NDSM: Are You Tough Enough?

 

What you’re looking at are a handful of pictures of the former NDSM shipyard in Amsterdam (NDSM stands for Nederlandsche Dok en Scheepsbouw Maatschappij – Netherlands Dock and Shipbuilding Company). It’s a place I’ve visited often the past two years researching a book on creativity and the city. The yard was built in 1946, largely supported by US Marshall Plan funds, and until it closed in 1984, it built up to six vessels per year, including some of the largest tankers for the Anglo-Dutch conglomerate Shell, whose headquarters can be found nearby. You get there by ferry from Amsterdam Centraalstation – it chugs downstream for twenty minutes through a landscape of enormous skies and rehabilitated industrial ruins, depositing you in an unearthly, description-defying place….which I am now going to try to describe.

NDSM is building on an epic scale, but its qualities exceed architecture in the strict sense. It is heterogeneous and informal and the only unifying feature is a colossal slipway, most surfaces of which are covered in graffiti. It now forms a kind of accidental piazza. Scattered around are buildings of every kind and none: two vast assembly sheds, among the biggest single span buildings in the world. In the distance, a brightly painted assemblage of shipping containers forming a student housing complex that is simultaneously chic and extremely grim. Then there is smelting works converted by Group A architects in 2014 for the local headquarters of Pernod-Ricard and (bizarrely, in the same building) Greenpeace; a crane turned into a boutique hotel; and for no particularly obvious reason, a Soviet submarine from the mid-50s. Nobody really knows why it is here, or how it got here.

If NDSM has a core, it is the ship assembly building, or Scheepsbouwloods at the head of the slipway. Since 2000 this has been the home to a community of artists and designers who have occupied this colossal space with a set of temporary and informal structures of varying degrees of sophistication (there are about 100 artists in the complex, occupying some 140,000 sq ft of space). Some of these occupations are bodged out of plywood and found materials, while others have the polish of designer clothes stores. This, the so-called ‘Art City’ has recently (2014) been incorporated as a foundation and appears to be headed towards a more formal future. But in its present condition it describes something important about the subject position of the creative city. It is a city of a city of encampments and occupations, a modern-day Wild West. As much as the art city represents a set of practical solutions (cheap, abundant space, freedom from official intervention) it also represents a set of lifestyle choices that imagine the city as a set of defensive enclaves, sometimes quite fortified, even hostile.

In a 2012 film about NDSM, one of the original artists, Bart Stuart elaborates this outsider’s subject position. NDSM he claims is a city on its own terms, standing in friendly but critical opposition to the official city across the waters of the IJ. It’s not for sale; it’s not to be recuperated into the general ‘project’ of the city’s regeneration. The city is ‘not an office where you can plan everything and organise who is sitting where and how much is that…’

So – as a prominent bit of graffiti asks – what’s happening? What is going on in places like NDSM? What kind of a city are we creating in the name of creativity? I certainly think in a way analogous to Reyner Banham’s exploration of LA, I think there is an architectural history to be written of places like this. In fifteen years, the creative city has moved from hucksterish rhetoric to a reality with distinct architectural forms. And as Banham discovered in the LA of the 1960s, it makes little sense to describe only the formal architecture as the creative city, as the vast majority of it is produced informally. It’s a city of occupations, a precarious, temporary city whose undeniable dynamism is also a barrier to the weak: it’s a place where the strong survive. This attitude has become economically prized. In Amsterdam, the broedplaatsen, in the first instance a panicked government response to large scale squatting, has become core urban policy. Edgy is now mainstream, you might say, and exploring its informal architecture is a good way of understanding what is happening. NDSM is good at identifying the complexities and contradictions of the creative city, its superficial openness (‘everyone is creative’, as Florida says) butting up against a defensiveness and exclusivity. That exclusivity is inseparable, I think, from the cultivated harshness of this and similar environments. The persistence of the squatter aesthetic, the choice of industrial readymades such as the shipping container, the tolerance of graffiti, these things all say: you have to be tough to survive here, to survive the creative economy. Are you tough enough?

Research: choices and consequences

St. Jerome in His Study

St. Jerome in His Study

A colleague recently asked me to speak on research ‘evidence’, which I interpreted as the forms of publication I’d chosen to disseminate my research. I’ve realised over the years that the choices I made have been distinctive ones, with advantages and disadvantages, and consequences.

I started out on a fairly conventional route in the late 1990s with publications in mainstream art history journals and with academic presses (MUP and Routledge). As my work became more interdisciplinary in the early 2000s, I started to make different decisions, choosing to work with a lively and inventive publisher (Reaktion) who straddle academic and trade markets. I’ve published two books with them, with a third on the way. As well as work with Reaktion, I invested a lot of time in non-academic venues, writing for a range of architectural and design magazines in the early 2000s, and then more recently the Times Higher, for whom I’m the (very) unofficial architecture correspondent. I’ve often been quoted or published in the mainstream media too: my thinking about Edinburgh’s urban landscape has been covered by the US political journal Foreign Policy, BBC R4, The Guardian, The Herald, as well as the local Edinburgh press. I take social media seriously, and spend a lot of time on twitter.

So what’s been good about this strategy? Well, it’s been good for volume: Reaktion are responsive and fast, and the other venues have similarly been good for getting a large volume of material out quickly. It’s been good profile-wise, too: ’Sex and Buildings’, the last Reaktion book (2013) got a lot of media attention, which continues.

The bad? Well, it’s not easy to categorise what I do, which means I’m probably now unemployable anywhere else. And because I’ve avoided the mainstream academic venues, it’s hard for some to evaluate it (someone at a rival institution described my work as ‘light’. It’s not at all – but I can see how you might think that).

These are real consequences, and I’m too far into my career now – 20+ years – to make much of a change, even if I wanted to. But I’d argue my path is more fun in the end, however uncomfortable it may be sometimes. And like quite a few academics I know, I simply prefer to speak to broader audiences rather than strictly academic ones. My approach has been a way of doing it. ​

The Deal

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What you’re looking at is one of the towers of Lasalle College, a small private art school in central Singapore. Built in 2007 to a design by RSP, it was extensively funded by the Singaporean government who have been enthusiastic promotors of all things ‘creative’ since the early 2000s. Of all the things I saw in Singapore last week, this was perhaps the most thought-provoking, less for the architecture (which is undeniably spectacular) than for the attitude that it embodies. It makes a simple deal: accept that the arts are in the service of the national project, and they will be funded with an inconceivable generosity.

The deal is legible enough in the window vinyls, the words ‘excellence’, ‘spectacle’ and ‘critique’ screaming out the message. For many UK humanities academics, this kind of of sloganising is simply grotesque: aren’t these words supposed to be a means of interrogating the very things they seem here to support? You can picture a generation of cultural studies scholars with their heads in their hands.

That reaction, to my mind, would miss the subtlety of the deal. Of course ‘spectacle’ and ‘critique’ and all those other words shouldn’t be turned into mere decoration. But I doubt those words are really much more than decoration in any of the work we might do in the west, the business of naming being, after all, a form of commodification (and where would critical theory be without all those publishers making a business from it?). Lasalle abruptly challenges that myth. To believe in the myth, you have to cling onto the comforting idea the arts can be somehow stand ‘outside’ society too, a zone of freedom beyond the reach of government.

That freedom would be nice were it real, but my twitter feed during the period I was away suggested that my world was in fact a narrow and censorious one. Too often last week, my academic freedom seemed to be the freedom to agree with a majority view.

Lasalle’s windows inadvertently say the unsayable: our freedom is conditional on complicity. It’s discomforting for westerners, but in Singapore’s case, for 50 years, the government has been adept at meeting its part of the deal, remarkably so. It houses and feeds its citizens better than any European country I can think of (certainly Scotland, whose record on both is scandalously awful). Of course, Singapore’s wheels may well be coming off, as two NUS academics, Donald Low and Sudhir Vadaketh, have argued in an excellent new book. But for the time being, Singapore remains a compelling, if troubling example.

The Urban History Man. Richard J. Williams interviewed by Richard J. Williams

IMG_0383It’s an unusually perfect day in Edinburgh and I’m sitting in Richard’s 1878 tenement flat, in the kitchen to be precise where sun is streaming through the big sash window. He fusses with the kettle. Do I want tea? Coffee? A cocktail? (‘I make a great breakfast caipirinha’). I settle for water, fresh from the Pentland Hills that are just visible from the window. ‘Good isn’t it?’ he says, referring to the water. ‘It’s the lead that makes it.’ He pulls up a chair, which screeches on the wooden floor, frightening a cat from its slumbers. So why did he agree to this solipsistic exercise? Well, he says, scratching his beard, it was time to get a few things straight. And ‘I wanted to do a conversation about research’, he adds, ‘which you rarely get a chance to do in enough detail.’ So I start by asking him the question that all doctoral students dread. What is he doing? What exactly is his contribution to the sum total of human knowledge?

RW: Oh God (laughs). Well actually I invited you to ask that question because I’ve so often struggled with it myself, especially when asked to say something straightforwardly disciplinary. I always end up saying ‘I’m not this, and I’m not that’, you know, without ever really coming to the point. So I did want you to ask that question…

And…

Well the answer is actually pretty simple. I’m interested basically in why cities look the way they do. You’d think it’s an obvious question to ask, but it isn’t because the people who ask it invariably have some agenda. So they lament the way things are, rather than keeping the question open. And there aren’t very simple answers. People like to think there are, but there aren’t. The production of something as complex as a city involves multiple actors, most of whom are perhaps not even conscious of being actors at all.

Can you say what you mean by that?

Well, people – I mean us – habitually think that cities are somehow designed. I want a method of looking at cities that incorporates things like material decay, but also use and inhabitation, and also if this is even possible their representation in things like films and art.

That’s clearly impossible.

Of course it is. But still I’d like to try because our perceptions of cities are conditioned by all of these immaterial factors. We don’t simply see them. We see them, like any other object, through what we expect and have learned to expect.

Can you give an example?

Brasília is a good case. I spent a lot of the last decade thinking and writing about it because it seemed to be such a reviled object, at least in Europe, and particularly Britain. Critics and journalists would routinely invoke it as an example of why the 1960s were so bad. It was always a great disaster, a dystopia – everything about it was appalling. It had a quite amazing status. Of course practically none of the people who invoked Brasília had actually been anywhere near the place, and in the rare cases that they had, their impressions dated from the moment of inauguration, 1960, when Brasília was still a building site. So it was this amazing discursive object. I went for the first time in (scratches head) about 2001 and found a place that was for the most part clean, well-ordered and perfectly normal. Yet the myths, the stories people told about the place, the memories of the candangos (note: the original settlers of the city)  – these things were all essential to the perception of the place.

Did you have a method for producing this synthetic knowledge?

No. But I knew that visuality was important.

Why?

Well, anecdotally, it seemed clear that around the visual, almost everyone had a view. They’d complain about eyesores, and the way things looked, ‘mess’ and so on, as if these things were straightforwardly resolved. Even perfectly intelligent people would start raging against modernist architecture. They seemed to lose their minds in the face of the visual.

Why do you think that is?

I don’t know, exactly. But I think it has something to do with seeing the visual world as a threat, something about it resisting control. For that reason I want to start with the visual and use visual artefacts to keep questions open as long as possible. That is something that art history was always good at, when it was good. I don’t have much patience with art any more, but I do still respect the way art history at its best used visual objects to keep questions open. It showed how meanings could be highly contingent on circumstance, how reception was important as production, and how ambiguity is in fact the condition we all live in, rather than something undesirable that has to be corrected. These are all pretty good things to understand in relation to cities. Who knows, if we could understand these things better, we might build better ones.

So what you’re proposing is an art history of cities?

In some ways, yes. It uses the visual as a way of keeping questions open as long as possible. I did a PhD in art history and still have a lot of respect for the methods. Panofsky, Gombrich, Tim Clark later on.

But isn’t that just another way of aestheticising the city? I mean, you’re always railing against the heritage lobby, but this sounds like the same thing, just in a different style.

Ha ha! That’s a good point, of course. But I’m not principally interested in aesthetics, rather the way the visuality helps keep other questions open. I basically think cities are good for us, and I want the most people to have the most opportunities. Exploring the visual world is often a way of asking awkward questions. So, for example, I’m fairly certain that the adherence to a single design aesthetic, whatever it is, has a limiting effect on the material opportunities of a city. The green belt, for example in the UK. It is an aesthetic position more than anything else that ends up being a tax on the poor. I’m quite convinced of that now, despite having spent large parts of my life enjoying them one way or another…

How?

Walking my parents’ dogs, mainly. But I don’t think the interests of a few dog-walkers should be allowed to trump the access of millions to reasonably-priced housing.

Can you say more about the kinds of sources you use? You once said that you got a lot from what we might call ‘professional’ discourses – what architects and planners say to each other.

Yes, that’s right. I work with academic material like everyone else, and draw on the usual urban theories. But I’ve always spent a lot of time with the professions themselves, especially the professional magazines. There’s a tendency for academics to ignore this material as it’s not always very sophisticated in a way that they recognise. But often they’re dealing with ideas that are as complex as anything academics deal with. It’s just that they have to explain them to a range of different constituencies, with a range of different expertises. I spent a lot of time with architects in the 1990s and 2000s in the UK, and felt that what was being played out in public, in the journals was very important. In the early 1990s, the climate was still deeply anti-urban in the UK and the US. That it changed so dramatically has a lot to do with what was happening in the journals.

You don’t automatically bash the real estate business.

No, that’s right. Part of the urban story of the past 20 years is the realisation by the business that there were market opportunities in cities, so they had to learn a new range of concepts in order to make the most of it. Those shifts are quite legible in magazines like Property Week and Estates Gazette that really nobody apart from people in the business reads. But it always seemed to me that it was there that you really found out what was going on, why for example there had been a gap site somewhere for a generation  (…..) Then there’s the developers themselves. When I was starting to research cities for the first time, I found people connected with the business very open. At least the people I talked to. Howard Bernstein, the CEO of Manchester City Council, for example, a public official, but a man with a very sound business head. He gave me a whole afternoon of his time in, um, 2002 or thereabouts, and then let me have his head of planning give me a tour. They were both extraordinarily generous with their time, despite the fact that they were as busy then as they had ever been in their lives. But they saw I was interested in their ideas. The profit motive mattered, clearly, but they were interested in a much longer-term transformation. You got the same thing from Tom Bloxham and Carol Ainscow in the same city. They needed to make money, obviously, but they weren’t driven by it. Ainscow (note: she developed Manchester’s Gay Village) was as interested in sexual politics as anything else. If these people were just interested in making money, they’d have found a much easier way to do it. Real estate development is hell a lot of the time. You have to really like buildings to do it.

Are there any other developers you admire?

Of course I sound like a Neo-Con nutjob saying I admire developers (laughs)….But yes, I do, at least some of them. John Portman (note: inventor of the atrium hotel) is amazing. There’s a hilarious piece on his Bonaventure Hotel in the French journal L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui from 1977 or so where the writers are so determined to hate it because it’s a product of the market…but in the end they grudgingly admit it’s a really radical building, possibly more so than the Pompidou Centre. Yes, Portman’s great. A real iconoclast.

You really sound like a Neo-Con now.

I’m really not. I’m just not a fundamentalist. I don’t automatically believe that markets are evil.

What are you doing now?

A few things. We want to set up a research centre in Edinburgh of some sort on the cultures of cities, and we have seedcorn funding to start. My colleague Igor Stiks will run it. He’s an expert on, and a participant in various urban-social movements, particularly in south-eastern Europe, and we’re both interested in the way younger people are developing new modes of urban citizenship. That seems to be a global phenomenon, and also seems to cut across political divides to some extent. Igor’s particular interest is in progressive change, Occupy and so on. I’m interested in the way generally people are developing new modes of urban behaviour and urban aspirations. We’ve a bit of a network already. Christoph Lindner in Amsterdam. Sharon Zukin in New York if we can persuade her. We’ll see…

And there’s a book.

Yes, another one for Reaktion, a history of the so-called Creative City. I wanted to put recent developments in some sort of cultural and historical context. Almost everyone in the developed world seems to have signed up to the creative industries, whatever they are – and there’s been a predictable negative reaction from the academic left. What I’m doing is putting a series of quite longstanding debates in context. I’m also hoping to produce a useable urban typology. There are big things like media cities, for example, but also smaller and more informal phenomema. The whole feel of eating and drinking, for example, the excessive sociability. When I was growing up, there literally wasn’t anywhere to go, and I think that applied in many parts of the developed world. Now there’s such an excess of it. And it’s global.

Will there be anything in it about sex?

Maybe, following on from the last book (note: Sex and Buildings was published by Reaktion in 2013). There’s certainly a question around all that frantic socialisation. The Creative city looks like a highly libidinal city in many ways, and work often morphs into something that to older people must look like dating, or at least flirting. But I wonder how much sex is really happening. Really busy people seem to like the look of sex, but don’t actually have time for it. I need a decent evidential base for that argument of course.

When is the book due out?

2016, we hope. There’s another project in the works too, on the visual culture of cities. But I can’t say any more about that until it’s a bit further on.

If you could do anything about cities now, what would it be?

It’s not in the gift of humanities professors to be prescriptive, you know. We’re just supposed to complain about things from the sidelines…

Oh, go on.

OK. There are certainly global problems around access to housing. The ‘great inversion’ as Alan Ehrenhalt calls it has drawn a lot of people to cities again, but the trade-off has been a general decline in the quality of housing and access to it, at least in the most popular places. The cost of housing in London or the Bay Area is pretty horrifying. I’d reduce the unit cost by increasing supply. There would have to be a bonfire of planning regulations, unfortunately, but that may be overdue. I’d also promote industrialised, systematised building. In the UK, everything seems to be done on a bespoke basis much more than it needs to, a problem made worse by the planning system. And I’d tear up the green belt. Did you hear my friend Karl Sharro on the radio the other night? He says just abolish planning altogether. I kind of agree with him. I have some sympathy with the old Parker-Morris standards, though, to get the basic level of space right.

That sounds like a recipe for sameness, a sort of grey-goo urbanism….

I don’t think it is. But even if it is, it doesn’t mean it stays the same. After all, in the UK there are probably ten million units of more or less identical terraced (row) houses, but more or less infinite variation in the way they’re used and inhabited. Buildings learn, as Stewart Brand says.

OK. Finally, I have to ask you about Scotland. You have really annoyed people there from time to time.

You know I can’t talk about that (laughter). Well I have a few supporters too. Scotland is in such a febrile state at the moment, it’s impossible to say anything without getting misinterpreted. But in terms of cities, it’s certainly a fascinating case. It’s got two of Europe’s great set pieces in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and a vigorous tradition of urban housing. The tenement is a really durable form. Unfortunately, Scotland just loves to regulate, and it’s obsessed with the past. So it’s impossible to either adapt buildings for contemporary conditions, or build housing where it’s actually required. If you live in Edinburgh (points at rattling sash windows) you’re not allowed to buy off the peg solutions for windows in tenements. Unless you’re rich, you’re basically encouraged to let them deteriorate. As for installing elevators, and adding extensions – well, forget it. There’s a huge amount of de-regulating that could be done. Not much political will, though. Same goes for the land issue. Edinburgh ought to be twice the size it is given the boom in financial services, but there is so much regulation designed to inhibit growth. That makes no sense to me at all. We need scale. Scale means opportunities.

Are you an optimist when it comes to cities?

Yes. You have to be, don’t you? And the return of cities in the developed world brings huge opportunities. It’s produced some hellish problems around housing, but I don’t see why they can’t be fixed. After all, it’s been done before.

The Museum of Everything

Things have been quiet lately on this site partly because I’ve been doing THE MUSUEM OF EVERYTHING. http://sites.ace.ed.ac.uk/museumofeverything/ The site’s first post is reproduced below. Check in daily for updates. The project ends officially on 21 February, but if there’s any demand, we’ll keep the web page going.

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THE MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING is an imaginary museum created by its visitors over a five day period from 17 to 21 February 2014. It takes place in a big, airy room in Minto House normally used for architecture studio crits. On entering, you’ll see a sign setting out INSTRUCTIONS FOR OPERATION. It’s really very simple. You take a 8″ by 5″ file card from a box and on it you write, or draw, or otherwise  describe any object you would like to see in the Museum. Anything at all is allowed. It could be an art object – Picasso’s ‘Demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907) for example, which we can temporarily borrow from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It could be a scientific object, like an early microscope or the Large Hadron Collider. It could be an early Koran. Or the Titanic, raised from its watery grave. A live Giant Pacific Octopus. A set of chopsticks. It really is up to you. If the object is small enough, and you’re happy to let us have it, then stick it to the card. Once you’ve filled out the card, pin it to the wall along with the others, and then repeat the process as often as you like. The aim is to fill the Museum – generosity is positively encouraged. Maybe we can help create a new generation of cultural philanthropists, if only in our minds. At the end of the week, on Friday 21 February at 1300 there will be panel discussion involving Prof. Andrew Patrizio, Dr. Jill Burke, Dr. Carol Richardson and Dr. Frances Fowle of the School of  History of Art at which we’ll discuss what kind of a collection we seem to have created, and what we should do with it. Robust – even iconoclastic – discussion will be encouraged.

THE MUSEUM OF EVERYTHING has scope for a lot of fun. But it is also a serious exercise at a time when museums are so circumscribed by politics, the law, health and safety, the demands of lenders and the demands of insurance companies, the lunacy of the art market, and the competition for audience. With so many competing demands, it’s a wonder museums exist at all. What is certain is that we rarely have an open discussion about them and what we want from them, as we – in this case art historians – are also so often in the position of the Museum’s advocates. The Museum of Everything is, hopefully, a pause in normal business, and a chance to reflect.

The Museum draws on a few historical precedents. The idea that anything might be included comes from the eighteenth century tradition of the Cabinet of Curiosities, an idea that increasingly appears in academic discourse in a cloud of something like nostalgia. The Cabinet’s fundamentally anti-rational character is the very opposite of the present day museum – it has something we’ve undoubtedly lost. The Museum of Everything also draws in a wonderful and eccentric book by Andre Malraux, the Museum Without Walls, published 1952-4. In a classic image from that book, Malraux is pictured looking a carpet of photographs of sculpture – the medium of photography, he argues, gives us the possibility of experiencing art in all kinds of new ways and in new combinations. No longer are we bound to a fixed architectural container. Malraux’s argument of course prefigured the invention of the world wide web, which has informed contemporary museum practice in ways we are only slowly starting to understand. Cognisance of that has to be part of our building a Museum of Everything, too. Finally, there have been one or two Museums of Everything in the past, including a London-based art project with the odd iteration on the South Bank. This is unrelated, not least because it’s an audience, not artist-led project. But we like the name, so we’re sticking with it. If anyone objects, let us know.

So – you’re all welcome to the Museum, very welcome indeed. Visit anytime 0930-1700 and add as much as you like. And please, if you can, come to the events during the week, and help us decide what to do with our creation.

 

POSTCARD FROM GOOGLE

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I recently spent a morning at Google headquarters (‘the Googleplex’) in Mountain View, Califonia, at the northern end of Silicon Valley. It was a Sunday, so eerily quiet. I had half a dozen leads from Edinburgh, itself a minor tech pole, and I’d written to all of them requesting a visit. As it turned out, so ineffable is the company, and its campus, I might as well have been requesting an audience with God. So I just went alone and unannounced.

The place was certainly a physical reality. As Wired journalist Andrew Blum points out in an entertaining new book, the internet is a material thing as much as an idea. Internet companies love you to believe in their insubstantiality, in their cloud-ness – but all that data has to be stored somewhere, and the work of managing it likewise.

It was an easy enough trip from SF. I got into my rented Prius and whirred down route 101 to the Rengstorff exit, crossed the highway, and there I was. The campus wasn’t strictly a campus per se, but a constellation of campuses, each anchored by one or more Google buildings. Bordered by route 101, it has an artificial lake for boating, miles of hiking trails, and a huge amphitheatre like the Hollywood Bowl. In the distance to the south, across drained swampland punctuated with electricity pylons I could see NASA’s Ames facility. Defined by three of the world’s biggest buildings, arched sheds made for building airships during the Second World War, it’s one of California’s great architectural sights.

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The Google campus it must be said, isn’t. It’s a sprawling complex, at a guess 300,000 square feet shaped like a C-clamp, comprising half a dozen interlinked pavilions. Clive Wilkinson architects designed it; based in Culver City, one of the centres of the LA film industry, they specialise in ‘Building Creative Communities’. It’s not a statement building of the kind that Facebook are currently contriving with Frank Gehry. You could drive past it and notice (I did, at first). But in the open plaza that defines centre of the complex, there are some deconstructivist Gehry-like elements, as if the façade of an ordinary office pavilion had been taken apart and shaken about. There’s a great curved beam, arching into the sky, emblazoned with the Google logo, like a piece of model railway track.

For the most part, it’s unspectacular, however and your eyes are drawn to the details. An organic garden occupies a northern corner of the plaza (a sign offers advice about seasonal planting, and a recipes – Organic Shephard’s (sic) Pie). A notice in the pavilion next door advertises the Google Film Club, whose carefully balanced, global programme looked the work of a genuine connoisseur.

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Of the details, though, it’s the G-Bikes that are most striking. Old-fashioned, sit-up-and-beg clunkers, they’re fitted with baskets and bells, and painted the corporate red, yellow, green and blue. There’s a useless rim brake, as well as a Dutch-style crank, so if you backpedal, you slow down. I don’t know why the two brakes. Safety first, I suppose. Anyway, they’re everywhere – hundreds of them, free to use for anyone who cares to. The abundance is really quite charming. I took one for a while. It felt like stealing at first, and the first few minutes felt deliciously transgressive (I had visited Apple the same day, and within seconds a security guard pulled up and yelled at me). But after a while, it was clear this seeming transgression wasn’t anything of the sort, but Google’s way of performing its generosity. These days Google may be ‘evil’, but it still has a lot invested in seeming not.

I soon grew tired of the Googleplex and pedalled over to an adjoining campus where a giant cupcake guarded the entrance. A handful of like-minded tourists milled around here, taking pictures – it was obviously what you did. They’d arrived on G-Bikes too, and like me were enjoying the perverse pleasures of the campus, before heading on to Facebook, Linked-In, and Yahoo! It was clearly the beginnings of a tourist trail, like Rome would have been for the eighteenth-century Englishman. Google seemed to have cottoned on already, hence the bikes. So, go while you still can. Google is waiting for you.

PS: Google – if you’re reading this, I put the bike back where it came from.