Thomas Heatherwick says Larry Page’s dinner led to a trip
British designer Thomas Heatherwick designs Google’s new buildings in California and London.
In 2012, British designer Thomas Heatherwick met for dinner with Google co-founder Larry Page at the billionaire’s house in California.
Page wanted to discuss the future of Google’s sprawling Mountain View headquarters, as well as some of the company’s other offices around the world.
But the dinner almost didn’t happen.
“I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t, we didn’t really do it originally,” Heatherwick told CNBC at an exclusive tech event in rural England last week.
Heatherwick was hesitant because some of the other tech companies “were making private worlds behind fences” and she wasn’t interested. “A friend from the studio, who also knew them, spoke to us and said, ‘No really, you have to talk to them.'”
Heatherwick told Google he would be interested if the development contributed to the whole of Mountain View rather than creating a “separate and sufficient bubble for exclusive and elite workers.”
Google liked the sound and Heatherwick – who designed London’s new “Routemaster” bus as well as the controversial Garden Bridge project over the River Thames and The Vessel structure in New York – was invited to have a bigger conversation with Page on one-to a dinner.
It went well. “There was a common interest in seeing buildings as an opportunity to reassess what it means to work,” said the bearded 51-year-old, wearing loose black pants, a white shirt and a waistcoat. black. “A journey began from that moment.”
Heatherwick said her studio decided to team up with the Bjarke Ingels group due to the sheer scale of the project.
The two companies were desperate to avoid what was going on at other tech companies in Silicon Valley where there are “buildings with that tarred tutu on the edge” and “a car skirt,” Heatherwick said.
They wanted to create something more natural that gives certain bay area streams and plants “a chance to be amplified and multiplied” and an opportunity for the public to move relatively freely between the various Google buildings. “There was real support from Google,” Heatherwick said.
The new Googleplex headquarters campus in Mountain View CA is under construction and features a tent-shaped canopy. The structure is designed by architects Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwick.
Steve Proehl | Corbis Unpublished | Getty Images
Heatherwick said the idea of having “bland boxes of office space” didn’t feel right to her, and design steps to change the atmosphere slightly didn’t seem appropriate either.
Flexibility was one of Google’s key criteria since the business may need to use the spaces for manufacturing from time to time.
Heatherwick visited NASA’s Ames Air Force Base, which has three massive hangars and sits next to one of the sites Google thrives on. “Looking at those airship hangars it suddenly became clear,” Heatherwick said. “There were big, flexible volumes that you could adapt to and change over time.”
The solution for Google was four huge hangars which are all slightly different from each other. Two can accommodate around 4,000 Google employees each, while one can accommodate around 3,000. The last is a theater.
Heatherwick describes the hangars as being a bit like gigantic semi-rigid tents. Unlike most tents, however, Google’s tents will be able to generate power.
“We started off by saying, ‘what if this all looks like a gigantic solar panel… that we can pull up, like a tent to create a giant shed,” Heatherwick said. “And then we slash him like Zoro to bring in the daylight where you want.”
Heatherwick said she worked with solar panel makers to come up with a bespoke product that had a “slightly different aesthetic quality” from standard blue and black panels which can feel “quite heavy.”
All four buildings are now nearing completion, Heatherwick said, before pulling out her phone to show some photos on a big screen.
“We’re still probably a year away,” he said on the completion date.
In addition to Mountain View, the Heatherwick-based company is also working on Google’s new offices in San Jose, which has “lost its vitality over the decades,” according to Heatherwick.
The internet giant plans to make room for 35,000 people in San José.
Across the Atlantic, Heatherwick designed Google’s new UK headquarters, located on a long, thin plot behind King’s Cross Station in London.
“It’s the same length as the Shard (skyscraper) is tall,” Heatherwick said, repeating a line that was splashed in UK newspapers.
“This will be the largest use of wood in all of London’s facades,” he added. “So the building will age and have texture.”
Heatherwick can view the development from the rooftop of her apartment building, which is also in King’s Cross.
Google’s new headquarters in London.
The project, however, is several years behind schedule and it won’t be ready for another two years, according to Heatherwick.
Heatherwick’s company was formed around 2017 after Google abandoned construction rival AHMM with reports suggesting that Page found the initial plans for the London office boring. Google did not immediately respond to a request for comment from CNBC.
“In Mountain View and London, there had been teams thinking about venues,” Heatherwick said. “I think there was a reassessment within the leadership. Other teams were shut down and we were recruited.”
No change Covid
The coronavirus pandemic has forced Google to rethink how often employees should come to the office.
The company said in May that it expects 20% of its employees to work permanently from home when its offices reopen.
But none of the new buildings in Mountain View, San Jose or London have been adapted in any way in the wake of the pandemic, according to Heatherwick, who says they are already flexible enough to deal with Covid.
“The emotion of your team is key,” Heatherwick said. “And so the workplace should be a temple of an organization’s values, especially if someone is no longer a prisoner five days a week, but only comes two or three days a week.”