Each of our turns comes around to be a cranky old naysayer. This week it’s mine. My favourite architect for his clever functionalism and occasional celebration of cycling, Bjarke Ingels, has teamed with Thomas Heatherwick from London to design a huge expansion to Google’s campus in California. Skim through this video:
I’m generally optimistic that this project will raise the image of cycling. Ingels has the ride-through Danish Pavilion from the Shanghai expo to his credit and cross brands himself with his mate Jens Martin Skibsted’s funky Biomega brand bikes.
Google have a corridor down the middle of their Amsterdam office designed to look (and work!) like a cycle track.
I’m not so sure about Heatherwick. Though he did a great job with the Velodrome at the London Olympics, he thinks it’s okay for cyclists to have to dismount to use a non-vehicular bridge when crossing the Thames.
Nevertheless, there are aspects of Google’s proposal about which we (cyclists) can be excited. The project promises to bring together a lot of directions architecture is generally taking that I have been saying will be beneficial to cycling generally, if we see them coming and are ready to critique or embrace as required. 1. It will be a heterotopia, an “other place”, separated from a world dominated by the logic of cars, and can thus stand as an inspiration. 2. it will embody what I called in my last book the campus condition, my way of describing buildings one can visually enjoy while riding around them in a park setting. 3. It will put cycling under one giant roof, like that of an airport, protected from rain. 4. It promises to allow every person to ride their bike to their desk. If your download quota permits, you’ll find complete plans available here. Alternatively, google image searches are turning up about a million new pictures each day.
Given the messianic heights of the sales pitch I know it is going to sound Philistine of me pointing out the building’s obvious, yet banal flaw. A clear roof is an inelegant proposition for a hot climate like California’s. In Denmark or England where the architects come from, perhaps, but San Francisco is only 37 degrees from the equator. UV rays will perish gaskets and fabrics. Moreover infra red rays will get in, but the hot air they create underneath will not be able to get out the same way.
Controlling the climate with upward facing glass is like controlling a flood with a hose: possible, you’ll just need some more sand bags. The sandbags, in this case, I image will be air-conditioning condensers ran from a solar farm just out of sight, and thousands of operable reflectors that will constantly be in need of repair. High Tech architects like Rogers and Foster chased their own tails all through the 80s with wiz bang solutions to problems of their own creation, and critics like Sorkin and Jencks chased them into being more modest thereafter. I would have thought Heatherwick and Ingles would know that!
Architectural critics with more time on their hands will have a lot more to say about this project as it progresses. My concern is what this scheme will do to the future of cycling, specifically cycling in large office complexes, under large roofs and to office desks, all the things the architects promise and that I agree would be great.
Here is the problem. When it gets out that Google have paid more for one building than most Asian countries would spend on food for a year, all of those programatic niceties like letting staff ride inside and ride to their desks will be dismissed by average clients as things they would love to offer to their employees, if they were Google. Alternatively, if time should reveal that the architects have overreached in their ambitions, riding inside and riding to desks will be thrown out with the idea of moveable floor plates and operable heat shields on the inside of glass bubbles. Either way, a few great ideas stand to lose.