The pharaonic cities of the Valley giants


It is true that when you have a treasure of several hundred billion dollars, you can afford to have dreams that the vulgum pecus would call megalomaniacs. This is the case of the giants of Silicon Valley, Google and Facebook in the lead, who are announcing that they are launching into pharaonic construction sites to regroup their employees in their own cities of the future. The utopians of the 19th century had dreamed of gathering human communities in phalansteries and other Fordlandia. The GAFA, with billions of dollars, went much further.

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The photo captures two monsters, their neurons in turmoil, bent over the same project. Two generations, both looking towards the same future. On the left, Mark Zuckerberg, the barely thirty-year-old father of Facebook, genius of the immaterial; on the right, Franck Gehry, the immense and venerable architect, magician of form and matter. The model is Zee Town with a Z meaning Zuckerberg. The city of tomorrow that the two men are concocting for the employees of the billion-user firm. A real estate project that exceeds even Silicon Valley standards. More than a real estate project, an urban and architectural utopia, an ideal living environment designed for the armies of the conquistadors of digital spaces.

Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg and architect Frank Gehry in front of a model of a campus project in Menlo Park (California)- Photo credit : FACEBOOK / AFP


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The future Facebook city is an urban space of almost 90 hectares, on the waterfront, with its roads, supermarkets, hotels, luxury villas, shops, and buildings capable of housing the brand's 10,000 employees at prices much lower than those of the current market. You like it? According to the Anglo-Saxon press, Zuckerberg will have to spend 200 billion dollars on this project, which goes much further than a simple real estate deal or, according to statements reported in The Independentthan the construction of a new corporate campus. By calling on the services of architect Franck Gehry (85), who has just signed the superb Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris, the project's promoters have set the bar very high. Gehry's mission will be to let the city blend in with nature. It will be present everywhere, immersive, even on the roofs of the buildings that will be planted with trees. The stage of buildings with a low environmental footprint is here outmoded, integrated, become a matter of course. These buildings are primarily designed to respect the environment and improve the life of their inhabitants.

The city of the happy employee

The founder of Facebook wants the well-being of his employees; in this respect, he is reviving a tradition born in the 19th century in the wake of the utopian philosophy of Charles Fourier and his phalansteries. This inspiration was very much in vogue among the big industrial bosses who imagined organizing the ideal housing for their employees. Examples are numerous all over the world: Le Creusot city founded by the Schneider family, Fordlândia, the American model workers' city built by industrialist Henry Ford, Port Sunlight in England, the model city of William Lever, the laundry magnate.

So Zee Town is just the ravings of a megalomaniacal boss? Not only that, it's also a new form of management. Since 2014, Facebook has been at the top of the list of the companies most favourable to the smooth running of his professional life. Everything has to be planned to make life easier and more enjoyable for employees. The Anglo-Saxon press speaks of "perks" to evoke all those little extras that make life better and the attractiveness of the company unbeatable. And when an employee is happy, he works better, he creates better, he gives his all for his company. In the race to hire qualified employees that the Silicon Valley giants are in, Facebook intends to be one step ahead and give its little playmates a big bite to eat. There's no doubt that when Facebook spends $200 billion, it knows that the return on investment will be profitable.

Google's modular city

In this race for the craziest urban projects, Google is not to be outdone. Designed by architects Bjarke Ingels and Thomas Heatherwickle, the new living and working space for Google employees is full of innovation. Modular structure, velum as crystalline as skins to play with light, the connivance of living and working spaces with nature, the Google project is an aggregation of highly innovative architectural ideas.

Bjarke Ingels

Thomas Heatherwickle

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The project's boss at Google, David Radclife, quoted by BatiActu explains". Instead of building buildings in immovable concrete, we will create light and modular structures that can be adapted to the different activities of the group.« . For architects, the main idea is to reverse the usual logic of building and city construction. Instead of thinking of architecture installed in nature, it is nature and the environment that enter into architecture. Trees are not decorative objects or furniture that are installed creatively in a pre-established architectural scheme. Nature and the environment must take first place, not only in terms of setting but also in terms of function. The buildings of the future Google City are fully vegetated, they accommodate in their form and structure the natural elements. Nature is no longer driven to the margins or outside the walls; it is present everywhere, placed at the heart of the project. An architecture in which the human scale is privileged, allowing exchanges, breaks and sharing between the inhabitants of this city. An architecture that removes the boundaries between places of work and life. Everything is integrated to bring pleasure, the key word of the project, to the future inhabitants.

Observing that in nature things are not programmed and organized a priori, that they have an organic, flexible development, tuned to their environment, architects want to make workspaces objects that are also organic. Buildings and urban spaces will therefore be flexible and modular in order to widen the range of possibilities for their future development. They will be able to be arranged and organised among themselves like the pieces of a huge meccano to evolve in harmony with changing needs. Instead of imagining buildings with walls, doors, floors, Ingels and Heatherwickle's idea dissolves the building concept into an organic, simple and translucent megastructure. An ultra-light membrane that lets air and light through as needed. A sort of huge glass tent, an ecological shelter and a junction between the outside and the inside.

Dave Radcliffe and architects Thomas Heatherwick and Bjarke Ingels present
the new Google Campus project in Mountain View, California


Apple's solar saucer

No, the future city of Apple will not take the shape of an apple but that of a doughnut. The site, currently under intense construction and scheduled for delivery in 2016, covers 26 hectares and is expected to cost $5 billion (for comparison, the tower of the new World Trade Center cost "only" $3.5 billion).
The spacecraft-shaped facility will house 13,000 employees and will not only provide its own power but will also be used to power California's 52 Apple stores. Tim Cook, the company's CEO, says it will be " the greenest building in the world "

Credit: APPLE

This titanic project was entrusted to the famous architect Norman Foster, the one for the Millau Viaduct or the restoration of the Reichstag in Berlin. But the idea came from Steve Jobs, the mythical founder of Apple, who wanted to "build the best offices in the world". His avowed goal: to serve as a model for architecture students. « Steve devoted a lot of love and attention [to this project] before he died.... We made it even better during the design phase. We want to make it right "says Tim Cook, Apple's president, quoted by Vanity Fair.

His last wishes were respected to the letter and nothing was sacrificed to the beauty of the project. The floors are not made of cement but of Terrazo, a mixture of marble and agglomerated and polished stone. The building's facades are made up of 6 km of curved glass, unique in the world. These windows, intelligent, will be able to regulate the temperature and inject a particular atmosphere into the building depending on the weather. Jobs did not want to leave anything to chance and has himself chosen the 300 varieties of a forest of more than 6,000 rare trees that will populate the premises.
Nothing will be neglected either for the ultra-security of the premises (Steve Jobs was a bit paranoid) and the well being of the employees who will have the choice between several swimming pools, fitness rooms, places of relaxation and conviviality.

Steve Jobs unveiled the plans for this project for the first time on June 7, 2011 before Cupertino City Council.
His last public appearance, four months before his death, on October 5, 2011.


A modern form of enslavement?

These titanic cities continue the quest for the happy and healthy employee who is supposed to be more productive and creative. "Of course, one can always suspect that these companies use means of employee retention, the fear of enslavement exists, but this is not very realistic in this field where young people are hyper-connected and can denounce on Twitter the slightest management gap," analyses Charles-Henri Besseyre des Horts quoted by FranceTVInfo. Especially since the employees of these giants of the digital economy are very different from the French workers of the 19th century. "The young employees of the Tech Valley are much more likely to say no," adds the specialist.

After tearing down office walls in favor of open spaces, giant startups are adopting the same reasoning to the living environment of their employees, thus extending the emulation into the corners of the private sphere. The risk of being cut off from the world does exist. But creativity comes above all from the diversity of environments, encounters and opportunities; it is born from the unexpected and chance encounters. Is it still possible in these new idyllic worlds that are so likely to close in on themselves?

Ugo Yaché, journalist UP' Magazine

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