the canopy, guided by the idea of "give the sense of working in the open air, while creating optimal lighting, temperature, acoustic and air quality conditions," according to an official release. Alternatively, for quieter work hours and more focused spaces, the design and planning also incorporate demountable prefabricated units. The windows along the walls are further shaded by an automated system of blinds that is able to track the path of the sun to eliminate glare, while the canopy also integrates rainwater harvesting systems. Coupled with that, storm water retention ponds on the grounds, restoration of meadow, woodland and scrubland wildlife habitats, and single draft displacement system for ventilation round out the campus' passive and environmental design measures.

Google Bay View Campus: Illustrations depicting the innovative approaches to attaining sustainability in the functioning of the building | Google Bay View Campus | BIG + Heatherwick Studios | STIRworld
Google Bay View Campus: Illustrations depicting the innovative approaches to attaining sustainability in the functioning of the building Image: Courtesy of Studio Heatherwick and BIG

"Workspace design was already moving far beyond conventional notions of efficiency before the catastrophe of COVID. Now it is grappling with ideas about how to trigger people’s imagination, the emotional engagement of one team with another, and with the wider purpose of the business,” states an official release on the challenges Google and the architects mulled upon before formulating a design scheme for the Bay View campus. “The campus at Bay View illustrates how we start creating a whole different atmosphere for work,” they state.

Thomas Heatherwick narrates the process of shaping a workspace designed in Google’s vision for the future of work Image: Courtesy of Studio Heatherwick and BIG

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