Zuckerberg's Dream: Everyone Sitting in One Room (Controlled by Invisible Forces)

By Alexis C. Madrigal
Facebook HQ rendering.

The starchitecture of Silicon Valley gets the full Vanity Fair treatment in a new story that appears in next month's magazine, but online now. Paul Goldberger got remarkable access, talking with Norman Foster about the doughnut-ship Apple building and Frank Gehry about the new Facebook HQ.

He asks the right questions, too, drawing the contrast with Twitter's downtown San Francisco building in the conclusion: "At a time when the city, not the suburb, seems to hold the allure for younger workers in the technology industry, how much will Foster’s refined, iPhone-like architecture or Gehry’s lively, garden-topped workspace matter?" Goldberger writes. "Twitter’s renovated office space in an old San Francisco neighborhood may, in the end, be the real harbinger of the future."

But the single most interesting part of the story is where Gehry recounts why he designed the building he did. 

“They asked me to come up to Menlo Park and I met Mark Zuckerberg and he said, ‘Why would someone of your reputation want to do this?’ ” Gehry told me. “I said to him, ‘What is your dream? What do you want?’ He said his ideal was to have everyone in one big room. I showed him pictures of my office, where everybody is in one big room, a whole acre. If you make a 10-acre room on stilts, you can hide the parking underneath, and people can park right under their offices.”

Gehry was merely executing on Zuckerberg's dream "to have everyone in one big room."

And what makes this interesting is trying to think through how this dream works. 

On the surface, it is egalitarian. A technocracy, even. Anyone could go anywhere. Anyone could see Mark.

This parallels a dream that Zuckerberg related to Kate Losse in her book about working at Facebook, The Boy Kings. "Mark told me that his dream for Facebook was something like this, to make us all cells in a single organism," she writes, "communicating automatically in spite of ourselves, perhaps without the need for intention or speech."

In reality, when it comes to actual power in the form of voting control of the company, Mark Zuckerberg has more control than almost any other large company's CEO. 

Losse also details the many hierarchies at Facebook, and one of them was who got to sit near Zuckerberg. "Like any power mogul, Mark’s desk in the bunker was surrounded by the work stations of people he liked and had fashioned as his closest deputies."

Losse, sitting near this pod, gets to watch the comings and goings of important people. The invisible lines of power coursing through the organization are, briefly, visible to her. 

Let me say first: of course there are hierarchies. There probably should be hierarchies. Organizations need people to make decisions and sometimes it helps everyone to kick something up a notch on the corporate ladder.

So why hide it?

I might even say the Gehry office is a disingenuous piece of architecture. It looks one way, but will almost certainly function differently. Everyone knows (has to know!) not to take the nods to equality too seriously.

The Zuckerbergian dream, then, is everyone sitting in one big room with no walls or visible separations. Control is exerted only by secret codes and invisible meridians of force. 

In Zuckerberg's dream space, no one sees the architecture of power. They just feel it.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/zuckerbergs-dream-everyone-sitting-in-one-room-controlled-by-invisible-forces/282342/