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17 December 2020

What Google’s new London building says about Big Tech’s plan for cities

Tech companies have transformed the city districts in which they have established themselves. But after the great shift to homeworking, will they still care about places?

By Allison Arieff

Headquarters is a new series looking at buildings and the companies that occupy them. What do corporate architecture, design and planning tell us about a company, its business and the economy around it?

In late July, with all of its offices in the UK closed, Google publicly confirmed its plan for an expansive new central London headquarters – a horizontal skyscraper known as the “landscraper” – in King’s Cross. The tech giant plans to move thousands of workers into the building once it is completed. It is big enough to house Google’s current UK workforce of almost 4,500, but plans to lease even more space nearby suggest the company intends to continue hiring in London.

Google first leased the land in King’s Cross in 2013, when Old Street, two miles to the east, was being enthusiastically promoted by the then London mayor, Boris Johnson, as the city’s “Silicon Roundabout”. But while Old Street continues to attract start-ups, King’s Cross has emerged as the new tech quarter. Facebook is building a huge new office next door to Google’s, and companies focusing on everything from blockchain to biotech, as well as science organisations such as the Francis Crick and Turing institutes, surround long-established, eminent institutions such as the British Library.

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But when Google announced in July that all of its global employees would work from home until July 2021, it was a decision that impacted not only the company’s full-time employees but the vast network of service workers who made those employees’ lunches, cleaned their offices, and taught them yoga. As in Silicon Valley, London’s tech workers have adapted while the adjacent economy that relies upon them has been put on hold.

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In King’s Cross, the shift to remote work has transformed a once vibrant urban neighbourhood. Businesses large and small have struggled with a radically reduced customer base. And a second national lockdown in the UK means that although construction on the King’s Cross buildings began in 2018, the move-in date for Google’s thousands of workers is still not set.

Nevertheless, the King’s Cross building is going ahead at a cost of around a billion pounds. This is very expensive for London, but not extravagant for Big Tech; Norman Foster’s Apple HQ in Cupertino, California came in at a cool $5bn. The landscraper is as long, at 330 metres, as the Shard is tall. The horizontal structure is a reaffirmation of the commitment tech companies have made to large floor plates as essential to creativity and collaboration. The office of designer Thomas Heatherwick, which created the project together with architect Bjarke Ingels, describes the 11-storey building as “a single confident volume”.

The building’s design assumes a return to the amenity-rich corporate campuses of the pre-Covid era. It features a roof garden, swimming pool, indoor basketball court and even nap pods. These amenities are all things that Google can provide to its employees, but what if the city around the building, cleared out by remote working, gives them little incentive to return?

With each passing month, London and cities like it lose a bit more of what made them attractive to the legions of young workers drawn to them in the first place – willing to absorb the often ludicrous house prices in order to enjoy all else the city had to offer. As all those offerings are on hold and pedestrian activity has slowed to a trickle, it’s interesting to consider another era of urban quietude.

Around 80 years ago, companies fled the downtown areas of many American and European cities, literally for greener pastures. They weren’t driven out by a pandemic, though many feared an impending atomic attack. As Louise Mozingo, professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning at the University of California, Berkeley, writes in her 2011 book Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes, these businesses were compelled outward by “a distaste for the sensory and social realities of industrial production, the noise and congestion of dense urban cores, and class and ethnic conflicts”. The suburbs promised an escape.

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Suburbia also offered companies the freedom to expand into large, beautiful spaces designed by high-profile architects such as Eero Saarinen. Architectural prestige came with convenience, with scientists and engineers able to drive to the office from their nearby suburban homes. But this also allowed companies to begin more discriminatory hiring practices, and some actively sought to deter workers from unionising within their new buildings. A host of copycat campuses bloomed, initiating a tide of white-collar migration from cities, writes Mozingo, and “corporate management never saw the city centre in the same way again”.

Until, in the early 2000s, they did.

At the turn of the millennium, an enormous migration of young people to cities took place. And because companies wanted to hire talented young people, they moved too. Google was no exception. Its Mountain View headquarters in California is a typically sprawling Big Tech campus (Google, like Facebook and others in Silicon Valley, moved into a shell of a previous company HQ, in this case, Silicon Graphics Incorporated). The Mountain View location required the company to start an entire transportation division just to work out how to get its ever-expanding number of employees there from San Francisco and other Bay Area cities each day, which resulted in the now infamous Google shuttle bus. In the more than 70 offices it has set up around the world since then, however, Google has embraced urban centres, building campuses with easy access to transit and amenities.

Just as the move outward from city centres in the 20th century fundamentally reshaped suburbia and gave rise to unmitigated sprawl in the postwar years, the corporatisation of city centres has reshaped urban districts. But with the pandemic and the sudden large-scale shift to remote work, that reshaping has been paused. The impact of this shift on rents, both residential and commercial, is yet to be determined – to say nothing of the increasingly untenable burden placed on those unable to work from home. Will King’s Cross return as the fulcrum of innovation in London, or will companies head back into suburbia?

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Google is hedging its bets. The company’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, has said the company plans to focus on a “hybrid” model that would include both office and remote working. In London, work continues on the new building, and in September it was reported that Google will lease an additional 70,000 square feet close to the landscraper. But at the same time, Google is acquiring enormous amounts of real estate outside of cities. In October it purchased 33 acres of land at Broxbourne in Hertfordshire for a future data centre, and has been expanding in other satellite locations globally. The UK acquisitions are dwarfed by those in North America: Google owns nearly 20 million square feet of office space in the Bay Area, including 80 acres in San Jose and 52 buildings in Sunnyvale, California (just south of its HQ in Mountain View) alone.

In 2011, Louise Mozingo described a sort of binary choice for corporations, between pursuing “an unquestioned 19th century taste for retreat and verdant isolation” and a “more resource-efficient, civic-minded metropolitan landscape”. Google can perhaps afford to do both.

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