Machines for thinking

The architect Le Corbusier once famously described a home as a machine for living. This simple statement became something of a manifesto for a modernist movement, that didn’t just change architecture, but modernity itself.  This year architecture is once again set to stand for something of a pivot-point in our culture. In hundreds of “ideas factories” worldwide -  labs, hubs and campuses - the mundane ‘office’ is being reinvented as an engine of innovation. The 21st century work-place  is becoming a “machine for thinking”.  

So brace yourself.  Over the next few months we are about to embark on what we may look back on as the pioneering age of a new ‘architecture of innovation’, built in the sort of proportions the world has never quite seen before. It will start in spectacular style in the Spring with the opening of Facebook’s new ‘hacker campus’ in Menlo Park, designed by Frank Gehry from the distance to look like a forested hill.  But beneath the starchitect-landscaped exterior Facebook is creating the biggest open plan office in history, 2800 people in a single room.   'The idea is to make the perfect engineering space’ says Mark Zuckerberg  “one giant room that fits thousands of people, all close enough to collaborate together.” 

And the mega-lab building programme won’t end there.  In Seattle, Amazon is building its HQ in the form of a giant greenhouse, three vast plant-filled retro-futuristic bio-domes.   The same architectural firm NBBJ is building a new American headquarters for Samsung in San Jose, due to open in mid-2015, with lush open courtyards , living walls and green roofs, using the same basic insight.  According to the firm: “the generative idea is that a plant-rich environment has positive qualities that are not often found in a typical office setting.”

In 2016 Apple 2, its city-scale circular HQ in Cupertino, is set to open.  For Steve Jobs this was more than just any project.  The meeting before the City Council at which the plans were unveiled in 2011 was his last public appearance. The doughnuted end-product carries his heavy imprint: from his enduring love of the wide open space of Stanford’s Main Quad’s to Pixar’s famous atrium designed by Jobs to compel its employees to mingle and meet in the middle of the building. In Apple’s new corporate campus, designed by Foster Associates, no-one will ever be more than two and a half minutes away from anyone else: the ultimate crucible of collaboration.  Jobs’ typically ambitious goal was for it to become simply the best office in the world, ever.  

Billions are being spent on these cathedrals of creativity. They feel a little like a Harvard Business Review article rendered in glass and metal.  And there are plenty of reasons to doubt that managed serendipity can be engineered at such a monumental scale (as I argued in a recent TEDx talk).  But the fact that Silicon Valley that has been as famously casual about its buildings – the garages and low-rise, generic office parks that have been the traditional incubators of many a tech startup - as it has been about its clothes - Zukerberg and Jobs memorably wearing the same outfit every day- has become so building-obsessed points to an important shift in how we think innovation works.

Google, of course, broke first with the tradition of open-plan anonymity and became the workplace fantasy for tech-wannabes everywhere.  But what might have been the idiosyncratic style of one deep-pocketed giant has turned into something much more significant.  At the smaller scale a mood-board for the thousands of co-working spaces with their work/play coffee-shop chic that have mushroomed all over the planet.  At the grander end, among their rivals, a neo-futurist manifesto based around embodied creativity, half Cedric Price’s “Fun Palace”, half knowledge-factory.

Probably not since the Middle Ages built monasteries in their thousands – with their elaborately designed and carefully demarcated spaces - scriptoria for collaborative work , the cloister for socialisation and quiet contemplation in the  solitary concentration cell – has so much thought gone into creating the right spaces to think alone and work together.  The difference this time around is that we can measure it all in real-time – not through the gold-embossed pages of religious texts– but the number of new product launches or startups scaled, with levels of collaboration, shown through network maps or captured by sociometric badges, correlated with different types of configuration: coffee machines shared among six people, for example, versus sixty. 

These techniques were first pioneered by Alex Pentland and Ben Waber at that ultra-modern monastic community, MIT Media Lab, and are now being used by companies like Zappos to measure ‘collisionable hours” – the numbers of interactions per square metre. Because – as Scott Birnbaum of Samsung explained at the launch of their new Silicon Valley home – “The most creative ideas aren’t going to come while sitting in front of your monitor.”  The monitor is just a machine.  It’s the building that’s the machine for thinking.

Image credit: Apple Inc. New Headquarters, Mark Mathosian, Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


Adam Price

Adam Price

Adam Price

Senior Programme Manager

Adam Price was a Senior Programme Manager in the Innovation Lab, working on public service innovation and innovation spaces.    His report, co-authored with Matthew Gatehouse, State of…

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