Tech Bubbles: Return Of The Biodome

Still from Google’s promotional video on the ‘new campus’ in Mountain View, California.

In September 1991, an 8-person crew dressed in boiler suits waved goodbye to the cameras and sealed themselves for two years inside an airtight biodome in the Arizona Desert. The building, a three-acre glass and steel structure, was called Biosphere 2. Its mission was to recreate the Earth’s ecosystem and for the participants to survive on the resources contained within: a miniature rainforest, ocean, desert, savannah and agricultural plot. The eight biospherians (also known as bioneers or bionauts) were to keep atmospheric conditions stable and sustain their own lives, as well as those of the flora and fauna they depended on. The wildly ambitious project was meant to expand knowledge of the workings of Biosphere 1 – planet Earth – but also to provide a model for the colonisation of other planets.

The brave biospherians were sent off with pomp and applause but emerged an emaciated laughing-stock. The experiment had failed in a number of ways: the biospherians did not grow enough food and had resorted to eating grains from their seed store; one inhabitant had to prematurely open the airlock to seek medical help after chopping off the end of her finger; the levels of carbon dioxide rose dangerously high, and a machine was secretly installed to rebalance the air supply; and infighting amongst the bionauts led to a toxic social atmosphere, splitting the group into factions. Meanwhile, it was discovered that the biospherians had previously belonged to a cult-like theatre group based in New Mexico during the ‘60s and ‘70s. The group’s leader and executive director of Biosphere 2, John Allen, had written of ‘the inevitable doom’ of Biosphere 1, suggesting mankind could only achieve ‘cosmic immortality’ by colonising other planets. The initial optimism surrounding Biosphere 2 as a means to help us understand and save our own planet waned as it became clear the motivations were selfish: they were planning an escape to a shiny new world, leaving the rest of humanity to rot on the dirty old one. No one seemed to point out that the project’s funder, the self-proclaimed environmentalist Ed Bass, was a Texas oil tycoon who made his billions by polluting Biosphere 1. Perhaps he too was planning his escape.

Still from 'Bio-Dome' (1996)

Still from ‘Bio-Dome’ (1996)

Criticism of the project transformed from general disappointment to a pointed scorn for the biodome’s architecture. The stoner movie Bio-Dome (1996) ridicules not only the experiment’s content but its architectural form. Two stoners (Pauly Shore and Stephen Baldwin) mistake a biodome for a shopping mall, pull over to use its toilet, and end up trapped inside for two years. But, in the intervening years, culture’s disdain for the biodome has given way to worship. Biodome-like architecture, with its use of glass and geometric steel panelling, has undergone a renaissance in Silicon Valley. The office spaces for the most important Tech companies in the world will soon resemble these bubbles, worlds unto themselves.

Google recently announced plans for its new headquarters in Mountain View, California – designed by Thomas Heatherwick and the Bjarke Ingels Group. The vision is of flexible modular offices without outer walls or ceilings, sheltered under huge, curved glass canopies. Employees will wander indoor ‘streets’ instead of corridors, separated from the Californian sky by glass and blinds that unfold automatically to provide shade where necessary. The indoor streets will be lined with trees, and the tarmac and car parks that currently dominate the outside landscape will be replaced by cycle and pedestrian-friendly green spaces. These new headquarters aim to be ‘ecologically friendly’; in the stirring promotional video, Heatherwhick tells us the greenhouses will not only ‘enclose and protect pieces of nature’ but ‘augment and turn the dial up’ on nature.

Google isn’t alone in its proposals to merge the working environment with the ‘natural’ world. Amazon is planning three biospheres for its headquarters in Seattle in the classic Buckminster-Fuller style – the architect who popularised the geodesic dome – and Apple’s new eco-campus, designed by Norman Foster, is already underway. Dubbed ‘the mothership’ because of its UFO-like squat ring shape, this glass building will be surrounded by a forest and contain a copse of newly planted trees at its centre.

It is striking that these tech giants have chosen spherical, arboreal and biodome-inspired designs as their offices of the future but, looking at developments in office design since the ‘90s, a trajectory is clear. In 1998, the advertising company TBWA\Chiat\Day opened new headquarters in L.A., which, inspired by Disneyland, included an indoor ‘main street’, ‘central park’ and basketball courts. The office interiorised a whole ‘city’ and thus architecturally broke down the barriers between work and leisure, enclosing these antithetical concepts under the same roof. The idea was to create a more ‘informal’ working atmosphere that made workers mobile, increasing the chance of ‘creative collisions’ between bright minds in open, shared spaces. Tech companies are also said to have revolutionised the workplace around this time, reinventing the office as a ‘university campus’ characterised by a casual, ‘quirky’ and haphazard use of space.

Inside Biosphere 2. Image licensed under creative commons.

Inside Biosphere 2, Arizona. Image licensed under creative commons.

The offices reflect Silicon Valley’s social domination, spatially enacting the intrusion of consumer technology into experience. Like Biosphere 2, the idea is that all life processes will flourish under one roof; the divisions we have constructed between work and leisure are made meaningless. Heatherwick and Ingels talk of evaporating ‘the traditional distinctions between urban settings and the office environment’; the Google offices are to become public spaces open to Silicon Valley residents and visitors thanks to bookshops, fishing spots and restaurants. The architectural renderings of these grand buildings show children playing, wildlife photographers at work and a faceless mass of people in yoga poses on a mezzanine. Such spiritual individualism could only be enforced by the totalitarian and cultish tendencies of Big Tech: like the bionauts, Google employees creepily term themselves ‘Googlers’; Apple’s ‘Mothership’ conjures not just the spectre of the messianic Steve Jobs (whose last wish was that Apple create ‘the best office in the world’) but, more concretely, the Pentagon.

These offices naturalise the behaviour of Big Tech and, as such, neutralise any moral introspection an employee or consumer might entertain. Indeed, these arboreal utopian bubbles allow Google, Apple and Amazon to mask the social and ecological costs of material production. In this sense, Amazon’s biodome surpasses the hypocrisy of its name: a company whose overuse of packaging contributes to a fair amount of deforestation will plant trees inside its offices. And despite Apple’s highly praised efforts to reduce its environmental impact, there are serious incongruities between the clean, green façade of the ‘mothership’ and their use of planned obsolescence – the production strategy that drives consumers to upgrade their devices at unnecessary human and environmental cost. In keeping with the soft imperialism of Google’s mission, the building-as-world biodome allows them not only to contain but redefine the planet, producing a consumer-oriented, bubble-wrapped version of it. The offices ‘turn the dial up on nature’, creating the illusion that Google uses its innovative capabilities to generate a world that is more beautiful and intelligent than the earth itself.

The re-visioning of office space in the style of Biosphere 2, an ultimately failed science experiment, is embarrassing at least and prophetic at most. Amazon, Google and Apple pump illusion, consumption and disregard for the environment into the atmosphere. In this light their offices are mere compensation for a fundamental lie: that they offer us the best of all possible worlds.

—Lillian Maguire

This article appears in Issue One, which is available to buy in bookshops and online.

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