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editorial

Google’s Cambridge office shows local tech scene’s new vigor

Google’s new office in Cambridge’s Kendall Square is more than just a fresh exemplar of high-tech office architecture, with its mix of open space and hidden corners, of flat screens and soft, yielding chairs. It’s also an unexpected tribute to Greater Boston.

In seeking to expand its local footprint, Google passed up opportunities to move, at far less cost, to new quarters across the river in almost any of Boston’s new office buildings. Instead, the company negotiated with the owners of the Cambridge Center complex and city officials to construct a costly “connector” between two buildings, carving out 300,000 square feet of office space framed by lawns and gardens five stories above the street level. Given Boston’s hopes to establish its own innovation zones similar to Kendall Square, Google’s refusal to leave Cambridge might count as a disappointment south of the Charles. But not the content of its offices: The new spread has an MBTA theme, with different sections of the office named for the various lines of the MBTA and decorated with street art and giant photos of Boston scenes.

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The choice of a Boston theme is impressive for many reasons. It suggests Google’s desire to bond with the city — to establish more than a branch office. It also gives a sense of roots — or history, even — to the high-tech workplace. Once, the very atmosphere of tech firms’ offices was contrived to convey a sense of rootlessness — of the freedom to create, yes, but also to cast off any old ideas or parochial obligations. Now, Google is declaring that it’s no startup, and that being a permanent part of Cambridge and Boston is important to the Silicon Valley-based company’s identity.

The office, at which 800 people work, happens to be Google’s second-largest east of the Mississippi, after the one in New York City, and the fourth-largest in the United States. Its significance is greater than the number of employees, though. Google officials see the new digs as a recruitment tool, an expression of their hunger for the most talented minds coming out of Boston’s higher-ed community. It’s also a headquarters for investment. Since late last year, Google has acquired three Boston tech firms, including, just last week, the video app maker Directr. There’s also been a quickened pace of startup investments by Google Ventures.

Google’s national rivals have also ramped up their local presence in recent years. Twitter, Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple have all increased their footprints here. Microsoft occupies what’s arguably the most visible space in Kendall Square. The growth spurt is proof of the hardiness of the Boston area’s information technology sector, but also of its inter-connectedness: Students beget innovators beget startups beget investors and finally big national firms. Every link on that chain is dependent on every other one. And all depend on the economic health and cultural appeal of the surrounding community.

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