While much of corporate America is cutting back on the real estate front, the four most influential technology companies in America are each planning headquarters that could win a Pritzker Architecture Prize for hubris.
Amazon.com this week revealed plans for three verdant bubbles in downtown Seattle, joining Apple’s circular “spaceship,” Facebook’s Frank Gehry-designed open-office complex and a new Googleplex on the list of planned trophy offices.
“It signals a desire, a statement, to say that we’re special, we’re different. We have changed the world and we are going to continue to change it,” said Margaret O’Mara, associate professor of history at the University of Washington, who has written about the building of Silicon Valley. “It’s also a reflection of robust bank accounts. They have a lot of cash.”
Historically, however, when a company becomes preoccupied with the grandeur of its premises, it often signals a high point in its fortunes. These fantastical buildings may end up as little more than costly monuments to vanity and a loss of focus on the core business that made for success in the first place.
“I've been thinking the Apple spaceship is going to get nicknamed the ‘Death Star’ because the project is so big and the timing is so bad,” said hedge fund manager Jeff Matthews of Ram Partners. The building is coming to fruition just as Apple’s product cycles may be maturing, he explained.
Walter Price, who runs technology investment funds at RCM Capital Management LLC, shares the outlook: “When companies build big headquarters it’s when they’re doing really well and have strong outlooks, and that often coincides with a peak in their stock.”
Apple, Amazon, Google and Facebook are battling to recruit tech talent, and attractive campuses help with that, he added.
Amazon’s design, presented to Seattle city planners this week, includes three steel and glass spheres almost 100 feet (30 meters) high, which will serve as the centerpiece for three new skyscrapers that will house a rapidly growing workforce in downtown Seattle.
The plans call for “a series of intersecting spheres with ample space for a wide range of planting material, as well as individuals working alone or in groups.” Amazon declined further comment.
Google Inc, the world’s largest Internet search company, has outgrown its original headquarters in Silicon Valley's Mountain View and is planning to build a 1.1 million square foot Googleplex nearby.
Called Bay View, it will have nine rectangular buildings, horizontally bent, with living roofs surrounded by courtyards and connected by bridges. No employee will be more than a two-and-a-half-minute walk away from any colleague, a design aimed at encouraging collaboration. A Google spokeswoman declined further comment.
Facebook plans Facebook West, an addition to its main campus in California, that will be the size of seven-and-a-half football fields. It will be one open-plan office, where a worker can wander from one end to the other without ever going through a door. The rooftop serves as a park.
Facebook spokesman Tucker Bounds said the expansion is needed to help the company develop new products.
Apple has the most ambitious idea, a 2.8 million square foot glass ring on 176 acres. It would be in part a monument to former CEO Steve Jobs, who described it as like a spaceship. The project could cost up to $5 billion. Reuters