IGS: Your architectural firm, Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG), was commissioned to design Google North Bayshore and King’s Cross Central. What tipped the scales in your favour for the client to choose your design?
Leon: In the beginning Google with direct involvement from Larry Page sent out a request for qualifications to a handful of firms in the form of a Ted Talk; essentially an 18-minute video that describes our firm and our initial thinking for a potential headquarters for Google. The story goes that Larry was drawn to both BIG and to Heatherwick Studio, and he couldn’t decide between the two, or at least saw different strengths and potential with each of us, so he decided to pair us together in a sort of arranged marriage. I think what resonated with Google in our work was a pragmatic and rational approach but with an unexpected whimsy, which really embodies what Google is all about.
IGS: Being tasked with creating such high-profile projects seems daunting. Does the history attached to these sites and these companies ever intimidate you?
Leon: There must be a sense of pride attached to breathing life and encouraging human interaction into areas where that was previously not the case? I would say that the primary response is never intimidation, but excitement at endless opportunity. Even with a rather generic project, it is the job of the architect to see it in the most flattering, optimistic light, and to visualize the sheer potential; so, you can imagine that for a project such as this we were bursting with enthusiasm.
It would be an understatement to say there is a sense of pride that comes with completing a building or project; especially with projects that take over five years from the first site visit to the ribbon cutting ceremony. Although it takes a long time to conceive, there’s also satisfaction of knowing the building will stand for 20 to 50 years; or in these cases with Google the intent is for them to survive 100 years. Seeing how a building use evolves and survives different social and economic forces is also one of the joys of being an architect and I do hope to visit these buildings when I am towards the end of my career.
IGS: AI, robotics, the IoT and digital transformation are all disruptive technologies. There is a danger that if we all use the same design engines, the same drivers, we will all make the same mistakes and buildings will become same old, same old, thereby stifling the talent of the individual. What are your thoughts on this? How do you maintain your differential?
Leon: Technology has always been able to progress the profession of architecture; often taking away the most mundane tasks and allowing human time and creativity to be focused towards emerging or experimental domains. As a very basic example, if you look at old hand drawings like that of Frank Lloyd Wright, someone spent an awful amount of time crosshatching large fields of drawings, and not to mention meticulously making detailed models. When hatches became possible at a click of a button, team sizes didn’t shrink – it allowed those architects to spend more time on design, or dive deeper into the possibilities of a project concepts or details. A more recent example is BIM which allowed us to save enormous amount of time when laying out to the drawings, and when done correctly an entire drawing set can be generated at the click of a button. Similarly, physical models can now be 3-D printed, laser cut, or machined, which has also freed up the time of architects to again focus more on design quality rather than design representation.
Looking to the future I am optimistic that AI and other future technology will allow us to further advance the profession of architecture, freeing humans up to do what they do best – think creatively. We have begun research and development internally on a ‘BIG Bot’ that would be able to begin automating parts of the design process which are unique to our firm, but consistent across our projects, such as site analysis, program analysis, and initial massing ideas.
IGS: As Project Leader for Google North Bayshore and King’s Cross Central, you play a critical role in delivering the project to fruition. Have you experienced any notable challenges, and if so, how have you overcome these?
Leon: We were put in a uniquely challenging position at the beginning of the project. We like to think of ourselves as the creatives in the room, and usually we are dealt a dry brief, program, and site constraints, and it is our responsibility to make the magic; however in our initial conversations with Larry Page, it became clear that his visions were so idealistic, that it was our responsibility to ground these ideas in reality – to turn fiction into fact. For example, the original brief included a wave pool embedded within the workspace!
More predictably, most projects share the challenge of meeting the budget. In our case the initial concept was developed without a budget in mind intentionally, and we were then asked to execute it with quite a modest budget. There was a critical concept adjustment phase that required us to reimagine the entire family of buildings while keeping the original principles and vision intact. A similar exercise occurred later in schematic design development, where we had to reconceptualize the materiality of the building, from being a polished, museum-like interior to being more of an industrial aesthetic.
IGS: North Bayshore – Quoting BIG, “Silicon Valley has been an engine of innovation driving technological evolution and global economy. So far the majority of these vast intellectual and economic resources have been confined to the digital realm – Google North Bayshore expands this innovative spirit into the physical realm.“ In what way does the architecture bring these digital sentiments into the physical realm?
Leon: You could say that the building behaves as a platform, almost as an operating system that is flexible to accommodate all its potential uses, for decades to come. The large span canopy provides almost half of the building’s energy and lets in just the right amount of light to provide an egalitarian, perfectly lit workspace below. The workspace for Charleston East, the largest of the buildings, is a horizontal expanse of 2,500 workstations, subdivided into flexible neighborhoods, able to expand and contract and accommodate any future use that Google may throw at it, from software design to hardware design to experimental ventures. The ground floor is a bustling social arena which becomes the meeting and mixing chamber for the building community.
The building is also equipped with what we call ‘soft architecture’, a Burning Man-like kit-of-parts that helps the city underneath the canopy to reconfigure and reinvent itself. The founders of Google are seasoned ‘Burners’ and referred to the event often as an inspiration for the workspace.
IGS: Taking into account the local character of the areas and context in which these projects are being built, how have the designs reflected the surrounding built environment and history of King’s Cross and Silicon Valley respectively?
Leon: At Kings Cross the site outline itself echoes its previous use as a train shed for Kings Cross station. At 300 m long yet only 20-60 m wide, it is roughly the bulk of the London Shard laid on its side. We wanted to embrace the spatial experience of these linear hangers, but stacked on top of each other, to achieve the density of an urban office building. We were also mindful to lift the building and create a lively pedestrian scale experience along the street to further activate this newly developing district.
In the case of Silicon Valley, we were most inspired by the heritage of the NASA buildings on the adjacent Moffett airfield, which contains three monumental hangars and what I believe is North America’s largest wind tunnel structure. Beauty and simplicity to Google is personified in those hangars – as pure expression of engineering.
IGS: Climate change, energy efficiency, sustainability, occupant comfort, these are some key factors when designing buildings today. Leon, when you are commissioned to design a building, Google HQ is just one example, is it in the forefront of your mind to ultimately make the world a better place?
Leon: With building construction and operation accounting for approximately 40% of the world’s carbon emissions, the trajectory towards carbon neutrality, energy efficiency, and health are top of mind for us. We often seek ways to go above and beyond the brief and beyond established sustainability guidelines to give an unexpected ‘gift’ to the world – often in the form of ‘hedonistic sustainability’ – meaning that sustainability can be an indulgence. For example, the Urban Rigger floating dorm in Copenhagen are cheaper, quicker to build, and more self-sufficient than a typical dorm, PLUS it’s a better experience, with panoramic water views and a courtyard for each inhabitant.
Furthermore, our master planning projects provide the biggest opportunity to start building a better world. For example, our proposal for Oceanix City embodies one attitude towards the future of cities, that takes the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals as the driving brief. Our resiliency work in the SF Bay Area and Manhattan is a manifestation of the concept of Social Infrastructure – creating a protective barrier while ultimately creating a better place to live.
IGS: Could you give us some insight into the design of the facades for both projects? Are there any innovative features that stand-out in your mind?
Leon: In the case of Charleston East and Bayview the entire surface of the roof canopy is covered in thousands of 1 m x 1 m glass photovoltaic shingles. We have developed the material to be unique to this project, and to be a beautiful material in its own right to buck the trend of PV’s being an afterthought or hidden away atop a building. We strived to integrate the material into the building tectonic. We worked with Sunstyle in Switzerland to create a shingle with a textured silver-ish quality, that look like Gehry-esque metal shingles from afar, without significantly impacting its performance. Also worth noting on all of the vertical façades is bird frit placed at 2 x 4” intervals to ensure a safe building for our airborne friends.
In the case of London Kings Cross, the largest challenge of the project where it’s enormous 300 m long east-west facades which had the potential to create enormous heat and glare loads. We could not simply have a purely passive shading system, without impacting the daylight levels for the workspaces within. Through intensive analysis we arrived at a hybrid system that passively blocks a portion of the light, with a shading system that regulates the rest. Furthermore, we created triple-height, triple glazed spans of glass that alternate with triple-height mass timber mullions that also act as shading – the first system ever at this scale.
IGS: Can you give our readers an idea of the glass used in these projects? How integral to the design has glass been? And what role is it playing in realizing your design goals?
Leon: The choice of glass is always an important aspect for creating the balance of daylight performance, heat gain and insulation, and clarity for views. Notably for London Kings Cross – we ended up with triple glazing, low iron on all panes with Interpanes Ipasol Ultraselect 62/29 coating on surface 4 and Low-E Iplus Alpine CT on surface 6. All panes are heat strengthened and the PVB layer is clear Saflex.
IGS: Can you introduce us to some of the projects that you are particularly proud of, and perhaps give us a heads up on some projects in the pipeline that look set to gain traction and change the game in 2020?
Leon: We of course love all our children equally, but most recently I am very excited about the opening of Copenhill, the waste-to-resource energy plant in Copenhagen, which has an artificial ski slope on its rooftop. I really believe this will be a game changer in how we think about large infrastructural or industrial scale projects.
Relatedly we are currently working on a series of master plans in California, Japan, South America, and the Middle East which look at new forms of mobility, new developments in districtwide thinking, and new types of architecture vernacular which we think will set a positive tone for the collective vision for future cities. We are also continuing to look at work on other planets, which is exciting in itself, but also sheds light on how we should be thinking about efficiency and self-sufficiency on our own planet.
IGS: And Finally, what are your thoughts on glass as a structural material? Does glass perform enough functions to satisfy your creative designs? Or is there something you would like glass to do that it currently does not do…to your knowledge?
Leon: We have had great success with glass as a structural material for Audemars Piguet’s museum in Switzerland. It is a beautiful unobstructed columnless spiral supported by curving glass walls. I think what prohibits us from using it as a structural material in more applications is purely cost, scale, and its weakness in seismic locations. But we are excited by its rapidly increasing potential and we will continue to provoke our structural engineers to validate its feasibility as its technological advances.