Langlands & Bell: the artists storming Silicon Valley’s fortresses
Eerie white forms appear to float off the walls of a gallery on Pall Mall, hovering in front of lurid blocks of colour like the preserved cadavers of some alien race displayed in a future museum of natural history. There are amoebic creatures with bulbous appendages, others with angular faceted shells; some seem to stare out with cyclopean eyes or gaping circular mouths.
Westminster’s gilded avenue of gentlemen’s clubs, where kings and earls once strode, is an appropriate place for what turns out to be a display of our modern-day vessels of power. These bleached bodies are the headquarters buildings of the world’s biggest technology companies, as seen through the detached, deadpan eyes of artist duo Langlands & Bell.
“Our obsession started when we came across Norman Foster’s plan for the new Apple campus in Cupertino,” says Ben Langlands, gesturing towards an image of a pristine white doughnut bristling with a regimented stubble of tiny columns. The first of the $5bn building’s 12,000 employees will move into the mothership this month, welcomed into a mile-long closed loop of offices, lined with brushed aluminium and clad with the largest panes of curved glass the world has ever seen, every element fitted with the precision of an iPhone.
“It is a fantasy of total control,” says Nikki Bell. “It oozes strategy, ambition, globalisation and technology; it so thoroughly embodies what these companies are about,” she adds.
Now in their late 50s and early 60s, the provocative pair have been probing the darker side of what they call “strategic architecture” for the past three decades, constructing immaculate white models of buildings that speak of networks of wider global influence beyond their four walls. Since the late 1980s, they have trained their laser-sharp gaze on everything from the big banks of Frankfurt, to the geometric headquarters of Nato and Unesco, to the sprawling panopticon penitentiaries of the US and international courts of justice – as well as Osama bin Laden’s house in Afghanistan.
Bringing a clinical precision to their subjects, they lay their victims on the operating table and conduct a cool-headed autopsy, peeling back facades and lifting off rooftops to lay bare the bones of power for all to see. “We’re providing a kind of privileged access,” says Bell, “stripping away the envelope and revealing the innards.”
Recently they have been drawn to the emphatically geometric headquarters of California’s tech giants because they see an intriguing conflict of representation, a disconnect between symbol and subject.
“It’s a real moment in history,” says Langlands. “Only 20 or 30 years ago, these companies were really quite modest, just starting up and operating out of garages, yet now they are some of the biggest corporations in the world. They seem a little bit self-conscious about building these huge monumental edifices, while claiming to maintain the casual start-up jeans-and-T-shirt culture.”
The identity crisis is most apparent in the form of Frank Gehry’s gargantuan Facebook building in Menlo Park, a vast corporate HQ that still wants to be an informal garage. Rambling along the highway for 40,000 square metres, it is the biggest single office space in the world, disguised as an ad-hoc shed, with the appearance of a series of aircraft hangers haphazardly bolted together. In the exhibition, it is depicted as a coloured plan-view model, with the various grades of meeting pods scattered across the open-plan floor like a psychedelic fungus, each “neighbourhood” of desks connected by a meandering walking loop designed for unplanned encounters; employees are encouraged to “hack” their space.
On a wall nearby floats a structure of a very different kind, the hermetic shell of the Nvidia headquarters in Santa Clara, designed for the graphics-processor giant by corporate architecture firm Gensler. The architects’ website trumpets that the building has been “designed around how people move, demonstrating design from the inside out”, conceived as a place where “oversized platforms replace stairways as vertical connectors and serve to stage impromptu meetings and interactions”. But the generic interior doesn’t interest Langlands & Bell. Instead they’ve chosen to show the building with the menacing air of a stealth-bomber, paired with an imaginary doppelganger, their crumpled triangular forms hovering above the page like drones ready to strike.
While much of the duo’s previous work has focused on lifting off rooftops to reveal regimented symmetrical layouts, most of the tech headquarters in this exhibition are shown from an aerial perspective, from the impossible bird’s eye view (or Google Earth view), which is the only way most of us will ever encounter them. “People have become so used to seeing buildings without even going there,” says Langlands. “Headquarters like these have a life of their own as iconic images, produced, shared and consumed in the form of computer renders.”
The artists rarely visit the sites in question nor speak to the architects, but undertake desktop research and download drawings from municipal planning authority websites to build up the required information. The plans are often unavailable for security reasons, so they frequently rely on the promotional perspective views, which give their images an eerie familiarity. These are PR shots lifted from the blogs and billboards, but bleached of the surface gloss of the original image, stripped back to reveal the lifeless skeletons beneath.
This ghostly white aesthetic has become more familiar since the rise of 3D printing, but Langlands & Bell’s process is refreshingly luddite – they trained in the 1970s, so prefer scalpels to B-splines. They still construct each model by hand, layering up card and foam-board to form a “two-and-a-half dimensional” relief, before photographing and digitally manipulating the images, adding the shadows and eye-searing background colours, which gives this series the appropriately corporate gloss of a series of Pantone swatches. Some are shown as models, others as editioned prints.
One of the biggest relief models in the exhibition is of another Apple campus, this time in Sunnyvale, designed by HOK Architects as a poor relation of Foster’s UFO. Planned as a speculative office building by a local family firm, then entirely bought up by Apple, it borrows the horizontal white louvres of Foster’s building, but wraps them around an undulating trefoil form, topped with a rooftop garden – which the developers proudly call “Open Space³”. It could be one of George Lucas’s intergalactic starships, making a bid to fly free from its circular frame.
Its tripartite composition is echoed across the room in the 60,000 sq m Gates Foundation in Seattle, planned as a trio of swooshing boomerang-shaped wings, like arrows pointing towards the three directions of their global endeavours: eradicating disease, cutting childhood deaths in Africa by half, and overhauling the US education system. “All architecture is planning for the future in some way,” says Langlands. “But a foundation like this is planning at another level, and expressing it in a very self-conscious and programmed way.”
It is “a campus that inspires and creates optimism and hope,” according to its architects, NBBJ. Or, as Bell puts it: “It indicates they have amassed a huge amount of cash and want to be seen to be doing good with it.”
- Langlands & Bell: Infinite Loop is at Alan Cristea Gallery, London, 27 April–3 June.