Why Is Frank Gehry So Desperate to Align Himself With Facebook?

For a while, rumors have been circulating that Facebook would be relocating from a Midtown Manhattan office at 335 Madison Ave to the downtown tech stead of Silicon Alley. Yesterday, Serkan Piantino, head of Facebook’s New York engineering team, confirmed the news, announcing that they would be taking up 100,000 square feet of space on two floors of an existing building at 770 Broadway.

Mark Zuckerberg and Frank Gehry inspect models for the Facebook West office in Menlo Park, California.
Mark Zuckerberg and Frank Gehry inspect models for the Facebook West office in Menlo Park, California.

[Image via Fastcodesign.com]

Not for the first time, Facebook has tapped Frank Gehry to design the new office, though it remains unclear why someone of Gehry’s talent and prestige should be recruited for something so humble. After all, we’re not talking about a new building, but two floors of an existing building. Most of the features that Piantino points to — “big open spaces,” spots to “grab a white board to talk through ideas on a whim,” and a “full service kitchen” — probably don’t require a world-class architect to arrange. It merits asking why these features couldn’t be obtained through a less famous (and less expensive) architect or interior designer.

Part of the reasoning lies in the fact that unlike, say, Sony’s or Home Depot’s corporate headquarters, tech companies have made a point of advertising their offices as special places. “At Facebook,” George Packer wrote in The New Yorker last month, “employees can eat sushi or burritos, lift weights, get a haircut, have their clothes dry-cleaned, and see a dentist, all without leaving work.” According to an Economist article in 2007, recent college grads “love” Google’s headquarters in Mountainview, California, which “in effect replaces their university campus — with a dating scene, a laundry service and no reason to leave at weekends.” While Packer has taken these immersive environments as signs of the tech world’s insularity, one also detects an element of utopianism in these after-college campuses, an attempt at physically expressing Google’s slogan, “Don’t be evil,” or Mark Zuckerberg’s futuristic vision for an interconnected society. Wouldn’t the world be a better place, they seem to ask, if companies outside Silicon Valley (or Alley) managed themselves similarly?

In their continued partnership, both Gehry and Facebook have something to gain by perpetuating this kind of tech world exceptionalism. Gehry may be mocked for his overexposure, and there’s definitely a pushiness to the way he inserts the same “swoopy” sensibility everywhere he goes, but he has largely succeeded in making a name in community-minded projects like amphitheaters, concert halls, and grand museums. No matter how pushy they seem, Gehry projects in LA, Chicago, and Bilbao have ended with words of praise for his generosity as an artist and civic technician.

And, of course, tech companies would benefit by continuing to latch onto this kind of reputation. But I’m not sure if we should let them. As Packer wrote, when oil companies credit themselves for addressing the country’s vital energy needs, or when banks pat themselves on the back for providing small businesses with cheap credit, they are typically met with a “smirk or wink.” The tech world — by all means, a profit-minded affair — is by contrast spared this kind of skepticism.

As Ben Davis wrote in ARTINFO, given Apple’s labor and environmental shortcomings, it’s worth asking why the company’s retail branches were treated like the friggin’ Western Wall when Steve Jobs died. On the same tip, Google’s preaching about a free-information society seems a little lame when you think about their cooperation with China’s censorship laws. Facebook is a private company, and they can buy and build whatever kind of office they like, but in linking arms with Gehry, they come off as vain and spurious. We don’t have to buy into it.