Facebook, Gehry Build Idea Factory for RipStik Geeks

Frank Gehry, Mark Zuckerberg and Craig Webb
Architect Frank Gehry, with Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg as he reviews the Facebook West design with Gehry's partner, Craig Webb. Source: Frank Gehry/Gehry Partners via Bloomberg

A RipStik might become an essential means of transport at Facebook West, the social-networking company’s headquarters expansion designed by Frank Gehry.

The two-wheeled cross between skateboard and snowboard could be the perfect means to get from one end to the other of the quarter-mile-long building. It’s one large room, about 10 acres in size (420,000 square feet).

Gehry’s project will rise, beginning spring 2013, across a busy highway from Facebook East, the company’s current home at the edge of San Francisco Bay in Menlo Park, California. The company won’t disclose the project cost but says it’s consistent with the local office-park norm.

Wearing his customary black T-shirt, the 83-year-old Gehry confesses he has yet to master Facebook, but enjoys figuring out what makes his clients tick. For an exclusive first look, he walked me around massive study models of the campus in the high-ceilinged warehouse that is his Los Angeles office.

Mark Zuckerberg, the 28-year-old co-founder of Facebook, recognized a collaborative ethos much like his own. With his team, Gehry tries out ideas and solves problems by endlessly reworking architectural models. Zuckerberg peels away impediments to face-to-face interaction in his quest to expand social exchange on electronic devices.

In the building design, work benches line up in curving arcs like swarms of fish. They are organized into work-group “neighborhoods” dotted with meeting rooms that might be painted with graffiti and ad hoc lounges furnished with arcade-game consoles.

Gehry said skylights and clerestories in the 26-foot-high ceilings would shower the vast space with daylight.

War Rooms

If you decided to traverse the huge floor via RipStik, you might wave to co-workers talking outside pop-up pavilions called war rooms and devoted to launching products.

You would pass no private office or cubicle, but you could circle a glass-partitioned space at the very center of the floor where you might find Zuckerberg.

Outdoor-terraced cafes will serve sushi and barbecue.

A twisting wooden stair within a tall cube of glass will lead to a lush rooftop garden -- a place to escape.

“Mark said he wanted to be in the same room with all his engineers,” Gehry said. “I told him we could put the building up on stilts, park cars underneath and create a room as large as he wanted.”

This is not a Gehry project of shiny fronds of fluttering reflective metal. To support his vision of anti-hierarchy, free-form collaborative work, Zuckerberg tapped the Gehry who has built furniture out of cardboard and covered his own house in chain-link fencing.

Bold Gambit

The big open floor is a bold gambit: With the stock price reflecting some doubt about a rosy future, Zuckerberg risks a lot taking his vision still further from the corporate cubicle norm.

I had a look at Facebook East. There designers, engineers and product managers form development teams that may work together for days, weeks or months before dissolving.

The company only recently moved in, and it is still renovating buildings by demolishing private offices, tearing out acoustical ceilings to expose foil-wrapped ductwork, and dangling data cables onto workbenches. People pick up their laptops and go where their teams go.

I saw people working in groups at artisanal coffee bars and in the cavernous cafeteria (where three high-quality meals are served free every day). To work alone, people tuck themselves into diner-style booths or plop on couches in ubiquitous open lounges.

In periodic “hackathons,” the entire engineering staff rapidly fabricates prototypes and tests new ideas.

Office Parks

The devotion to horizontal space in the pursuit of collaboration leaves Facebook stuck in Menlo Park’s land of interaction-repelling office parks. Half the company’s staff lives in San Francisco where the city hosts human networking far richer than the most brilliantly designed office environment does.

You can’t find room for a 10-acre floor in the densely built-up city, though. Facebook shuttles city dwellers 30 miles to its campus with its own bus fleet.

The new building, expected to open in spring 2015, strives to enable even greater idea-hatching mobility. Gehry first proposed a long, rectangular box. Working with partner Craig Webb, he’s pushed and pulled the exterior to break down the building’s intimidating size. Paths loop around the densely planted roof to encourage people to use it as a place to meet or think. Skateboard-friendly ramps start at the roof and curl down to the ground.

“We’ve got to give them a system that’s not precious, that they can manipulate,” Gehry said. “We want it to work effortlessly.” It’s architecture that won’t preen, he promises. “My goal is a kind of ephemeral connectivity that you can’t take a picture of.”

(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)

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