Decoding Design

Facebook meets Gehry: two top cultural influencers team up

Posting in Architecture

The social networking giant has hired one of the world's most visible 'starchitects' to extend its Silicon Valley campus. The collaboration represents more than smart branding by association.

Two contemporary cultural icons are teaming up in a high-profile collaboration that's got both design critics and business reporters talking.

Last Friday, social networking giant Facebook announced it has hired renowned architect Frank Gehry to expand its current headquarters in Menlo Park, California. The pairing reflects the two parties' ongoing, respective pursuits of design as an innovation strategy.

From the first report on the project, by Bloomberg architecture critic James S. Russell, to the thorough analysis of Facebook's possible marketing goals related to the Gehry announcement by The Atlantic's Emily Chertoff, journalists are combing over the architect's plans in great detail. It's going to be one, gigantic room that will house 2,800 engineers. Conference rooms and other meeting areas, including "micro-kitchens," will pepper the huge open space, which "somewhat resembles a warehouse," as Facebook's Everett Katigbak, the company's Environmental Design Manager, described the design on a blog post.

The big room is meant to make it easy for staff to move around and work flexibly with teams as needed, rearranging their desks as need be. The epic workspace, which Bloomberg reports as 420,000 square feet, or 10 acres, in size, will be sandwiched in between a parking garage below and a garden up on the roof. A tunnel under a highway will connect Gehry's structure with the current Facebook campus. The company plans to break ground on the Gehry building by early next year, with a fast construction period to follow.

The design is far more subdued than the sparkling, undulating buildings that Gehry has created for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain or the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. With its intentionally unfinished feel, and its planned quick building timeline, the new Gehry Facebook edifice seems to suggest a sense of nimble iteration. This concept reflects how Facebook designs its products and services: speedily, in a current state of "testing," and always open to change (often after much, ahem, honest feedback from its users).

Facebook's Katigbak snapped and posted a photograph of Gehry and Zuckerberg, both smiling while and looking at a physical model of the new building. In the shot, the two look like peers in their t-shirts, despite their 55-year age difference. The image, to me, says a lot about the parallel powers of both architecture and social networking in today's culture--er, should I say, the power of Frank Gehry and of Facebook, specifically. Across generations and across disciplines, they are hugely influential shapers of human experience, physical and virtual, and both are using design as a strategy to innovate.

In the case of Gehry, in this situation, it's to rethink how physical space can affect how a major, public company structures (or un-structures) its daily operations in an era of start-up worship. And as we've discussed here on SmartPlanet, Gehry has also been pushing in directions beyond building grand, showcase structures, having recently designed an eco-friendly duplex in New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina victims; he's also expanded his business by creating software tools for designers, too. In the case of Facebook, more generally, the company is striving to establish how a clean-looking and yet ever-changing, often-debated social networking platform affects how we share and collect information about our lives in new ways. While some may say the pairing is a simply a meeting of big brands--which it is-- it can also be seen as a meeting of ambitious and imaginative minds.

Image: Facebook. Photo by Everett Katigbak.

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Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure