Forget Apple's New HQ, Celebrate Your Low Road Building

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The startup lore says that many companies were founded in garages, attics, and warehouses. Once word got around, companies started copying the formula. They stuck stylized cube farms into faux warehouses and figured that would work. The coolness of these operations would help them look cool and retain employees. Keep scaling that idea up and you get Apple's ultrahip mega headquarters, which is part spaceship and part Apple Store.

But as Stewart Brand argued in his pathbreaking essay, "'Nobody Cares What You Do in There': The Low Road," it's not hip buildings that foster creativity but crappy ones.

"Low Road buildings are low-visibility, low-rent, no-style, high-turnover," Brand wrote. "Most of the world's work is done in Low Road buildings, and even in rich societies the most inventive creativity, especially youthful creativity, will be found in Low Road buildings taking full advantage of the license to try things."

Brand's essay originally appeared in his book, How Buildings Learn, and has just been re-released as part of The Innovator's Cookbook, a new Steven Johnson-edited tome of great essays about inventing stuff. It couldn't come at a better time. The aesthetic of innovation now dominates the startup scene, but it's like the skeleton of a long-dead invention beast. The point of a Low Road building isn't that it looks any particular way but rather that you could do anything with and in them. "It has to do with freedom," as Brand put it.

I want to see the Low Road Buildings where you're doing your work. They don't have to be cool. In fact, according to Brand, no style is better than high style. Email your photos to me here at The Atlantic: amadrigal[at]theatlantic.com.

But first, let me show you what I'm talking about.

I remember visiting Charlie Cheever (co-founder of Quora) at Facebook's offices in Palo Alto in 2007, it must have been. The place was a hot mess. The ceiling panels were missing and there were thick braids of ethernet cords running from down to pods of computers on the work floor. This photo by Zach Klein (a Vimeo cofounder himself) captures my memory pretty well:

oldfacebook.jpg

As you can see, it wasn't in a cool building. As I recall, it was on the second or third floor of a random office space a few blocks from Stanford. I remember being impressed by the size of the screens and how nice their chairs were, but it didn't look anything like the startup of your fantasies. It was on the Low Road. And from that place, a service that hosts visits from 500 million people a day was born.

Brand's favorite Low Road Building, he confirmed to me a couple weeks ago, remains MIT's Building 20 (at the top of this page). Built quickly during World War II, the 250,000-square foot wood building hosted the development of many important research disciplines from Chomskyan linguistics to the new style of computing promoted by early hackers. "The only building on campus you can cut with a saw," an admiring Brand quotes an admirer saying. Building 20 was above all else flexible and adaptable and it belonged to no one school or department or person.

Unfortunately, Building 20 does not remain. It has been replaced by the Stata Center, which is, in Brand's words, an "overpriced, overwrought, unloved, unadaptable, much sued abortion by Frank Gehry."

In other words, don't send me things that look like the Stata Center. Think Building 20.

stata center.jpg

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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