Facebook Friends Frank Gehry

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Facebook has hired Frank Gehry to design an addition to their Menlo Park corporate campus. The new facility will house 2,800 engineers, 2,799 of which will be working on a way to make the first dollar on Facebook’s mobile apps. (The other engineer will be assigned to undermine your privacy.) The design is the next step in Gehry’s evolution from an architect specializing in curly-cues to an expert in connecting large objects with squiggly lines. What it does for Facebook is another matter.

Mark Zuckerberg, spending like he runs Google rather than a company with a stock price sliding into R.I.M. territory, is paying a premium for an architect more than capable of designing a corporate office park that doesn’t look corporate. Now that Facebook is a public company, however, its last remaining stockholders will want to know the project’s R.O.I.

According to the story in Arch Daily, “the building will offer a equalized sense of status – no private cubicles or showy corner offices – and encourage a collaborative work environment, admix a warm splash of colors, textures and natural lighting.” This describes at least three-quarters of all work spaces in the high-tech industry, including, I would venture to guess, the existing Facebook offices. First introduced in the early 2000’s, “collaborative” work spaces–shorthand for no cubicle walls and a lot of ambient noise–have been around long enough to be fairly evaluated.

Do they work?

Yes and no.  Imagine a college dorm without any walls and you get the general idea. Most developers have evolved ways to maintain some sort of privacy. The distractions of an open environment nibble at everyone’s brains. Yet developers will call out for help on a knotty problem such as JavaScript that won’t work on a Kindle Fire browser. Despite the constant irritations, collaborations occur.

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As for the value of Gehry’s design to software developers, that’s harder to gauge. In software engineering there’s no currency in knowing who Frank Gehry is, but there is currency in working in a space designed by an internationally-famous architect. It’s not that nerds are philistines; nerds like nerd stuff. They just want a space in which it’s okay to wear flip-flops and a tee shirt. A space with an interesting back story is a nice to have, but not a hard requirement.

Gehry’s design for the Facebook offices isn’t complete. It will be interesting to see how it evolves. In his effort to create a brand Gehry has become something of a one-trick pony. Still, the trick is usually pretty impressive and he changes it from time to time. The cool, techie office space is an established genre by now. Gehry’s biggest challenge will be doing something fresh with it.

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2 Comments

  1. From what I understand–I’ve never been there–the interior of Bilbao is supposed to be pretty great, at least the lobby areas. I recall hearing the galleries weren’t anything special, but that’s probably to be expected.
    The most controversial Gehry interior is a science building at MIT, which has an open-floor plan like the FB design. I’ve heard complaints that the MIT building is disorienting and, most of all, noisy and distracting.

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