Recently I took part in an event at the spanking new Google headquarters in Covent Garden in London. Like the company’s other offices, this one caters for every need that fashionable young people allegedly have, with its dance studio, luminous orange shower rooms and allotments for growing vegetables.
“It’s simply awesome,” is the verdict of the designers, Penson. This seems a little immodest but at least it is accurate. The office is awesome – in much the same way as a vengeful god is. Within five minutes of gliding up in the elevator, my heart was filled with wonder – and terror.
Before the talk we were ushered into a windowless room that was a cross between a padded cell in a lunatic asylum and an ante room in a brothel. There was no window, and the deeply buttoned emerald green sofas matched the walls, which were also padded right up to the ceiling. The door was locked with a wheel as if we were on a ship, and once inside I started to feel so anxious I had to beg to be let out again.
In the communal areas it was more airy but no less oppressive. Assorted fringed lampshades hung from the ceiling. There was much clashing flock wallpaper, and an ironic AstroTurf croquet lawn. There were rocking chairs and high-backed armchairs. Nothing was the same as anything else. And everywhere were these strange padded walls. I can only suppose they are a safety measure designed to stop people who are driven so mad by the try-hard pretentiousness of it all from hurting themselves when they bang their heads against them.
The overall look, according to the spec, is “granny flat,” which set me wondering again. Why design a hugely expensive modern office to look like your granny’s flat unless it’s because you have no time to visit the woman herself and so need some other way of remembering her?
Despite these puzzles, one thing is clear. Google wants all visitors to conclude that it is individual, quirky, fun, creative and, above all, deeply cool. Such showing off is a variation on traditional HQ one-upmanship, which has involved competing by the quantity of marble on display to prove power and invincibility. Google’s effort is equally unsubtle, and even less successful. The great thing about cool – as every rich but ostracized schoolchild can tell you – is that money alone can’t buy it.
The biggest problem with the office is not just that it is hideous. Or that it fails to be cool. The problem is that it is built on the whopping lie that individuals count. Actually, the building proves the reverse: with design so overbearing, the individual can’t get a look in.
In my own boring, under-designed office, my chair is just a chair. It’s not trying to upstage its occupant. It’s me, not the furniture, that has the personality.
Equally, because my office space is unassuming, I can do with it what I want. If that means covering it with sandwich wrappers, grubby waterproof cycling outerwear and old newspapers, then so be it. If you are making a design statement on Google scale, you can’t have people screwing it up with their grubby gym kit and curling copies of the paper.
Maybe I’m just too old for such hipness – after all, the average employee is more than two decades younger than I am. But in that case my daughter is also too old – and she’s barely 20. She said the place reminded her of a children’s waiting room at a private hospital where someone had gone mad buying brightly coloured things to distract sick infants.
All would be forgiven if it could be proved that this visual clamour made people more creative. We know that in offices where people don’t talk, creativity is lower. Ideas, as the writer Matt Ridley has put it, need a place to “have sex.” But Google has taken this too literally. All these bedroom fabrics seem to be inviting copulation not just by ideas, but by employees too.
I’ve just been watching a TED talk given by Steven Johnson, who argues that the best place ever found for ideas to mate was in the London coffee houses of the mid-17th century. A contemporary painting of the first one shows a floor made of brick, a table, some chairs, some coffee and a lot of people, and a lot of natural daylight too.
There is no mystery as to what any of us want from a modern office. We need light, places to talk, a desk of your own, a temperature at which you neither boil nor freeze, and a warm welcome when you come in. That doesn’t mean anything faux-granny, or padded, or AstroTurf. It means having a security guard who looks up when you arrive in the morning and says: “Hello Lucy.”