Internet-Bubble Office Design
Metropolis, July 2000
Welcome to the world of empty calories: with high levels of sugar and caffeine in their bloodstream, young web designers are fiercely competitive.
I recently tagged along behind a group of bankers to visit DoubleClick, one of the fastest-growing Silicon Alley media agencies. No one paid attention to us: in our corporate attire, we were invisible to the dot-com natives. Some bankers strutted in conservative suits and yellow Hermès ties, others traipsed behind in conspicuous dress-down casual wear — green polo shirts and leather sport coats — while I contributed to the general sartorial uneasiness with my gray Calvin Klein jacket and pearl necklace.
We were so obviously out of place in this groovy digital workplace where people flaunted dreadlocks, cool glasses, and cargo pants, we might as well have been a contingent of post-Soviet refugees deplaning at the Chicago O’Hara airport.
When immigrants come to America, most of them probably feel as badly dressed, clueless, and self-conscious as we all did that afternoon.
Kit Laybourne, an energetic fifty-something who created Oxygen with his wife Geraldine, chose the same analogy to explain the generation gap that drives the e.industry. “In the past, immigrants didn’t understand the American culture, but their children, who adapted faster, did,” he explains. “So they helped their folks find their way around. Today, it’s no different. Young people know more than their parents about the internet. That’s why startups like ours have very cool environments, to attract technology-savvy kids.” He sounded just a touch condescending: a parent justifying spoiling his children to win their affection.
The “kids” are adults in their mid-twenties. Chances are they were about eight years old in 1984 when Apple launched the first Mac. They sent their first email in 1992 when they were in high school to the girl who sat behind them in computer science 101. Since, quite a few of their friends have dropped out of college to start internet-based companies in their parents’ garage — and yes, the cliché is true, a handful of them are now millionaires (or at least millionaires on paper).
For these so-called-kids, the workplace is a three-dimensional web site — a portal into their electronic world. They don’t care much how “nice” the place looks like, as long as the circuitry is up and running. As soon as they turn on their computer and go online, the non-virtual world ceases to exist. That’s why quite a few startups don’t bother with office design or planning; they don’t feel it’s necessary to put up walls or partitions to give their employees privacy. Instead they emulate suburban garages, complete with raw concrete floors, basketball hoops, bicycles, and metal doors.
More established companies tend to resemble airports, with soaring perspectives, suspended mezzanines and exposed trusses. Transportation is the visual metaphor. Whether rudimentary garages or sophisticated hangers, internet-based offices always feel like gateways, points of entry into virtuality.
As a result, “there is no there there,” as Gertrude Stein used to say to describe Oakland at the beginning of the 20th century. The vast majority of internet workplaces don’t look like much at first glance. So what? you think, as you wander down hallways or meander among workstations — what’s the big deal? Another open-plan office with lots of computers. But what you see is not what you get. The real action takes place somewhere else, on the other side of all those display monitors.
The Valley & the Alley
Back in Silicon Valley in the early 1980s, the no-there-there was already the signature look of the region. Commuting as I did from San Francisco to San Jose to work for the Mercury News, I might as well have gone back and forth between the visible and the invisible realm.
I knew I had arrived when I felt I had gone nowhere. Day after day, the very blandness of the terrain, the monotonous succession of industrial parks, and the absence of landmarks would defeat my sense of place and direction. The only indication that anything was happening was the number and size of the sprawling parking lots.
Today, Silicon Alley in Manhattan is undergoing a similar growth pattern. There is no sense of place, no real neighborhood. Internet companies are spread all over the city, wherever there is enough contiguous commercial space to accommodate their rapid expansion. Some companies lease a couple of floors in skyscrapers in the Wall Street area, others find shelter in non-descript buildings on the fringe of the garment district, and still others grab whatever reconverted industrial lofts they can find in Chelsea, around Canal Street, or on the Bowery.
The term Silicon Alley describes a state of mind, more than a location. While the Valley is about the technology, the Alley is about creative ways to use that technology. And while Valley companies have shared profits with employees for more than a decade, the concept of profit sharing — and risk sharing — is still relatively new for their Alley counterparts.
New York’s internet content providers derive their sense of identity from their newly acquired awareness of the potential dangers and rewards of the stock option system. They can be found in downtown bars, talking anxiously about equity, seed money, angel investors, venture capital, and IPOs. In front of a glass of Chardonnay — or a lemon Perrier — they compare various compensation packages.
A cool advertising company offers you 750 shares currently valued at thirty dollars a share, whereas an exciting startup, with a star investor, offers you 50,000 shares valued at four bucks a piece? “You do the math,” says Chris Kaye, 29, a managing editor at 360hip-hop.com, an online rap music website. He was recently cajoled away from what he calls a “cube farm” (a corporate environment) by the lure of riches to come. “Why wear a suit?” he asks, “You feel stupid looking like you are going to a funeral in front of a kid your age wearing jeans and hiking boots with 30 million worth of stock options in his pocket.”
Making the rounds of some of the latest dot-coms in Manhattan, I had ample opportunities to feel stupid myself—and mildly annoyed to boot.
A young and greedy workforce
With lucre the main career motive for so many talented twenty-something dot-commers, the generation gap is becoming harder to ignore. Ageist attitudes thrive under the surface. Everyone born before 1970 is scrambling around trying to look cool as more and more internet companies are turning their offices into electronic playpens for their increasingly younger — and greedier — workforce.
At times, I sensed cynicism on both sides of the electronic divide: from the “kids” who expect to be pampered by their older employers as well as from the “adults” who seem a little too eager to comply with their inexperienced workers’ childish demands. And to be perfectly candid, I felt that, ultimately, the kids were the ones being exploited.
Architects who are brought in to design these new dot-com workplaces are often asked to create high-density electronic sweatshops while at the same time provide cool-looking amenities. “DoubleClick is like a resort,” say Dan Jacoby, the senior designer responsible for this project at The Philips Group. And indeed, though workers are packed in tight cubicles in open areas, there is also a huge dinning terrace with a stunning view over Manhattan, an informal bistro, a couple of intimate lounges, a well-appointed pantry, an exercise room with showers, a yoga room, a game room with a pool table, a rooftop basketball court, and an indoors ‘park’ with real trees—most of it fully wired for internet connection.
The assumption is that having fun and working are one and the same thing. Employees take their laptop with them everywhere they go. You expect to find electrical outlets tucked away in flower boxes, bathroom stalls, and trash cans.
Built in what used to be an ice skating rink, DoubleClick has retained the colossal proportions of a sports arena. The cavernous reception room is a two-level vortex dominated by a massive red wall. Yet by far the most startling and scary sight in this grandiose lobby are three king-size, supermarket cases containing rows and rows of soft drinks. Incongruous yet familiar, the free-for-all soda distribution center, a popular destination with employees, makes a strangely ominous statement.
Welcome to the world of empty calories, quick energy jolts, and all-nighters. With high levels of sugar and caffeine in their bloodstream, no wonder the young DoubleClick’s web surfers have acquired a reputation for being fiercely competitive. “Our HR team is focused on finding athletes,” said founding techno-billionaire Kevin O’Connor in a recent online interview. “We want employees with a competitive nature.”
Soda machines are icons in the internet community. At RazorFish, one of the top interactive agencies in the Alley, the main attraction, a hit with both clients and employees, is such a contraption. But to get your free soft drink, you can’t simply press a button, you must use the phone (there is one conveniently placed next to the machine). Dial 212-789-7038 and listen to the “Welcome to Soda Phone” menu. For Coke press one, for Diet Coke press two, for Sprite press three, and so on. Only after you’ve made your selection does the can drop down. “Why make it so complicated?” I asked the young man who gave me a tour of the offices. He looked surprised. “For the technology,” he answered, cryptically.
Sugar, in the form of cookies, is also one of the substantial amenities at Oxygen, whose offices are installed on two floors of the Chelsea Market, a former Nabisco factory. To get to the company’s dedicated elevator, employees must work their way through a labyrinth of trendy pastry shops. “They love the place, it’s literally ‘nourishing’,” remarks Kit Laybourne. “We also have a canteen and hope to have a cafeteria on the deck by this summer. We want to give kids a lot of opportunities to bump into each others.”
Blurring the line between career and personal life is an important part of the strategy in all internet startups, where everyone works twelve hours a day. But at Oxygen, it’s even more critical. A women website and 24-hour cable network, it is committed to creating a new media at the intersection of computer and television, office and home, efficiency and entertainment. Their mandate is to reinvent the way we work and play.
Oxygen is a hybrid between a manufacturing plant and a playground, with rolling workstations built from an industrial warehouse shelving system, plywood partitions with cutout peek-a-boo windows, and conference rooms perched on top of free-standing structures, like tree-houses.
Architects of the buzz
“The most important objective for a startup is to create a buzz,” says architect Jane Sachs, whose company, Hut Sachs Studio, recently completed the 18,000 square feet offices of Jay Chiat’s new ad agency, Screaming Media (Legend has it that to celebrate a deal, someone hits a gong and everyone starts screaming). But already the space is too small and she is at work incorporating another 17,000 square feet next door.
Her lyrical, idiosyncratic, and instinctive approach to space allocation makes the task easier. Vaulting parabolic forms, laid on the diagonal, against the grid imposed by the columns, create clear sight lines to the windows, while breaking the yawning emptiness of the warehouse floor. Trained first as a painter before studying architecture, Sachs can let go of architectural conventions “because I am totally ignorant of them,” she explains.
The result is an office landscape that pays homage to Frank Gehry with sculptural nooks and crannies that harbor meeting areas of all sizes, from large conference rooms to private phone booths. “There are never enough conferences rooms,” Sachs says.
But more than creating rings of privacy, her design solutions are meant to encourage people to collaborate and mingle. She has installed huge, fully-wired, boomerang-shaped library tables large enough for 15 people to work together. By the end of the day, as many as 30 employees are gathered around these communal electronic water holes. And to make sure no one huddles by himself in a corner, her workstations are light and airy, with flat monitors to save room, and low storage units for minimum visual obstruction. The kids are packed to the max, she admits, but she compensates for the crowding with unusually large aisles that try to provide serene decompression zones.
“To tell the truth, there is nothing really new about this so-called new office workspace,” she tells me, lowering her voice, as if sharing some embarrassing gossip. “Our concept of work is still conventional. If this space was truly revolutionary, it would not exist! With the latest teleconferencing technology, no one needs to show up at work anymore.”
A sudden burst of applause, somewhere in the deep recesses of the space, interrupts her train of thoughts. “One of the teams probably got a new account, and everyone is cheering them,” she remarks in passing. “There is a constant energy here, with lots of noise, lots of yelling, lots of exuberance, including people playing their boom box. It’s distracting, but good for the buzz.” With a name like Screaming Media, what do you expect?
Working in a Lava Lamp
Even companies with a weak internet presence try to join in the fun. One of the corporate environments that best captures the allure of raw energy characteristic of Silicon Alley is a hundred-year old New York institution. To signal to everyone in the publishing industry that it has embraced the dot.com culture, CondéNast moved its headquarters to 42nd street and Broadway, in the heart of Times Square. Creative teams, formerly housed in spacious private offices, are now packed in a ten-floor turret perched over what is probably the most noisy, visually intrusive, and crowded crosswalk of the world.
Giant billboards stare back at you whenever you glance out the window. A constant roar rises from the streets below. Some offices find themselves stuck behind the Nasdaq electronic billboard that hangs three feet from the façade to make room for a catwalk behind the circuitry. “It’s like living inside a computer,” says an employee. “and in the evening, when the colors from the billboard bounce off the building across the street, it’s like living in a lava lamp.”
Creature comforts are minimal, with countertops the wrong height, distant bathrooms, offices the size of closets, and endless hallways snaking around oddly-shaped workspaces. Here again, the only celebratory environment is the one place where you can get your sugar fix—an exotic-looking cafeteria designed by Frank Gehry.
Jolted out of their Madison Avenue complacency, employees have no place to hide and are forced to deal with each others and with the overbearing presence of Times Square’s media culture—the very thing that threatens to make their ink-based industry redundant.
For many internet fans, reinventing the workplace is synonymous with reinventing the world. Kyle Shannon, co-founder of Agency.com, an international internet service firm headquartered in lower Manhattan, is one of them. His official title is CPO, Chief People Officer. I was tempted to roll my eyes, but his enthusiasm is contagious. I am a sucker for geeks with people skills — there are so few of them. And like most of his Fortune 500 clients, Coca-Cola, British Airways, American Express, I am slightly awed by the fact that Shannon, 33, has been reported to have a 245 million stake in his company (Give or take a few million, depending on market gyrations).
“We are communicating in an all-together new way,” he says. “We don’t care what the workplace looks like, but how it functions.” To make his point, he demonstrates how his virtual “lightboard,” a wall-size monitor with a wireless keyboard, allows him to collaborate in real time with the company’s 850 employee worldwide. But he seems just as taken by the many blackboards, whiteboards, pegboards and corkboards that encourage people throughout the office to draw, scribble notes, or leave messages to each others on practically every surface—doors, walls, partitions, sliding panels.
Mixing digital and analog
Unlike other netizen who are wowed by the emerging technology and surround themselves with a décor that celebrates it, Shannon prefers to underplay it. He loves to mix the digital and the analog. His personal office looks like a teenager’s room, with a big red pegboard to display his electronic guitar and other musical artifacts.
“We do so many virtual projects, it’s fun at last to pick real furniture,” he says, pointing at the flexible workstations with small oval tables you can slide out or tuck away, the cushioned file cabinets on casters that double as stools, or the egg-shaped pillows in the numerous conference rooms. Cozy enough to curl up for a nap if you had to, the playfully-furnished alcoves are lined up to form friendly barriers that break the huge floor space into smaller open-plan communities.
On the way to show me the 50th floor, where a restaurant, a cafeteria, a game room, a Zen garden, and a small performance space are under construction, Shannon insists we take a look at the company’s fetish: an ice cream vending machine.
I watch him as he fishes a crumpled dollar bill from his jeans pocket, inserts it in the slot, and makes his selection. The contraption lights up like a jukebox. Behind the glass window, an old-fashioned ice chest opens up and a grotesque robotic vacuum hose swings into view. We burst out laughing as it waddles around before descending on its prey. Awkwardly, it sucks up an ice cream bar and drops it in the hatch.
It’s a Nick-at-Nite moment. Happy Days Are Here Again. This technology thing? Lighten up. It’s not the end of the world as we know it, after all, but just another vibrant episode in the saga of American Pop Culture.
1/6 - In July 2000, the Internet bubble was about to burst
2/6 - Razorfish was already one of the hotest digital "shops" in New York' Silicon Alley
3/6 - The office environment of the startups was designed to create a buzz
4/6 - At Screaming Media, a noisy garage atmosphere was supposed to foster creativity
5/6 - Snaks and sodas kept the staff hyped up 24/7
6/6 - For web programmers, nothing was more exciting than a vintage vending machine