The Royal Pavilion: A 19th Century Googleplex?

The more I wander around the Royal Pavilion, the more I’m conflicted about George IV’s hilarious spending. It should be easy just to condemn outright: history doesn’t look kindly on him, especially now, with parallels bouncing around to today’s flashy super-rich; Britain’s great profligate (and useless!) royal spender in a time of war and strife. The harsh critique ought to be a no-brainer.

Yet – filtered through almost 200 years of perspective – the sheer breathtaking scope of innovation: the cutting edge extent of progressive design and ‘making’ going on in George’s Royal Pavilion – stands right in the way of the simple view. Instead, I keep being drawn to a different, more nuanced comparison, one that connects and empathises far better with the desire to create lasting legacy and an expensive-but-quirky HQ with one’s disposable wealth: the 21st century’s leading global tech companies, in particular Google. Not so much their core businesses but their infamous indulgent, progressive office spaces.

Last year I was lucky enough to get an informal tour of Google’s funky London base opposite Victoria Station. This lovely techie guy Daniel took us around and fed us free pizza; showed us the self-serving coffee bar; the games and music rooms; and half a London bus installed on the fourth floor. And more besides, in return for an acoustic gig.

Now, the more I get under the skin of the playful early 19th century tech inside the Royal Pavilion, the more it is exceptionally reminiscent of Google and her contemporaries.

Aquatint of the Royal Pavilion's Great Kitchen. Taken from 'Nash's Views of the Royal Pavilion', 1826.
The Royal Pavilion’s Great Kitchen, 1826.

Beautifully decorated pillars in the Royal Pavilion kitchens resemble bamboo at eye level, then weirdly become palm trees just beneath the high ceiling. But who’d decorate a kitchen, when it’s just for busy staff? Well, someone who’d take the rare step of bringing his VIP guests back into that kitchen to show it off. It feels strikingly similar to Google’s fake tree-lined garden full of deckchairs where staff eat lunch. And that’s not just aesthetically but as part of a broader process.

I love the Pavilion’s automatic rotisserie as well, for example. At a time when, in most stately homes, servant boys (‘spit jacks’) would sit in the scorching heat beside the huge fire to rotate the meat spits by hand, the Royal Pavilion has one that harnesses the power of the rising hot air (a ‘smoke jack’) to rotate itself automatically. There are so many examples, many mentioned in the guided tours but many missed out, or not even on display to the public. The sheer number of flush toilets, compared to any other stately home of the period. The underfloor central heating. Beautifully decorated pillars in the middle of large gallery rooms that are actually waste pipes.

People definitely indulge the tech world’s ‘office-as-playground’ trope (hugely influential over a whole industry; who now ride around their open plan warehouses on plastic tricycles, or try to eat their lunches on bouncy castles) because of its sheer outstanding quirkiness. Yet it is criticised as a kind of passive imprisonment (providing employees with everything they could possibly need, so they never leave the building) or a distraction from ‘real’ terms and conditions (no unions in the tech industry!). But we’re easily tempted to admire the chutzpah first and question the ethics and tax avoidance second.

Just look at the extent to which we collectively turn a blind eye to workers’ rights in China because what they’re assembling is the smartphones we find so sexy and essential.

Anyway, I just love the nuances (for good and ill) in this comparison. So here’s the idea I’m mulling right now, perhaps for Brighton Digital Festival in September. An audio (or even ‘live’) alternative tour of the Royal Pavilion (downloadable as a podcast or MP3 for smartphones, or – imagine this – added to some of their official audio tour devices!) to emphasise innovative design, ‘making’ and progressive geeky thinking that fills the Pavilion and makes it like a 19th century Googleplex.

A point of this kind of heritage is to impact us with the ‘good‘ results of what probably felt horrible at the time, at least enough to ignite these questions instead of immediately condemning King George. So. Was he truly so indulgent, or not? And are the modern equivalents so hip, or will history see them more similarly to how we see George IV?

Chris T-T, Blogger in Residence

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