At Home with Google

Michael Holt
22 October, 2013
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Tucked away in Sydney’s inner western suburb of Lilyfield is a quite surprising, exciting house, almost certainly not like its surrounding renovated workers’ cottages and reinterpreted light industrial. Once a furniture store, the building has since reinvented itself as a family home, replete with all mod cons – in the truest sense of the term. In early October it was the venue for an open-house style event, At Home With Google.

The house is geared to allowing for exploration, both physically and virtually. The user can see up close how Google devices can help find the information that matters most, whether it’s finding the best recipes, planning your next getaway or helping kids with their schoolwork.

With an array of products on display, such as the Nexus tablet and smartphone, Chromebook and the closely guarded Google Glass, it is difficult to not be impressed. At Home With Google is a defined step towards Google devices enabling and facilitating the family home to be fully interactive, so much so “your phone and tablet have evolved to become the best personal assistants you’ve never had”, according to Google’s media release.

French architect Le Corbusier once proclaimed in Toward an Architecture (1923) that the house was a “machine for living in”. Google seems to be extrapolating that idea to the point where the house is no longer the provision of programs such as a bathroom with functioning hot water facilities, but rather it is a virtual machine autonomously lived in. Each room is metaphorically wired to a device, where you can direct questions for information searches or moderate light, sound and temperatures. The house in Lilyfield does not profess to be a house for the future, but rather a house for now. It is less sci-fi and more high tech.

Google has often dipped its proverbial toe into architecture, notably through its SketchUp software. Intriguingly, it is now driving at equipping the home with devices as well as a much larger objective: a new construction technology for skyscraper design and urban planning.

Google X, the secretive, mystical development unit, has been busily working away on prototyping the software, which Google founders, Sergei Brin and Larry Page, believe could generate US$120 billion a year in a global construction market estimated at US$5 trillion annual. Google X is the birthplace of driverless cars, augmented reality glasses and other artificial intelligence gadgets; and, now through its newly labelled platform Genie – named after the genie in Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp in 1001 Nights.

Genie aims to assist with online-based planning applications and in the design process, especially for skyscrapers and large buildings. According to Google, “Genie could save 30 to 50 percent in prevailing construction costs and shorten the time from the start of planning to market by 30 to 60 percent.” Grandiose claims, indeed. On the face of it, it sounds like a marvellous tool in the hands of designers, but scepticism could reign if it acts as a tool of standardisation in the design process as opposed to a platform to assist in the production and planning of larger projects and typologies.

As noted recently in ‘On Trial’ (AR132–Residential), Le Corbusier was akin to Japanese architect Kiyonori Kikutake insofar as his house designs could reveal into urban masterplans and much larger civic buildings. Ideals could be transferred from the smallest typological investigation in a house to the largest of urban projects. Is Google trying to scale up the same idea, in effect taking the interactivity of the house and manifesting it at the scale of the urban?

by Michael Holt, editor of Architectural Review Asia Pacific

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