As buildings evolve in Startup Nation, architects create space for work and play
Offices designed for Israel's tech industry are growing greener and more user-friendly, to keep employees' ideas flowing
Driving up Route 4 from Tel Aviv to Ra’anana, it is impossible not to notice — especially at night when it is all lit up — a square glass box of a building with vaguely egg-shaped windows that dominates the landscape.
It is the new local headquarters of SAP, the German software giant: the name, shining at the top of the structure, serves as a reminder that the so-called Startup Nation is a magnet for tech conglomerates who set up operations in Israel in a bid to tap into its technological prowess.
There are some 286 active multinational corporations in Israel today, according to Start-up Nation Central, a nonprofit that tracks the tech industry in Israel; some 87 have opened shop over the past three years. They mainly operate research and development centers, and most started their activities via the acquisition of local startups.
Giants like Apple, Google, Facebook, Samsung, Microsoft, Amazon and Intel are competing for Israeli talent. They draw inspiration from the brash Israeli can-do-it-all attitude and chutzpah, but they also infuse the local tech ecosystem with different management styles, an alternative corporate culture, and a new approach to the way they want their office buildings to look and feel.
These cash-rich technology firms are building or have built bold headquarters in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, flagship symbols of what their firms want to convey to their clients and employees.
Apple workers this year started moving into their massive new headquarters nicknamed the “spaceship” in Cupertino, California. It’s designed by UK architect Lord Norman Foster, who worked closely with Apple’s legendary CEO, the late Steve Jobs, to come up with a symphony of glass, steel, stone and trees. Cloud-computing firm Salesforce has also set up a new steel-and-glass headquarters in San Francisco, while ride-sharing firm Uber has designed an entirely see-through head office.
As these multinational tech firm make homes for themselves in Israel, either through designing their own towers as SAP did or by renting office space in new structures, or renovating old ones, they bring with them their different standards, requirements and demands. And this is starting to revolutionize how office buildings are being built and designed. And it’s not only multinationals: homegrown firms, like auto-technology company Mobileye, which was acquired by Intel Corp. in March for a whopping $15.3 billion, are also setting up new headquarters with specifications that are changing the look and feel of local office buildings.
And while to some the Israel-designed structures may not embody the beauty and the boldness of London’s Gherkin tower or the Louvre Pyramid and its fellow edifices of the 1980s Grands Projets in Paris, they may be a harbinger of exciting designs to come.
For technology firms, the architecture of their buildings needs to reflect “the spirit of the firm. The trend in general, for high-tech buildings, whether they are rented office spaces or built specifically for that corporation, is to enrich the experience of the workplace,” said Avner Yashar, owner of Tel Aviv-based Yashar Architects Ltd., whose office planned the SAP building and is working on the building that will hold Microsoft’s new office space in Herzliya. The architect was also the designer behind Apple’s R&D center in Herzliya, the US giant’s second-largest center in the world.
While SAP commissioned the architect to build its project from scratch, both Microsoft and Apple decided to rent space in buildings already under construction, that were adapted to meet the US giants’ specifications, Yashar explained.
The new structures that serve the technology market have one thing in common: they reflect the way the employees work.
“They want their buildings to be adaptable to changing environments and situations, just like their companies need to be,” said Mendi Rotbard, a partner at Tel Aviv-based Moshe Tzur Architects & Town Planners Ltd., whose office is in charge of building the new Jerusalem headquarters of Mobileye. The architecture firm is also planning Tel Aviv’s Azrieli Sarona Tower, which reportedly has been rented out by technology giants including Facebook and Amazon.
All of the buildings need to be eco-friendly and green, with the highest degrees of US certification which ensure they are both energy efficient and environmentally friendly. The floors are wider, allowing more flexibility for the changing needs of the firm and making them more easily accessible to all; closed office spaces are kept to the minimum, with employees still perhaps owning a desk but without being expected to be tied to it.
“Interaction among workers today is often not via formal meetings but over a game of snooker, over a coffee and listening to music, and these are the kind of areas we emphasize in our buildings,” Rotbard said.
Stairwells, once dark and hidden, are now exposed and part of the scenery with couches and tables peppered about in the open spaces around them. The aim is to encourage random meetings, so people of different teams and on different projects can bump into each other, chat, exchange ideas and find solutions together. Meanwhile, the open spaces and glass facades expose the workers to movement and events that are happening within and outside the buildings.
“When people spend a lot of their day looking at the screen, working at the screen, which is a fairly self-contained, you are doing it on your own,” said Spencer de Grey, a senior executive partner and head of design associate at Foster + Partners, a UK-based architectural firm that has just completed its first project in Israel, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s new $58 million Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences research.
To counter that solitary work, one needs to create a “balance,” with “opportunities to meet people and talk to your colleagues in a more relaxed surrounding,” de Grey said. Chance encounters, and the ability to discuss work over a cup of coffee or lounging on couches, increase both well-being and productivity, he added.
Some buildings have banks, hairdressers, post offices and food halls. Many have wide balconies where employees can step out to grab a bit of sun and fresh air. Of course, quiet workspaces are carved out, where developers, generally sporting earphones, can sit at their laptops and tap quietly away.
“The main theme of all these projects is co-working spaces,” said Yashar. “Today ‘sharing’ is a word you hear everywhere — we share cars, homes, and also work places….The activity happens in the joint, shared spaces. And because these buildings are populated by the young, and their main job is to think… the buildings try to create an environment that encourages freedom, free thinking, an exchange of ideas and information among people.”
Because of the stiff competition for talent, tech firms, realizing that their main resource is brainpower, “want to make their workers as comfortable and at home as possible,” said Danny Ohana, a partner at Moshe Zur Architects. They also want to ensure employees stay at work as much as possible and have fun while continuing to be productive and happy.
“It is a honey trap to keep them at work for many hours,” Ohana said. Office buildings nowadays draw thematic inspiration from the Renaissance, he said. “Gothic architecture sanctified the building and God while diminishing the person, whereas the Renaissance put man at the center, and all buildings were made in proportion to man,” he said.
What is happening with architecture for high-tech today, he said, is putting the workers and their wellbeing in focus.
The structures incorporate nature and plants and greenery within the building, along with natural elements, like water and stone. Windows can be opened to allow fresh air in, and many have made space for living walls — walls that are partially or completely covered with greenery. Workers can eat lunch on balconies while smelling the flowers. Daylight and open spaces are maximized, and ceilings are high.
Fiverr, an Israeli startup that has become a global leader in online freelance services, has its Israeli headquarters in the refurbished offices of the historic Beit Ha’ikarim, a four-story building in the heart of Tel Aviv to which three more floors were added. The building is listed for conservation, and the décor designed by Setter Architects deftly merges the old with the new, using tech elements, like a concrete floor and exposed ceilings.
Private meetings are held in glass rooms that can be shaded for privacy, if necessary. Brick walls with plants are a backdrop to seating areas that overlook a terrace on which workers can chill out. There is a large area for food and a gym with showers, and the company occasionally provides in-house nail services for employees. Flea-market furniture is mixed with contemporary furniture, while recycled wooden window frames from Tel Aviv buildings dating back to the Beit Ha’ikarim period were used to partition spaces in the rooms.
Similarly, Facebook Israel’s current office, also designed by Setter Architects, spans four floors of an office tower in Tel Aviv and includes a lavish dining area, a living wall, and a music room.
SAP’s six-story building, with 2,900 square meters (31,000 sq. ft.) per floor, was set up by the German software firm on land it acquired in Israel in a “sign of faith” in the local economy, its technological prowess and the company’s local activities, SAP said in a statement, announcing the move to its new premises.
The structure has joint seating spaces, private rooms, a gym, balconies, cafeterias, a patio and lobbies that connect the various spaces making it easy to move between the company’s various departments, Yashar said. A central atrium is common to all five floors and the egg-shaped windows on the front of the structure reflect smaller atriums behind them, exposing the contents of the structure to the outside world. Natural light permeates the building.
Microsoft’s new 50,000-square-meter building will be completed in the next two and a half years. Each floor has large balconies overlooking the sea nearby. It will be sprinkled with public spaces, both inside and out, with gardens both on the roof and at the entrance. A large food hall with a number of outlets takes center stage.
Also in Herzliya, Apple’s development center consists of one seven- and one 14-floor building united by a five-story atrium. The buildings are balconied, and a walkway between them features an ecological pool and shaded benches. The structures are made of four types of glass walls, printed with various densities of dotted color that allow users to work near the windows without being subjected to glare.
“Today we are building structures that will be completed a number of years from now and they will need to be used for at least 50 years,” Yashar said. “But in the high-tech industry, 50 years is an eternity, so essentially we are creating something today without knowing what the needs will going forward.
“Buildings used to last for 100 years without any need for change. Nothing changed for decades: people worked at their tables. Today we plan buildings without knowing what the future will hold, so we need to plan for change, we need to make structures that are very versatile and flexible that can be adaptable to change and changing work conditions.”
Mobileye’s new Jerusalem office campus will include a 25-floor tower and eight smaller buildings that will spread out over 50,000 square meters (538,000 square feet) in the Har Hotzvim High-Tech Park. It’s expected to be ready in three to four years.
There are green elements designed within the building, with the architects using Jerusalem stone to create natural shading on some of the facades. The floors are exposed to a lot of daylight, and the layout enables random encounters of people while they walk around the building. A roof terrace at the top of the building can be seen, at an angle, from all of the lower floors.
Similarly, Moshe Tzur Architects is also designing the new Azrieli Sarona Tower in Tel Aviv, a 225-meter tall office building in which Facebook and Amazon have both leased spaces. It was planned to accommodate the different needs of the clients who would eventually inhabit the building, said Rotbard. “We needed to build floors that would respond to different requirements.”
The shared spaces, exchange-of-ideas philosophy is also affecting other structures in which brains are the main propelling power. One can find similar motifs at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s new Edmond and Lily Safra Center for Brain Sciences research. Designed by the British architect firm Foster + Partners (the same one that designed Apple’s Cupertino HQ with Steve Jobs) – the center is also designed to ensure that it reflects an intradisciplinary approach to research.
This high-tech building renaissance has been budding in Israel for a number of years already, Rotbard said. But its impact has blossomed in tandem with the flow of foreign firms setting up operations in Israel. And the trend is also having a trickle-down effect on other structures, not just tech buildings.
“Companies need to compete for workers and they want to give their workers what the others give, to stay competitive,” Rotbard said. “So buildings today are much greener and open and freer with much more thought about interactions with the building’s surroundings.
“All in all, this trend will positively affect the office building market in Israel. These companies work with international standards and use cutting edge technologies…They are not prepared to compromise or accept less-than-perfect quality. This is trickling down to all areas.”