Google’s beach-hut-filled London office charmed the design community and beyond with its playfulness and primary-coloured kook when it opened for business in 2010 (onoffice 50). But despite the success of the Scott Brownrigg-designed space, the firm opted for a different approach for Google Engineering’s headquarters on London’s Buckingham Palace Road, commissioning architects Penson to drop the kindergarten palette and develop something a little more grown up.
“A lot of people have distinct ideas about what the Google ‘look’ is but they’re trying slowly to change the way they’re doing things with design,” explains Penson lead designer Anna Pizzey. “Before, Google leaned towards the very whimsical, very fun, and it played on those primary colours of the logo, but when they came to us they said they wanted to move away from all of that.”
Given just three days to come up with initial ideas just before Christmas 2010, Penson decided to engage with the geek-chic aesthetic of the internet behemoth’s software engineers, developing a more mature space – but one that is anything but dull. Entering Google Engineering’s HQ feels akin to strolling into NASA. Futuristic workstation bays sit next to informal “flight pod” meeting rooms, which, with their bespoke tiered sofas and slouchy bean bags, somewhat resemble astronauts’ rec rooms.
Penson’s floorplan tackled the awkward symmetry of the fourth-floor space and attempted to remove potentially disturbing foot traffic away from the central desk area by congregating meeting rooms around two wings. “The flight pods act as the visual and acoustic barrier between the circulation areas and the desking areas,” explains Pizzey. “They are completely open and not bookable. The idea is that people have to negotiate among themselves when and why they need them.”
The thinking behind this decision was to combat the often solitary and quiet programming landscape and encourage more communication and integration among the engineers. This idea of open, informal communication has been mirrored by the design of the pods, both in their docked corners to integrate them into the wider workspace, and in the choice of curtains rather than doors, alongside whiteboard walls and intimate lighting.
The task of naming the pods fell to the engineers themselves, who opted to honour iconic programming languages such as Cobol, Haskell and Basic. Penson wanted these rooms to be highly customisable, and sure enough, after a few months of use, foosball tables, rugs, plants and cushions sit beside the video conferencing technology and Kvadrat PVC-finish walls. “The idea was that we gave them a framework that they can add to, rather than telling them how to use the space,” says Pizzey.
There are two bookable meeting rooms at the entrance to the floor, with more formal retro white vinyl chairs rather than sofas, and geometrically etched glass walls. “A lot of people say this area looks like a spaceship, but the inspiration came a lot from looking at geometric forms and origami,” says Pizzey. “The tiles are based on a computer software sequence that uses these triangles, and we’ve developed the theme throughout the floor.”
A black carpet reduces noise around the well-trodden path to the flight pods and meeting rooms, but Bolon is used elsewhere, giving the floor a perceptible space-age sparkle. Pizzey explains: “We felt that with the super-slick finishes on this level, with the angles and geometry, and the architectural way it’s cut and carved, that using carpet throughout would be the wrong finish.”
Environmental graphics were important for maintaining the space-station atmosphere of the floor, whether it be the playful numbering of the workstation bays or the reoccurring L4 (for level four) motif, which has been fashioned out of punched powder-coated steel and back-lit. Around the edges of the leafy atrium – the only existing element from the floor’s previous incarnation – the black PVC has been embossed with intersecting lines and emblazoned with pixel-like silver buttons spelling Google. “It’s our take on a hedgerow,” smiles Pizzey.
The pixel motif appears again in the headquarter’s “circulation nodes” – dramatic dark blue corridors that connect intersections in the four corners of the building. These harbour backlit signage punched into the joinery panels, which alongside floor and ceiling LED strips, guide employees onwards.
The four video conferencing rooms also feature dramatic strip lighting, alongside white Panton chairs by Vitra; a bespoke table system suspended from the ceiling seems to nod to the bridge of Star Trek’s Enterprise. Pizzey explains: “We just wanted the video conferencing to feel really different. The whole purpose of these rooms is to talk to someone, so we wanted to reorientate the room to really focus on the experience.”
But this would not be a Google office if the entire floor was dedicated to work. The left wing of the building features a lushly decorated cinema, which can be used both for conferences by day and film screenings out of hours. Penson created a fun cinema foyer, with wall graphics featuring popcorn and moveable lettering mimicking the grid system of old movie listings.
Penson also created not the average canteen, but a futuristic “coffee lab” featuring all the latest java-related products for the engineers to get their caffeine fix. Pizzey says: “This office basically comes online at about six in the evening because America is online; there are people here almost 24-7. So for these guys, coffee is almost like gold.”
Here Penson translated the triangular coding motif into floor tiling, and combined it with geometric industrial lighting by Zumtobel to prevent the futuristic aesthetic being lost to a barrista-chic vibe. But even in this room, trademark Google geekery and passion for the unexpected prevails. The imposing-looking large black table, which was made bespoke for the room, features a top surface made from compressed recycled coffee grains. Pizzey adds: “This was a really nice project for researching new materials – materials that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with an office space.”