The Architecture of Creativity
Last May Wired published an interesting article, titled “Inside Apple’s Insanely Great (or just insane) New Mothership.” From a creativity perspective, I liked the article about Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino, CA, for two reasons. First of all, because it reads like a tribute to Steve’s Jobs extraordinary feel for ingenious innovation packaged in elegant design. Jobs, who passed away in 2011, couldn’t be there to experience the building’s completion, but fortunately Jonathan Ive (Apple’s Chief Design Officer) and Norman Foster (the building’s architect) were able to fill in the details in Steve Job’s spirit. Only for the many nitty gritty design considerations, such as the perfect shape of the door handles, the article is worth a read.
The second reason why I enjoyed reading the Wired article is that it shows how the new Apple headquarters facilitates and even maybe catalyzes creative collaboration in different ways. When the Wired journalist, Steven Levy, asks Jonathan Ive how Apple can justify a building that took 8 years to build, measures 2.8 million square feet (260K m2) and houses 12,000 employees, he responds: “It makes for an impressive statistic, but you don’t live in an impressive statistic. The achievement is to make a building where so many people can connect and collaborate and walk and talk.”
A natural environment
The famous architect Norman Foster, who at the peak of this project worked with a team of 250 people, explains in the article that Steve Job’s inspiration for the lay out of the building was Stanford’s campus, a place where low-slung academic buildings are arranged around large, leafy outdoor areas and designed with open-air pathways. This set up, Jobs experienced, gives the sensation of being both inside and out. In Apple’s headquarters this feeling is on the inside accomplished by its open, transparent architecture (which is a relative novelty for Apple) and its huge glass facades facing the round courtyard. Another ingredient that makes the building stand apart is its climate control, which is more in touch with the actual outside temperature than traditional climate systems. Finally, no less than 9,000 Northern Californian trees were planted on the 75-acre plot (30 hectares).
It was not just Stanford that served as Job’s inspiration. Job was known to do his best thinking when walking. Through his biography I learned that whenever he had to ponder something or discuss something complicated with a colleague, he would take a long walk. No real surprise there; walking is known to stimulate the ‘default mode network’ in our brain, which helps us to unfocus and thus source from other knowledge pockets in the brain than those where your focus has been. In other words, when you go for a stroll, you can more easily think divergently and come up with unexpected solutions to solve a problem – which is the opposite of convergent thinking, looking for one single answer to solve a problem.
Lisa Jackson, who was mainly responsible for the environmental impact of the building, explains in the article that Job’s intention to blur the line between the inside and the outside wakes up your senses. While this doesn’t sound like a solid scientific motivation, facing the same cubicle all day is clearly the opposite of an inspiring working environment. And that’s why it’s no coincidence that another tech giant in Silicon Valley, Google, wants to cover its state of the art new headquarters, to be finished in 2020, with canopied domes that naturally regulate the indoor climate, the air quality and sound and glass facades that let in natural sunlight. The building is also to blend in with the surrounding ecosystems and landscape instead of standing in stark contrast to them. Facebook, another company that can afford itself a state of the art office building, has incorporated some of the outside world onto its building by adding 9 acres (3.6 hectares) of greenery on top of its offices in Menlo Park. Its new ‘Building 20’, finished in 2015 by another famous architect, Frank Gehry, is covered with a roof garden. Lori Gole, Facebook’s head of human resources and recruiting says it gives employees “space to think”.
Another important architectural choice in facilitating the creative output of Apple’s employees is the size and shape of the building. Thanks to its size all the different departments can work together in one single building, while before Apple’s employees were housed in no less than 200 different buildings. On top of that, as mentioned before, Jobs wanted this to be a workplace with an open character, where people could easily exchange ideas. The donut-shape of the building contributes to this openness because it naturally facilitates a long, three-quarter-mile corridor that crosses through the entire building. This corridor stimulates serendipitous encounters between people that work in different parts of the buildings and thus a constant (informal) exchange of ideas.
Creating one single building for all the different departments and connecting them with a long corridor is not a new concept; already in 1942 it was purposefully applied at Bell Labs’ headquarters in Murray Hill, New Jersey. At the time the pioneering telecommunications company – where the transistor, laser and cellular network were invented – opened a similarly futuristic office building that was designed in a way that its physicists, chemists, mathematicians couldn’t avoid each other anymore and were nudged into creative collaboration. To give an impression of how revolutionary Bell Labs’ new offices was at the time; representatives of more than eighty industrial laboratories visited and studied it – and many copied its unique features.
I learned this from the book ‘The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation’ by Jon Gertner, which describes the functionality of Bell Labs’ headquarters as follows:
“By intention, everyone would be in one another’s way. Members of the technical staff would often have both laboratories and small offices— but these might be in different corridors, therefore making it necessary to walk between the two, and all but assuring a chance encounter or two with a colleague during the commute. By the same token, the long corridor for the wing that would house many of the physics researchers was intentionally made to be seven hundred feet in length. It was so long that to look down it from one end was to see the other end disappear at a vanishing point. Traveling its length without encountering a number of acquaintances, problems, diversions, and ideas would be almost impossible.”
Steve Jobs also used the idea of forcing serendipitous encounters in Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville, CA. When Jobs was Pixar’s CEO in 1999 and the company’s creative star was strongly rising with Toy Story 2 grossing $485 million worldwide, Jobs wanted to build a showcase headquarters. Inspired by Disney – the company that would buy Pixar in 2006 – where employees took advantage of the open floor plan by easily sharing information and brainstorming, Jobs also asked the architects to design one single building.
Ed Catmull, Pixar and Disney’s Animation Studios’ current President, explains in his book Creativity, Inc., how Jobs wanted it to be as open as possible:
“He didn’t want perceived barriers, so the stairs were open and inviting. He wanted a single entrance to the building so that we saw each other as we entered. We had meeting rooms, restrooms, a mailroom, three theaters, a game area, and an eating area all at the center in our atrium. (…) This all resulted in cross-traffic—people encountered each other all day long, inadvertently, which meant a better flow of communication and increased the possibility of chance encounters. You felt the energy in the building.”
Steve Lasseter, Pixar’s CCO, in Jobs’ biography touts the layout as follows: “Steve’s theory worked from day one. I kept running into people I hadn’t seen for months. I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one.”
In Apple’s new headquarters the equivalent of this atrium is the huge restaurant where everyone eats – Jobs explicitly asked for one single restaurant. And of course there’s the huge circular courtyard, where people will be strolling and are also able to serendipitously bump into each other.
It’s no coincidence that in Silicon Valley, where creative collaboration is an important part of most businesses, the open floor plan is an important feature. Facebook’s aforementioned Building 20, for example, has according to an Economist article (‘Versailles in the Valley‘) the largest open-plan office in the world. The important difference, however, compared to Apple’s space ship, is that it purposely has more of a startup feel, with lots of street art and exposed wiring – giving it the feel, as the article describes it, of “an aircraft hangar crossed with a garage”.
What we can learn from these state of the art offices, with open office structures and large gardens, is that they catalyze the informal exchange of ideas outside of the formalized organizational structures and therefore allowing for more unexpected – and therefore more creative – combinations of ideas.
Activity based working
Despite Jobs’ autocratic nature, Jobs strongly believed and understood the importance of a collaborative culture. As Walter Issaacson explains in Jobs’ biography, he believed that Apple’s great advantage was the integration of all the different departments; from design to hardware to software to content. He wanted these departments to work in deep collaboration and concurrently, rather than sequentially – meaning: running parallel to each other, rather than one after the other.
Because the collaboration between different departments was so important, Jobs wanted flexible working stations in the very last state of the art product that he conceived. These stations are called ‘pods’, which are modular sections accommodating 3 kinds of work; office work, teamwork and socializing. The pods are repeated over and over throughout the building and distributed democratically. What is democratic about this set up is that it acknowledges that for creative collaborations the fluidity of the employee-structures is more important than the well-known hierarchical pyramid. While hierarchy facilitates primarily efficiency, a horizontal structure facilitates the flexible exchange of knowledge. It is in this horizontal spirit that both at Apple and Facebook even the CEOs don’t have their own, specially designed offices.
Google also plans to build a highly flexible workplace that can easily adapt to Google’s evolving business. This kind of design makes especially sense for Google, since it is constantly investing in new products and discarding unsuccessful ones. Its workplace needs to therefore facilitate unfamiliar working structures and collaborations. Companies that only makes one single product very successfully and that are not threatened by quickly changing customer demands and/or technological innovations, won’t benefit much from a flexible working space. For these kinds of companies, a hierarchical structure is more effective. But since the world is changing faster and faster – thanks to computers, the internet and self-learning software (powered by AI) – an increasing amount of companies will need a more flexible office space.
An artist impression of Google’s new head quarters, with a natural connection to the outside world and a flexible workspace inside. Source: Dezeen.
Speaking of self-learning software, I believe that within large organization there is still a lot of room for improvement when it comes to office software that stimulates project based working structures. I could easily imagine how at some point some sort of communication app creates a virtual office that connects colleagues in the best possible way when it comes to both efficient and creative collaborations. When that happens, you might think; who needs a bricks and mortar (or glass and metal, if you like) architect?
One of the reasons why collaborative office software hasn’t overtaken the importance of the ‘old fashioned’ office building evolution has turned us in an intelligent social species and over hundreds of thousand has given us very sophisticated communication tools. The way, for example, we communicate physically is extremely subtle and advanced.
Joshua Wolf Shenk explains in his book ‘The Powers of Two’ that several studies have shown that gestures are four times more important than words. Shenk explains how scientists have videotaped conversations and – after slowing down the footage frame by frame – discovered synchronies between nonverbal elements; “a shared rhythm very much like the beat that guides an improvisation in jazz. The movements themselves are coordinated to within a fraction of a second – our brains are taking in data on the order of milli- or microseconds. But conscious processing of information happens in the comparatively sluggish scale of seconds.” In other words, a substantial part of our communication happens subconsciously in body language.
In the same book Shenk also refers to study that was done in the late 1980s by Bell Communications Research. The study found that in large companies (with roughly 500 employees): “Researchers within the same discipline were twice as likely to collaborate with colleagues on the same floor than with ones just an elevator stop away. Researchers in separate departments who sat close together were six times more likely to collaborate with one another than with those in their own departments on separate floors.”
While this study was done before the use of e-mail and video-conferencing, Shenk also refers to another 2010 study that looked at 35,000 thousand papers and found that physically close collaborators were much more successful in terms of the citations they would receive for their work, compared to collaborators who worked further away from one another – not just when working in difference campuses, but also when working in different building within the same campuses.
Since our communication is much richer face to face, in the same office building, this artist impression of Apple’s huge restaurant – the equivalent of Pixar’s atrium – is a useful tool in bringing together and mixing its employees. Source: Huffington Post.
I still believe that office software hasn’t developed an awful lot in the past decades when you compare it to, say, 3D design software, but the fact that the software that we use to collaborate within an office isn’t very sophisticated, is probably due to the fact that we are very social animals and prefer to congregate and socialize, rather than talk to a digital screen. Differently put, the innovation of social software can be easily slowed down by our natural tendencies or, on a larger scale, by our culture that is unwilling to change.
The end of Silicon Valley
Since for now our social brain prefers to work in a physical environment with colleagues, Steve Jobs’ architectural legacy will still be useful for some decades to come. However, when zooming out a little, and looking at Silicon Valley, an opposing, unsocial trend is going on. The way Apple and Facebook are designing their state of the art offices, is not just stimulating creative collaborations. They are also building little micro-cosmoses that are, to some extent, disconnected from the rest of the world. As the article in the Economist explains it: “Facebook employees in Menlo Park live entirely in their own world: they commute from the city on private buses, while working on the free WiFi. Laundry service at the office is free. So are meals and snacks. At lunchtime, they can sit on the artfully mismatched designer chairs in the cafeteria, or hop a bike over to Facebook’s older “classic campus.” And last month Facebook even announced to literally build its own “village”, with its own housing.
So, the paradox here is that while Apple’s ‘insanely great mothership’ and Silicon Valley’s other blue chips offices are more inclusive, horizontal and transparent from the inside, they are becoming more exclusive and closed from the outside. And while they may be catalyzing their internal creativity, they might have the opposite effect in Silicon Valley as a whole.
As the Economist points out; “The Valley thrived because people met and shared ideas in office parks, restaurants and cafés, and talent has historically moved around easily within and between companies. As firms build self-enclosed universes, that mixing may stop.” Of course that mixing won’t entirely stop, but the fact that the offices are growing bigger and becoming more exclusive makes that in Silicon Valley the real estate prices are soaring. At the same, time the smaller, intrinsically flexible companies (the new Apple’s, Facebook’s and Google’s, as it were) with cheaper employees, move somewhere else. And this might bode the beginning of the end of Silicon Valley as the hotbed of creativity.