If ever there was an authentic computer architecture, this was it
What can one say about Microsoft that hasn't already been said? Run by the inventor of an operating system used by the whole world, its development paid for by its customers. The world's richest man with the best business book title for years - Business @ the Speed of Thought - bestrides the world like a colossus.
I suppose bottom feeders can sift through Microsoft's embroilment in lawsuits, or analyse its acquisitions of promising software houses all over the world. Others might wonder what is to be learned about the man from his taste in architecture. The old kind that is. Gates' taste is not so much evident in the design of his own house, a monster sprawling waterside ranchero, years in the making, decorated with an art collection that would do credit to a James Bond villain, but it does show in the kind of architecture he has commissioned for his employees over the years. The kind the 12,000 teen-and-twenty 'coders' who work long and erratic hours at the firm's campus in Redmond, Seattle, have to work in.
Located on a 53-acre wooded site, originally intended for an out-of-town shopping centre, Microsoft Park started in 1984 with four buildings designed by a Seattle architect named Gerry Gerron. At that time, Gates had a clear idea of what he wanted: symmetrical buildings hidden among trees with everybody in the same sized office, 3m x 4m and 2.5m high. The way Gates told it to Gerron, four 10,000m2 cellular buildings, plus parking, would provide the company with expansion space for 10 years. How wrong he was can be seen today. Land purchases have since quadrupled the site, but even with 8,000 parking places, it is still overflowing with cars. There are now at least 200,000m2 of beehive cubicles located in six successive groups of buildings, each of them an unsuccessful attempt to ring-fence the company's growth. Despite later additions, by far the most interesting buildings at Microsoft are the original four 'starships' designed by Gerron. His idea was a basic two-storey structure, star-shaped in plan, that would hold 192 cubicles and some ancillary accommodation with half-basement car parking underneath. Eventually seven of these 'starships' - as they were quickly named - were built in amongst the standing timber on the part of the site farthest from the road. One group of four surrounded a small pond that was promptly christened 'Lake Bill'. Of course within 10 years, this part of Microsoft Park was quickly turned into a backwater by later generations of grander Microsoft buildings, but if you look hard enough you can still find it, still exuding the magic of cheapness, simplicity and originality that marked the early years of the company.
The buildings were slammed up at speed, their tilt-up concrete walls cast on site and their air-conditioning equipment simply stacked on their roofs and painted green. Cheap and cheerful as they were, Gerron's starships at Microsoft Park were designed for the job they had to do. Their solid seven-inch concrete floors deadened vibration, and the partitions between their cubicles were heavy enough to rule out noise. All cabling was at ceiling level, and illumination was kept deliberately low to avoid glare. Over the years, the tall surviving pine trees that surround the buildings have been joined by new landscaping and lush secondary planting that gives them an even more romantic setting.
If there ever was an authentic architecture for the computer industry, this was it. Gerron's starships were designed for an early generation of computer dweebs, programmers like wild men hiding in the woods. Bill Gates wanted to hide them. He didn't want to make a statement.