Dense floor plans, handyman toys, junky desks and pizza boxes. There’s a reason many startup offices look so welcoming. They are built on the design model of a garage.
San Francisco-based architect Hattie Stroud made the observation at the recent Vitra International Architects’ Day conference, as she tried to explain why the carport is such an appealing design metaphor, and especially for technology start-ups in Silicon Valley. “In the American psyche, the garage is a place of possibility and refuge. It offers the space to make a mess and tinker. It’s a safe haven for teenage angst and midlife crises, ”Stroud said. She cited a joint research initiative of Stanford University, Northeastern University and WRNS Studio where she works.
The garage is a founding myth of many leading tech companies, Stroud points out. For example, engineers Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard launched HP in an 8ft x 18ft hangar in Palo Alto (pdf, p. 2) in 1938, with encouragement from their Stanford University professor Frederick Terman . This one-car garage, which is attached to a bungalow once owned by Packard and his wife Lucille, is hailed as the “Cradle of Silicon Valley.” (Incidentally, HP calls its innovation blog, “The Garage”.)
Likewise, Larry Page and Sergey Brin launched Google in a rented garage in Menlo Park. The company then bought the three-bedroom house to which the garage was attached. It is now occasionally used for product launches. The garage at Steve Job’s childhood home in Los Altos, California, is said to be where he started the Apple Computer Company with Steve Wozniak and Ronald Wayne. In 2013, this garage was designated a historic monument by the city’s historical commission, but Wozniak later clarified that it was used as a testing space and meeting place rather than a laboratory.
The domestic garage as a place of rambling invention is also discussed in the 2018 book by Olivia Erlanger and Luis Ortega Govela, titled Garage. They write:
The garage is the source of many business successes in the 20th century, from the driver to the entrepreneur; the space initially intended for the storage of automobiles has become a symbol, a myth, a banal object in the domestic landscape which gave birth to the industrial technological complex …
By taking the Silicon Valley garage as a symbol that recalls the ephemeral separation between life and work, we can trace the displacements of the biopolitical space of the family and its effects on the work force.
The garage has influenced more than the aesthetics of start-ups. Today it permeates the design of Silicon Valley’s most exclusive commercial campuses. “Tech companies, almost as a rule, want a large floor plan where they can take as many workers as possible, strongly believing this promotes collaboration,” Stroud said. Then, they create self-contained campuses that offer a full range of amenities and social services so workers don’t have to stray far from their base. Like working in your parents’ garage, you eat, work, entertain, and sometimes crash there, too, for free.
But there is a downside to the garage model of the workplace design. This creates corporate fortresses closed in on themselves, Stroud says. Perpetuating the myth of the garage ultimately isolates businesses from the cities in which they are located. It’s not only damaging for local businesses, but ultimately demoralizing for employees, she says. “By embracing the myth of the garage, we have lost sight of what knowledge work wants: inspiration, diversity, flexibility, community. In short, the connection.