During a presentation before the Cupertino City Council, Steve Jobs said, “Buildings in office parks get boring pretty fast. I think we have a shot at building the best office building in the world.”
The late scion of Apple was certainly no stranger to hyperbole, but the building he was talking about may well become another deep notch on Apple’s belt of legacies.
What role does architecture play in this technology-driven age? Despite the continued permeation of video conferencing and screen sharing, most people still go to work in a building away from their home.
If you’re like us, you’re somewhat surprised that workplaces aren’t more reminiscent of Bespin’s Cloud City from Star Wars. Or you’re a little miffed that you’re not arriving by flying cab a la The Fifth Element. And you’re frustrated that you still arrive at your desk the old fashioned way, rather than being whisked straight to your chair like George Jetson.
Some company leaders agree with Steve Jobs, and look to the future when it comes to workplace design. James Law, CEO and founder of Hong Kong-based firm Cybertecture, also believes that great design can inspire creativity and increase productivity.
“The conventional architect is becoming extinct. I believe that the world will cease to be built out of concrete, steel and glass. New buildings must mirror our current reality, which consists of bytes of information, shared technology and interconnectedness. Construction will evolve into something which is beyond architecture. A building should empower people through the materials it uses,” Law explains.
We spend much of our waking lives working. It stands to reason that an inspired workplace would contribute to the overall happiness and well-being of the employees. This is exactly why design with a lighthearted twist is featured prominently at Barkley, a digital advertising agency based in Kansas City, MO. The building is the former headquarters of Trans World Airlines (TWA), and features a replica of a rocket ship on the roof.
“When Howard Hughes owned TWA, his vision went beyond commercial air travel. He wanted to be the aviation line that also took people to space and beyond,” says Barkley president and COO Dan Fromm. “It was a bold and intrepid vision. That’s why the rocket is exciting as a symbol. We chose to keep it because it echoes our core belief that creativity and innovation can change the world. It’s why we’re in this business.”
So maybe the buildings of the future will be less about flying cars and more about reflecting our increasingly connected society.
“I watched The Fountainhead when I was 6 years old. This was well before I learned to speak English, but the power of the architect to influence society through design struck a chord and fueled a passion that has become my life’s work,” says Law. “We’re currently facing incredible challenges, but we’re rising to meet them collectively. I think if we were able to zoom out to a macro level and look at the planet, our race and our history, we would be wise enough to see that we are in a renaissance now. We are part of this giant tidal wave that’s getting bigger and bigger. As long as we have this impetus to effect change, we will come out of this a better civilization.”
Is Mr. Law’s vision achievable? Maybe, but it will be largely up to the academic community to inspire future architects and engineers to move beyond conventional approaches and grid-based design.
Sheila Kennedy, professor of the Practice of Architecture at MIT, is doing just that.
“The idea that cities should be segregated by function is a notion from a bygone era. We need to figure out how to combine leisure, living and production in the buildings we create. We can do this by ‘re-materializing’ — thinking differently about building materials — and ‘de-materializing’ — using less materials,” says Kennedy.
Kennedy is an accomplished architect herself, and employs these concepts in her own work. “At KVA we’re trying to create a new synthesis between harvesting energy locally and having a closer contact between where you live and work.”
Both Law and Kennedy agree that changing the visible landscape of our cities will require collective action. Waiting for someone else to improve our cities won’t help. We can’t rely on them.
“We are them,” says Kennedy. “We convince them by convincing ourselves. Once that happens, they’ll naturally come to us.”
Today’s architects must be proficient in a variety of disciplines while retaining a long-term focus. You can’t just design for today. So how far into the future should architects cast their eyes? Ten years? One hundred years? One thousand years?
We surveyed the landscape of inspiring buildings that companies call home. We think their approach to design may be of interest to you. Let us know how important aesthetics are in your choice of workplace.