The Expanding Googleplex The company’s new St. John’s Terminal headquarters is a city inside a building, designed to entice employees back to the workplace.

12th March, 2024
The Expanding Googleplex The company’s new St. John’s Terminal headquarters is a city inside a building, designed to entice employees back to the workplace.

Google has deeply entrenched itself in our minds, our language, and our daily lives to the extent that its physical presence may be overlooked. Its voracious appetite for real estate on the West Side, in massive quantities comparable to the Intrepid, has brought about transformative changes. Back in 2008, it acquired the immense old Port Authority building at 111 Eighth Avenue. Then, two years ago, it inaugurated another expansive complex, complete with a public rooftop park, at Pier 57. And now, it has expanded further, adding over a million square feet within and atop St. John’s Terminal, a sprawling four-block industrial structure stretching along the western edge of Hudson Square from Spring Street to West Houston Street. Reflecting on this, I can only say, “Phew!”—both in awe of the sheer scale of the endeavor and relieved that it has contributed to the creation of a vibrant and distinctive urban environment.

There was no certainty that Google’s colossal new complex, designed by CookFox with interiors by Gensler and landscaping by Future Green, would turn out as successful as it has. Just because a software company has shaped the digital realm doesn’t guarantee proficiency in reimagining industrial infrastructure. St. John’s Terminal, from the 1930s to the ’50s, served as the downtown terminus of the High Line, a vital artery for transporting goods to Manhattan without endangering lives. Despite the slow pace of street-level freight trains, guided by urban cowboys on horseback, accidents were frequent. The terminal’s opening marked the end of the notorious “Death Avenue,” as newspapers celebrated. It’s gratifying to witness the fusion of technology and architecture revitalizing this space.

Before the redevelopment of St. John’s Terminal became part of a corporate strategy, it served a civic purpose: generating funds to maintain Pier 40 of the Hudson River Park, averting its potential collapse. Although erecting revenue-generating towers on the pier itself proved politically unfeasible, a 2016 city council bill permitted the transfer of air rights across West Street in exchange for a much-needed injection of $100 million. CookFox devised a plan for utilizing this vast square footage, which drew criticism from the late critic Michael Sorkin for its perceived prioritization of financial interests over design integrity. Sorkin proposed an alternative scheme aimed at reducing architectural clutter and reconnecting the neighborhood to the river. However, the final outcome exceeded expectations, courtesy of Oxford Properties’ acquisition and subsequent transfer to Google. The preservation of most of the original terminal, coupled with innovative design choices, resulted in a symbiosis between the old and the new.

A memory of the old rail lines, now vertical instead of elevated, covers a new elevator and stair core. Photo: Courtesy of Google

The architectural intervention acknowledges the building’s historical significance while accommodating contemporary needs. The architects have masterfully integrated the old and the new, highlighting the terminal’s robust structure while creating modern spaces suitable for Google’s operations. The blend of industrial aesthetics with lush greenery and sustainable design principles reflects a broader trend in modern architecture, exemplified by projects like the High Line and the Spiral. Google’s emphasis on creating a stimulating and environmentally friendly workplace reflects not only its corporate ethos but also its commitment to urban revitalization.

The entry to the auditorium is covered in polychrome Guastavino tiles. Photo: Courtesy of Google

In contrast to its earlier office designs reminiscent of college dormitories, Google has opted for a more sophisticated approach at St. John’s Terminal. Collaborating with Gensler, it has crafted an indoor environment resembling a bustling city, complete with meandering streets, open plazas, and diverse workspaces catering to different needs and preferences. This design ethos, rooted in the Bürolandschaft concept of the 1960s, prioritizes collaboration while offering flexibility and comfort—a far cry from the traditional cubicle arrangement. By transforming obsolete industrial infrastructure into vibrant office spaces, Google has not only revitalized neglected areas but also contributed to the diversification and sustainability of urban landscapes.

The sawn-off bridge that once crossed Houston Street now carries Google’s logo. Photo: Courtesy of Google

Google’s expansion in densely populated areas has breathed new life into former industrial sites, enriching the urban fabric and fostering a sense of community. Despite concerns about tech companies altering local economies and cultures, Google’s presence in Manhattan has complemented existing amenities and contributed to the area’s vitality. In the face of rapid technological advancement, Google’s integration into the physical landscape serves as a reminder of the enduring significance of architecture and urban design in shaping our collective experience.