New York is a clubby town. We have our neighborhoods, of course. Then there’s the schools, our restaurants and dining tables, our bars. There’s the places we sweat and the routes we take (bridges and tunnels included, thanks!). Even the places we work: the finance fellas and the ever-shrinking publishing crowd; the admen who once were Madmen (now it’s more BkBoys); the service folks and the civil servant circuses that are the FDNY, NYPD, and, one assumes, DSNY.
A generation ago, beginning with SoHo House, a new kind of club cropped up downtown. It was the official kind, where you had to apply for membership, pay if you were accepted, and, despite their various gimmicks, offered little—in terms of amenities—except the opportunity to fraternize with people who were, at the end of the day, like you.
More recently, these took on a flavor of “shared workspaces”—offering desks and networking—with NeueHouse touting a creative business community, the Wing promising women an attractive, Instagrammable place to gather, and Spring Place offering the jet set an office away from theirs. At the same time, tech firms expanded from their valley of silicon to our happy, dirty little island. Google, Tumblr, and Audible all have very fancy, very tidy, very shiny homes here. The most recent incursion of sanitization comes in the form of Instagram, who this month opened its 14th floor offices in 770 Broadway, the old Wanamaker’s department store, where parent company Facebook occupies floors 2, 7, 8, and 15.
While they don’t offer branded pussy hats, or the ability to rub shoulders with D-list DJs, Instagram’s design (by Gehry Partners), amenities, and opportunities make it perhaps the finest elite organization Manhattan has to offer. There’s a fresh juice and gelato bar; a real bar, stocked with Veuve Clicquot champagne and Hendricks gin and all the good booze; there’s a library and full cafe; top business folks with whom to interface; and real celebs to gawk at (Victoria Beckham, Priyanka Chopra, and Queer Eye guys have stopped by, among others). Oh, and unlike SoHo House ($2,100–$3,200 annually), the Wing ($1,950 annually) or NeueHouse ($200–$1,600 monthly), they pay you. Often hundreds of dollars per hour.
Let’s start with the design. The 14th floor—the second-highest in the 1862 edifice, which spans the block between 8th and 9th streets, between Lafayette Street and Broadway—is absolutely flooded in natural light. It’s as if Apollo himself “likes” the space (and productivity). Workspaces—shared desks—are on the far eastern and western sides, directly beneath giant, arched, landmarked windows, while conference rooms and public spaces are central.
“If you walk the main axes—north-south and east-west—you’ll notice that you’ll always have visual connection to a window,” says Thomas Kim, one of the architects at Gehry who worked on the project. “In the middle of a 60,0000-square-foot space, you won’t feel like you’re in a cave, you’ll have a connection to the outside.”
The aim is to get people comfortable and interacting, whether they’re at their desk on the in the common areas—where you find the coffee bar and juice bar and “bar bar”—while inspiring them creatively. “Frank [Gehry] promised Mark [Zuckerberg] we would help his team work more collaboratively and efficiently to do the work they wanted. To do that, the spaces would be about them, not about us,” says Meaghan Lloyd, who oversees projects at Gehry. The result is as open a space as you can imagine, not unlike a gallery, with pockets wherein creative work is showcased and, inevitably, ’grammed.
“Obviously, we wanted to reflect on a craft-driven culture and core values,” says Kitty Bromhead, a culture lead at Instagram, who worked with Gehry Partners on the design. “One of my favorites is the atrium area. We keep it very minimal and sleek with a white wall. We’ll have rotating community art in the same space.” And there are, naturally, spaces tailor-made for snapping ’grams: a multicolored translucent dome with modular seating, a living green wall of plants that spans two floors; there is a miniature room, designed by Donatella Versace.
And then there are the amenities. Any tour of the Instagram offices is accompanied by near constant banging. This is not the sound of nails being hammered home, but that of coconuts being opened—in which the fresh juices are served. Gelato—featured flavors change weekly—is reduced to a bowl. There’s the Thirsty Flamingo (a serve-yourself liquor bar), a rooftop patio, mini-kitchens, and a daily 3 p.m. “Cookie Hunt,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
There’s a first-rate studio to record your vlog or pod, a recording studio with instruments, a games room with every conceivable console, and VR stations too. There’s even a quiet library, a place for employees to relax and take in a view, helped by light oak furniture that matches the floors in the central common areas. “Borrowing from that upscale coffee shop, where you would traditionally meet a friend—having that in your office is an incredible opportunity,” says Natalie Lennox, a creative strategist at the company who is partial to the beet juice. “It leads to better ideas, more brainstorming.”
There are the normal tech snacks—Pop Chips and nut bars—available in the coffee area, which is massive and includes a real, restaurant-level Nuova Simonelli espresso machine with For Five Coffee Roasters beans (and, yes, many milks). There’s yoga and meditation classes on offer, guest speakers such as Annie Tritt, who has talked about her project photographing transgender children for Pride month. And something called Analog Lab, which despite its unimaginative name, offers yet more sweet treats.
“I took a drawing course with Jon Burgerman. You get to leave your desk and be inspired by something utterly different,” said Lennox. “I followed him on Instagram for so long and then I got to work with him for an hour-and-a-half.”
The idea here is twofold. Firstly, it’s to make work not seem like work. This seems to be having the intended effect with Ms. Lennox but also recalls a scene from Apocalypse Now, when Captain Willard, reflecting on a beach party BBQ thrown for his fellow troops in Vietnam, says, “The more they tried to make it just like home, the more they made everybody miss it.” Or, put another way by a former Google employee I spoke to, “Those amenities are fantastic. But you use them maybe twice. And then you’re at work.” After your second straight month of 75-hour work weeks, the banging of the coconuts—it was truly constant—might find you far less agreeable.
Secondly, they’re trying for gloss. Instagram is only worth anything if people continue to think Instagram is fun, useful, and cool. Otherwise, they look for the next thing. It’s important that we see Instagram as a fun community for art and creative expression, or else it’s just part of Facebook, a club wherein you can’t avoid running into your former high school chum who is now a devoted member of the alt-right.
Which made talking to Instagram employees about their new office a little strange. “[The design] matches our culture in what we’re aiming to build, which is a large community around the world,” one told me. (My question had been: “What’s your favorite amenity—is it the juice bar?”) Later, the same employee referred to the area by the coffee bar as “the central collaboration area,” which sounded not so inspiring. But I don’t blame them, or their PR. I would do the same.
Instagram itself is both an amenity—to Facebook—and a club, one that a lot of us still want to belong to. I’d rather spend my time at Instagram than at SoHo House, or NeueHouse, or the Wing, even though the last option isn’t really an option at all. Instagram has built a beautiful, thoughtful workspace that accomplishes many of its goals, whether you can get on board with the end product or not.
When Ms. Lloyd at Gehry asked me, point-blank, what I thought of it, I responded honestly: I’d like to work there. She said she’d put in a good word. But I meant the building, not Instagram. The line here is predictable—about not wanting to be part of any club that would have me as a member—a line that came from Groucho Marx. He knew what he was talking about. He was a New Yorker, too.
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