Since 2004, technological company Google has made its home in the “Googleplex” in Mountain View, California. The campus has become iconic for the luxurious, laissez-faire environment it created for its employees, and has been copied by other Silicon Valley firms who wish to reflect their cutting-edge products with trendily unorthodox offices. Now, more than a decade on, Google has grown too big for its old office and has made plans to build an extension with the same flair and influence as the original campus. The company has hired architects Thomas Heatherwick (whose “Garden Bridge” is stirring up controversy in London) and Bjarke Ingels (Whose pyramidal high rise has topped out in West Manhattan) to design the new offices, and their concept seems to channel Buckminster Fuller and Frei Otto: clumps of modular semi-buildings roofed with celestial tensile glass canopies. Inside these urban greenhouses, the architects claim, offices and communities will grow together; the complex will be an extension of Mountain View as well as the Google campus.
and interior of the Google complex
Though the concepts proposed are not entirely fresh or original, the fact that they are planned to be executed on such a large scale made the design major architectural news a couple of months ago. Last week, publicity was reignited with the dramatic rumor that robots would build the structures. Architects’ Journal has published documents illustrating the “crabots”, crane robots that will assemble the prefabricated components (including ten ton floor plates) of the interior structures beneath the vast canopies. Reminiscent of sci-fi droids, they will replace some (but not all) of the human labor and traditional machinery.
The robots. Some have legs, others move around on rails.
At first glance, this seemed to me a token piece of half-baked innovation introduced to simply advertise Google’s mantra of ingenuity. This seemed to be a situation where robots did not have many advantages over humans; in fact, I don’t feel there is any innovation if the robots are doing jobs humans could do. I recently interviewed an engineer developing a steel 3D printer who said that she didn’t think the process she developed should be used just for the sake of its novelty; I think the same philosophy applies here. Robotics in engineering only really interests me if it accomplishes a unique goal that is unattainable through traditional methods. However, there are some signs that the robots will indeed perform a unique and original duty- after the complex’s completion. A Google official was quoted as saying the robots allowed the structures to be “hackable”. The modular office “buildings” under the canopies could be moved around and reorganized with relative ease, rendering the layout of the offices customizable. If this concept pans out, it will be a truly impressive example of creativity.
What has been rarely clarified in the new publicity surrounding the Google Headquarters is that the use of robots in architecture and engineering is not completely new, though it is not a trend either. For many years now robots have been used- generally for small-scale jobs or prefabrication- in the building industry. The robots used are similar to those seen on a car assembly line, armed machines whose primary strengths are precision and flexibility. These strengths led to the Italian architects Gramazio and Kohler employing them to build the walls of their winery in Flasch, Switzerland. Here, the robots laid bricks according to a very precise digital design where the walls seem to bulge in circular sections as if pressed outwards by large grapes. Sometimes, robots can act as more mobile 3D printers, such as one that additively built a pavilion out of foam in Germany, constantly adjusting itself to adapt to the expansion and solidification of the foam. The new Google Headquarters proves that robotics could grow in importance in structural engineering. Architects and engineers should certainly pay attention to further developments in this area.
A detail of the Flasch Winery
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