WeWork is synonymous with coworking. But the company no longer just leases offices, has microbrews on tap, and rents out the spaces to creatives and entrepreneurs. Cofounder and CEO Adam Neumann has his sights set on bringing the WeWork brand of communalism to the way people live, how they educate their children, and even how they work out. Now, he has a new partner to help him.
Danish starchitect Bjarke Ingels will be WeWork’s first “chief architect”–a role he will juggle while running his architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group, which is currently working on Google offices in California and London, a prototype Martian settlement in the deserts of Dubai, and a controversial power plant with a ski slope on its roof in Copenhagen.
The announcement comes just a few weeks after WeWork raised $702 million in debt financing–a move some speculate could mean the cash-burning unicorn, valued at more than $20 billion, is readying for an IPO.
Ingels and his firm are already working on their first new project, to transform the old headquarters of department store Lord & Taylor in New York into WeWork’s headquarters (the company is currently headquartered in Chelsea). While the historic building’s lower levels will still be occupied by Lord & Taylor, WeWork plans to transform the rest of the building into both an office for itself and a coworking space for members. The design direction hasn’t been finalized, but Neumann and Ingels envision a glass tower rising from the bones of the old retail flagship, an “office of the future,” as Neumann says. Ingels is also working with WeWork on the design of its first school, dubbed WeGrow, for which the company has global ambitions. Ingels plans to build up WeWork’s internal design capacity and look outward to other design companies to collaborate with in the future.
For Neumann, hiring Ingels as WeWork’s chief architect–versus contracting with BIG–addresses a thorny real estate problem. “If I were to just hire his firm, then there’s a client-service provider relationship,” Neumann says. “In my opinion that’s a limiting relationship. It’s what we’ve observed in the real estate world. If we can streamline these decisions and make a little bit of frictionless design, we can unleash creativity.”
Real estate is indeed spectacularly complex: Developers buy property, architects design a structure, engineers build it, interior designers decorate it, and brokers sell it. Each group is siloed in their particular domain, and each has their own agenda about what the final building will look like–which often has nothing to do with the people who will eventually occupy it. What ends up happening is what Ingels refers to as “design by committee.”
Ingels’s motivation is best described through a conversation he previously had with Neumann, which Neumann recounted to me as I sat with the duo on the roof of the Lord & Taylor building in Manhattan, and Ingels nodded along.
“I said, ‘Give me your favorite building.’
“He said, ‘I don’t have one favorite building because of the design-by- committee situation. I get one or three amazing original ideas that I’ve been working on for a decade in a building, but there were seven other ideas that were not exactly mine.’
“I said, ‘I want all your best ideas in one building.’
“He said, ‘If someone actually allowed me to do it, I could design the perfect office building or perfect residential building.’
“I said, ‘Perfect, that’s a big word.’
“He said, ‘No one’s ever given me a shot.'”
Classic architect’s hubris? Definitely. But that’s exactly where the pair align, and why after about a year of talking and collaborating they’ve decided to partner. Ingels wants to build “perfect” office and residential buildings. And by offering Ingels creative freedom, Neumann is betting that he’ll get the wildest, most forward-thinking architecture, with WeWork’s name on it. And he’s not just selling Ingels’s name to WeWork’s 250,000 members: All of WeWork’s enterprise clients, which now feed 30% of the company’s revenue, will also have access to a world of renowned architect that they may not have been able to afford or attract. By hiring a chief architect–something no startups of WeWork’s size have done in such a high-profile way–Neumann lends star power to his ambition to remake cities in WeWork’s image.
Design has always been part of WeWork’s business strategy, and so far the company has done all its architecture in-house. After all, the biggest tangible thing the startup does is rent out staid offices and redesign them–and then slice them up into tiny pieces and rent them to individual people and small companies. That’s also led to skepticism: WeWork has been criticized as being an over-hyped real estate company that burns through cash. The bonds it released recently have already gone down in value, with investors skittish about when they’ll get their money back. It’s easy to see how WeWork might think that hiring Ingels could give the company credibility as Neumann goes about building a business on a global scale.
So how will Ingels inject his over-the-top brand of architecture into coworking spaces that already have such a particular, aspirational aesthetic? Where will WeWork end, and Ingels begin? For Ingels, who already has a global architecture practice, working directly with WeWork offers the chance to have a say much earlier in the development process. Rather than getting a commission that comes with so many functional requirements that the architect’s primary job is to design a pretty facade, Ingels wants to influence not just the way buildings are built, but where and why. “By partnering with Adam and WeWork now, we will be able to have that influence, to not just make the best possible version of what’s been decided, but help actually deciding what should be pursued,” Ingels told me.
In practice, that means building from the ground up, and translating Neumann’s utopian vision into physical reality. Neumann says that in 2018, that will mean WeWork will build more buildings, some that reimagine what’s already there, like the Lord & Taylor project, and others that WeWork and Ingels will design in their entirety. Then, in 2019, the company plans to start creating “campuses”–essentially, WeWork on a neighborhood scale. That could look like a several-block radius where there’s a coworking space, coliving residence, and a school all clustered together, all operating under the WeWork umbrella. In 2020, Neumann wants to “touch cities,” as he describes it, through some kind of dashboard that would give city governments the ability to understand the well-being of citizens similar to how WeWork monitors its own members’ use of space and overall satisfaction.
Much of this architectural work will flow through BIG, which will earn a normal commission from each project. Ingels will be paid in WeWork equity.
“There’s a lot of misaligned agendas in this process of real estate,” Neumann says. “I think we forgot who it’s really for. It’s for the user.”