Google’s landscraper and the city of tomorrow

Low hopes: Google’s iconic new London campus will cost £1 billion to build. © Google

Should we build horizontal skyscrapers? Google’s new London HQ is set to be one of the world’s first “landscrapers”, or very long buildings. Some would like these to replace high-rises…

Sunlight pours through glass walls into vast, warehouse-like rooms dotted with trees. In their lunch breaks, employees nip downstairs for a swim; to catch some rays, they head up to the rooftop meadow. And when they get sleepy, they retire to a “nap pod”.

Welcome to Google’s planned new UK headquarters, currently being built in London’s Kings Cross area. After dismissing initial designs for being “too boring”, the company — recently named the best place to work in the country — has gone for a sprawling wood-and-bronze campus that will host 7,000 employees.

The most striking thing about the coming building is its sheer span. Though not very high, at 330m across it is longer than the Shard is tall. Stretching as far along the ground as skyscrapers do into the sky, the HQ has spawned a new term: “landscraper”.

To some, landscrapers represent the future of cities. American futurist Amy Webb gives a few reasons.

First, climate change will cause more hurricanes, which threaten high-rises.

Second, the spread of drones may lead to restrictions on vertical structures. Third, horizontal elevators have just been invented, facilitating movement within long buildings.

If landscrapers do catch on, they will represent a huge shift in urban design. Ever since Biblical humans constructed the Tower of Babel to reach heaven, we have been building upward.

This is especially true of the last century, in which the invention of the lift and the growing availability of steel led to a skyscraper boom. Towering buildings use land economically, and also project power and confidence. Last year, 128 were erected worldwide — a record.

But our obsession with height has triggered a backlash, especially in the West. Skyscrapers inevitably block views and change the skyline, which can create issues in historic areas. They can also interfere with aviation. This has caused cities to introduce height limits: in parts of Paris, it is a mere 50m.

Is it time we ditched skyscrapers for landscrapers?

Scraping along

Yes, say some. Skyscrapers symbolise industrialisation and urbanisation — 20th-century stuff. They were useful then, but now they seem ugly and intrusive. They also kill off street life, which is bad for a city’s economy and culture. Landscrapers are subtle, tech-savvy and integrated into their environment. In short: the perfect 21st-century building.

You ignore the bigger picture, reply others. Landscrapers may look nice and function well, but they are a highly inefficient use of land. The less housing space there is, the higher the living costs, the less diverse and interesting the city. This will only become truer as the human population grows. As ever, the only way is up.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather live and work in a skyscraper or a landscraper?
  2. Should governments impose a cap on the size of cities?

Activities

  1. Give a one-minute presentation to the class on your favourite building in the world.
  2. You have been given an unlimited budget to design a new building in your area. What would it do, how would it look, and what would it replace (if anything)? Draw up a proposal, complete with sketches.

Some People Say...

“All cities are mad: but the madness is gallant.”

Christopher Morley

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Google’s new UK HQ is definitely being built, despite fears that Brexit would derail the project. “Here in the UK, it’s clear to me that computer science has a great future,” said Google boss Sundar Pichai. The landscraper has been designed by Bjarke Ingels Group and Heatherwick Studio (which was responsible for the London 2012 Olympic cauldron).
What do we not know?
Whether landscrapers will take off. Obviously, they require a lot of space: Kings Cross, a former industrial hub, had plenty to offer. But many cities are cramped, or constrained by building regulations, or both. Webb thinks that landscrapers could be popular in the American Midwest, as people migrate there from coastal cities — which are predicted to suffer increasingly harsh weather due to climate change.

Word Watch

Recently named
According to Glassdoor, a website that features user reviews of different workplaces. Facebook came fourth; Apple ninth.
The Shard
At 310m, the Shard is the tallest building in the UK and Europe (if you leave out Russia).
Futurist
People (often academics) who research current social trends in order to predict what the future will look like.
Spread of drones
Supporters of drones include Amazon, which is currently trialling a drone delivery service in the UK.
Horizontal elevators
The German engineering company ThyssenKrupp has just sold the world’s first “maglev elevator”. This is a lift that operates through magnetic levitation technology (instead of ropes and cables). It can move up and down, sideways, and diagonally.
Tower of Babel
According to the Bible, God halted the construction of the tower by causing humans to start speaking different languages. Scholars disagree over whether the story was inspired by a real tower.
128
Skyscrapers are defined as buildings over 200m tall. Of those 128, 84 were constructed in China.

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