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USC Architecture Students Have Designs on Facebook

by Adam G. Smith
USC Architecture Students Have Designs on Facebook
USC Master of Architecture student Nicole Friend, left, presents Facebook executives Mark Zuckerberg, right, and John Tenanes with a vision of how their company's Menlo Park headquarters might better connect with neighbors.

Facebook recently sent a friend request to the City of Menlo Park – eight students from the USC School of Architecture helped deliver the message.

In a hyper-focused, 12-hour experiment in urban planning – known as a “design charette” – Facebook invited 100 students and architects to its new global headquarters in northern California on March 5. The assignment: how to better connect the remote campus, isolated by marshlands and a major expressway, to the greater community.

In a day of managed chaos, student architects from USC, the University of California, Berkeley, and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo – “We wanted to engage leading architecture programs on the West Coast and [in] California,” said John Tenanes, Facebook’s director of global real estate – collaborated with professional architects from San Mateo County.

From 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., the USC students, armed with laptops, tracing paper, felt-tip pens and Diet Cokes, immersed themselves in the unique culture of Facebook, debated public and private spaces, chatted with Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg and then …

“Pencils down! Laptops closed!”

Suddenly “the burst of ideas” was over, and the USC team of graduate and undergraduate students took the stage to present design ideas to Menlo Park mayor Richard Cline, the city council, several dozen Facebook employees and the assembled citizenry of the nearby Belle Haven neighborhood.

According to assistant professor Andrew Liang, leader of the USC students, the urban impact of Facebook rolling into town is enormous. “When a company with 2,000-plus employees and 50 percent a year projected growth moves in, that’s a pretty big rock thrown in the pond. It’s a huge economic engine that can generate city growth.”

For Tenanes, it was fitting that Facebook, a company started by and initially for college students, would invite college architecture students to re-imagine the urban scheme of its new global headquarters.

“When I first joined Facebook six months ago,” Tenanes said, “we thought about using Facebook as a tool for crowd-sourcing design. That got complicated – there’d be a gazillion design ideas. Then [the City of Menlo Park] pitched this idea of hosting a major design charette.”

The idea of charette is a familiar one in architecture and design circles. The Facebook event was an echo of the 19th century when the sound of a horse-drawn charette – French for “cart” – alerted bleary-eyed École des Beaux Arts students that the proctor was at hand to collect their finished designs. Some students would ride in the cart, perfecting the final details of their illustrations en charette. Interestingly, the charette has a perfect parallel in the Facebook “hack-a-thon.”

“Hack-a-thons are a big part of the Facebook culture,” said Tenanes, noting that Zuckerberg himself is still an active participant. “It’s basically a really intense exercise in creativity with a deadline. People sitting together, usually techno music playing, coding for 12 hours at a time … Facebook Chat and Video were both created during hack-a-thons.”

This was the culture that USC Architecture’s handpicked team was exposed to during its visit to Facebook’s headquarters. Several of the eight students were veterans of urban design charettes, but walking into the Facebook offices with its draft beer on tap, the word “hack” emblazoned in spray paint on the walls, was a new experience.

Said fourth-year architecture student Ross Renjilian: “We really got a chance to talk with the employees. One of the things we found out was they loved these flexible skateboards called ripsticks.”

This sparked a surge of inspiration during the following day’s charette. The USC students focused on the wetland perimeter of the Facebook campus, where the sun and the bay had birthed salt for centuries. They envisioned an expansion of existing walking and bike paths, punctuated by three “hack zones” where public and private spaces would converge: a skate park for the ripstickers, an outdoor amphitheatre for concerts, even a quiet “pocket park.”

“We imagined Facebook almost as a heart pumping people and energy into Menlo Park and recirculating back into itself.”, said Renjilian.

USC’s final presentation – “extremely well received by the community,” according to Tenanes – now will join design proposals from the two other schools and professional architects from the San Mateo chapter of the American Institute of Architects during a formal presentation to the Menlo Park City Council on May 3.

“The area is kind of bleak,” Tenanes said. “The sense of isolation was one of our reservations going in. We’d like to create a sense of place in the Belle Haven area. Making the neighborhood more transparent, driving the energy and activity level – this is the first step.”

Said Liang: “These charettes are really about planting seeds of ideas. Some will be the incubators for wonderful growth potential.”

Whether “hack zones” and tree-lined bike paths become a reality, for Renjilian, an avid Facebook user, it’s already led to his all-time favorite status update:

“I’m updating my Facebook status – from Facebook.”

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