OUT IN THE BAYLANDS of Mountain View, there is an artificial Italian-style
hill town built atop its own artificial hill. And in the ersatz village
live two classes of technology worker. The R&D engineers of the upper
class are not hard to spot. They're the ones who have office doors. Nobody
else gets his or her own door. No exceptions. That's life in the village.
On North First Street in San Jose, there's a $130 million
limestone-and-granite monument to rebirth. The corporate family that lives
there had lost its bearings for the better part of a decade. The man who put
the family back together needed to show each individual how much he cared.
He needed to reassure them that the darkest days were gone for good. He
said it with museum-quality fixtures, exotic wood accents--and a lot of
On the far northern edge of Santa Clara, there's an ongoing experiment
concerning the high-fashion potential of butcher-block slabs and really,
really big tin cans. And in this Jetsonian funhouse, in between the offices
where the alpha-geeks toil, are a half-dozen ''eating experiences,'' a
convenience store, a health club and other amenities. Like the other two,
it is not just a workplace but also a massive testament to the fact that
the heart of Silicon Valley culture is work.
Building by building, a wild new strain of corporate architecture is
reshaping the face of Silicon Valley. The metamorphosis is most apparent in
the Golden Triangle -- the technology district ringed by highways 237, 101
and 880--and north to San Mateo along the 101 corridor.
The new projects are far bigger than their predecessors, and far
better-equipped to support a work culture built around communication and
collaboration. The very best of them are loaded with something rarely seen
in Silicon Valley office design: a degree of aesthetic sophistication. Where
previous generations of corporate planners lived and built by the
unyielding realities of cost-per-square-foot, today's facilities czars find
themselves reaching for terms such as ''soul'' to describe their highest
''Architecture in Silicon Valley is not exuberant just for the sake of
being exuberant,'' says David Kalb, corporate architect on staff of
Mountain View's Silicon Graphics, Inc. ''It's a product of corporate
culture and of companies reinventing themselves.... It reflects the pace of
the technology industry.''
The campus architecture of the past five or six years is by and large a
byproduct of exponential growth within the networking sector. And with few
exceptions, these new campuses tell the story of an industry in the throes
of adolescence. They are gawky, painfully self-aware and in a hurry to be
all grown up.
In a region once derided for the cookie-cutter sameness of its office
parks, these bulked-out, broad-shouldered campuses are destined to be
landmarks for the new millennium. They are the first monumental statements
about Silicon Valley's place at the red-hot center of the networked world.
Giving it personality
Today's campus designs continue to be shaped to a great degree by the
same constraints that shaped the valley's one-style-fits-all tilt-up office
plazas: zoning and density restrictions, parking requirements and
construction costs. But there is a new, idiosyncratic factor at work: a
high-minded belief that these new exterior campus designs should reflect a
company's internal culture.
Increasingly, companies that opt to build their own campuses consider
themselves design partners with the architecture firms and builders they
retain. And they expect that the finished product will be an eloquent
expression of their corporate values, the company line writ large in
granite and glass.
''Many of our clients are interested in integrating the environment with
their culture,'' says Erik Sueberkrop, a principal at Studios Architecture,
the San Francisco firm responsible for some of the valley's most
challenging designs. ''They want to have that culture speak to their
[customers] through their architecture. And why not? It costs no more to
have a personality.''
And none has more personality than 3Com's campus, hard by Highway 237 at
the eastern edge of Santa Clara. Visually speaking, the
networking-equipment maker's spread has more fun per square foot than any
Golden Triangle development, with the possible exception of Great America.
Not everyone is enamored with the high-energy jumble of styles in the
facility, which was designed by Studios Architecture and built in three
stages over the last decade. (According to the design czar of another
Triangle corporation, the 1.4 million-square-foot campus is derisively
known in facilities circles as ''The Train Wreck.'') The latest addition,
which added 50 percent to the total square-footage, is an extraordinary
three-building sampler of ultra-mod design--Pee-Wee's Playhouse on steroids
and an oversize budget.
The crazy quilt of exterior surfaces ranges from great expanses of
high-gloss blond wood to metal siding that looks like it might have been
cut from Jolly Green Giant-size tin cans. ''Clearly we've become a lot more
expressive over the years,'' says Abe Darwish, 3Com's vice president of real
estate and site services. ''We were a lot more willing to be in the
forefront of design in the latter phases.''
Darwish says the visual wallop didn't come at an exorbitant price. ''You
can make a statement, but not be expensive. What makes the building look
expensive is the fact we focused on the design. If you look at
architectural fees, did we spend more than most? Yeah--but design is a very
small percentage of the total cost.'' As for the super-luxe touches,
Darwish says they were used relatively sparingly. ''That wood is only used
in one spot out of 300,000 square feet. It just gives you the punch. Just
like a nice dress--it's elegant, it's simple, it's not overdone.''
At SGI's Amphitheatre Technology Center in Mountain View, another highly
animated Studios project, some of the stunning design touches sprang from
the idiosyncrasies of the site rather than any desire to be outrageous.
The 22-acre facility just across the road from Shoreline Amphitheatre is
four sleek buildings and six glass-walled Lego-ish towers very tightly
circled around an interior greensward. The distinctive towers, which house
elevators, were factored into the designs because the campus sits atop a
very shallow, environmentally sensitive aquifer. Those towers, a
work-around to an environmental constraint, ended up reinforcing the campus
model for work communities. ''There is a hill town in Tuscany, a medieval
village where each family built homes around their tower,'' explains Kalb.
''We wanted it to feel like a community, not a sprawl. This became our
high-tech hill town.'' The underground parking on the site is actually at
ground level, with a berm built up around it. So in addition to fabricating
the hill town, SGI built the hill the town sits on as well.
There may be no design czar or architect in all of Silicon Valley who is
not a little obsessed with ''Italian hill towns.'' Few companies take it as
literally as SGI, which went so far as to build a bocce ball court. But it
seems as if everyone wishes to be dreaming under the Tuscan sun rather than
toiling next to the bay landfill. According to Sun Microsystems' building
czar Eric Richert, people walking through the courtyard at the company's
Menlo Park facility say ''it feels like a European town.'' And Randall
Knox, the facilities chief at Novell, insists his firm was ''trying to
create some sort of Italian piazza feel to the whole campus.''
Bill Valentine, a senior partner in the San Francisco office of the
architectural firm Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum Inc., who's had a hand in
many of the valley's largest corporate projects, believes many of the
buildings (and their designers) are trying a bit too hard to make a
statement. ''If you could develop a really neat environment where the
buildings were comfortable to use but they didn't shout for attention, I'd
bet the employees would absolutely love it and the stockholders would like
it. And over the long haul that would make the best city, as opposed to
these gizmos shouting, 'Look at me, look how stunning I am!'''
It's a telling measure of ambition that the creators of the new-breed
campuses have taken to speaking of their work with analogies drawn from
urban planning. These architects and facilities planners are not doing
anything as pedestrian as building cube farms. No, to use the lingo of the
craft, they're busy creating healthy neighborhoods, fostering communities
and designing new downtowns.
Kalb has definite ideas about what separates the good neighborhoods from
the not-so-good. ''If you were to ask what's the nature of a ghetto or a
poor space, it's the strip--that's never an effective workplace,'' he says.
''In real life it's where you get your strip malls. Everything looks the
same, every intersection and storefront. We have a very small portion of
that, places where things got too strung out. The communication isn't good
and people are always happy to move out of that kind of space.''
Kalb says the worst space he can recall in all of SGI's Mountain View
facilities (there are 16 buildings in the Shoreline area in addition to the
Amphitheatre Technology Center) was a 100,000-square-foot floor that was an
open sea of cubes. ''There was one aisle that went from one end of the
building to the other, and people called it the Bayshore,'' says Kalb.
''Having an office off that was like living on a freeway.''
Beyond the neighborhoods, when it comes to building formal meeting
spaces and ''downtowns,'' the campus designers steal freely from other
architectural disciplines. For example, SGI's elegant presentation center is
an intimate theater ringed with a second level of seating, a design that
echoes that of many great nightclubs. ''The best social settings you've
ever experienced are things you want to bring to the corporate
environment,'' Kalb says. ''This is where the town planning analogies
really help.... It can be a sprawl, or it can have a real sense of
The concepts of working neighborhoods and community design can scale up
to a point--beyond which they become untenable. The valley's most extreme
example of explosive growth in the networking sector is Cisco Systems,
which manufactures much of the hardware on which the Internet runs. Cisco
has been on a six-year building binge along Tasman Drive in northernmost
San Jose--the likes of which far outstrip Sarah Winchester's wildest
dreams. The Cisco presence along Tasman and side streets now numbers 28
buildings spread over four locations. By the end of the year, the total
will be 35 buildings.
While most campuses have a pedestrian culture, Cisco's Tasman developments
are an auto culture. Many employees move from site to site by car or they
hail a company shuttle bus, which will arrive 10 or 15 minutes later.
Cisco is, by almost any measure imaginable, the largest, richest and
most successful player in the computer networking business. It is also home
to a corporate culture of almost unparalleled austerity and self-restraint.
Cisco is downright phobic about spending dime one on anything that might be
considered non-essential. The seemingly endless blocks of plain-jane,
sandstone-colored office structures strung along Tasman Drive tell the
Cisco story: They are solid, large and uniformly unremarkable, imbued with
an almost Soviet-style lack of imagination.
''In a lot of ways, we probably want to be viewed as the most boring
company. A lot of people would call our building style boring or simple,''
says Nancy Bareilles, Cisco's vice president of real estate and workplace
resources. ''We think it's functional and understated. There's a timeless
look to the buildings. We don't ever want to build a monument to our
success.'' This fear of what Bareilles calls ''creeping elegance'' runs
deep within the company's rank and file, since every Cisco employee is also
a shareholder. Cost-containment is such an obsession that the company
maintains an e-mail hot-line where employees can blow the whistle on
Robert Thurman, Cisco's director of worldwide planning and business
solutions, hopes the company can keep the lean-and-mean mindset of a
start-up--despite a market capitalization in the neighborhood of $200
billion. (At the close of fiscal 1998 Cisco was No. 3 in income and No. 2
in market capitalization among valley companies.) ''When you're a small
company in start-up mode, there's not a sense of entitlements for people.
As you get larger, from the CEO on down, people start developing this sense
of needing and wanting more,'' he says. ''I think what we've been able to
do at Cisco fairly well is to limit that sense of entitlement.''
The valley never sleeps
Several centuries from now, an archaeologist picking through the ruins
of the tech campuses will find ample evidence to support a thesis that
Silicon Valley 1999 was a culture built around sleep deprivation. The major
campuses have many of the personal services typically found in a
neighborhood shopping center--coffee bars, a variety of restaurants,
24-hour health clubs, convenience stores and dry cleaners. All that's
missing is a place to sleep.
The rationale behind the on-campus services never varies: The amenities
are necessary, planners say, to recruit and retain the best workers in a
hyper-competitive environment. ''When I joined 3Com about 13 years ago, one
of the things that attracted me was that the company was really interested
in using the working environment as a strategic advantage--a competitive
advantage,'' says Abe Darwish.
When it comes to personal quality-of-life amenities, none apparently is
more coveted than an office with a door. The question of who needs an
honest-to-gypsum office with real walls and who can get by in a doorless,
fabric-skinned cubicle divides architects and planners. Academic studies on
how cubes affect communication are inconclusive. ''Those decisions
generally have to do with either misbegotten notions about how people
communicate, or--worse yet--applying one blanket design to everybody,''
says Richert, the architect who directs Sun's Workplace Effectiveness
Group. ''Lesson No. 1 is the solution should depend on the work people are
doing. When people say 'We want our engineers to communicate more therefore
we're putting them in a bunch of Dilbert-type cubes,' I know they have not
one iota of understanding of how that really works.''
Richert believes the people who really need the hard-walled offices are
those who ''are doing intense, heads-down coding where you have to keep a
set of variables in your head for 20 or 30 minutes at a time. If you're
disturbed you've lost that work.'' He believes people whose jobs depend on
such concentration will invariably find ways to rebel against cubicle
seating. ''They'll bring earphones. They put tape and barriers across the
openings to their offices. Worse yet, they'll simply avoid times when a lot
of other people are in the office.''
SGI's Amphitheatre Technology Center is an example of a campus where the
interior designs support the company's culture. Although the facility
houses the company's top executives, engineers are undeniably at the top of
the SGI caste system. ''It's an R&D site and it should send the message
that research is at the heart of our company,'' David Kalb says.
At SGI, the ratio of hard-walled offices to cubicles is 50/50. Every one
of those offices belongs to a technical staffer who's involved in new
product development. Managers, from top executives on down, are in cubicles.
(One egalitarian touch: The hard-walled offices are set in the interior of
the buildings, rather than along the windows, thus putting cubicle-dwellers
in the best position to enjoy maximum natural light.)
While some networking companies such as Novell have gone to hard-walled
offices almost exclusively, 3Com's corporate culture is gradually moving in
the opposite direction, shifting from dedicated private space to shared
space. ''We as humans have inherited a lot of strong territorial feelings,
but it's my own personal view that the world we're going to be living in
more and more is going to be the collaborative work of teams,'' says
Darwish. ''If you look at the type of fast-moving competitive pressure that
we're under, no longer are you going to see the need for isolation.''
No matter how classic the design, no matter how solid the materials, no
campus is forever. The unrelenting cycles of innovation that power the
valley economy force corporations to make flexibility a top priority in
campus design. Firms are constantly calculating and recalculating their
campus plans as business conditions change. Exit strategy--a contingency
plan for selling or leasing surplus space to outsiders--is a key
consideration right from the drawing-board stage of most large campuses.
Alas, attempts to build a good campus and a good exit strategy can be a
zero-sum game. All the design factors that make a campus work as a
cohesive, integrated whole also make individual buildings less appropriate
for use by outsiders.
Architecture experts say this hedge-all-bets mindset has kept the
valley's architecture at a plodding level up until now. Cathy Lang Ho wrote
in a recent issue of Architectural Record: ''Part of the valley's identity
problem is the local architecture's emphasis on flexible, inexpensive
space, essential for companies that can't imagine a future beyond their
next quarterly earnings report. Experience has shown that departments can
double in size, split into fragments or disappear altogether in the time it
takes for the paint to dry.''
At Cisco Systems, which is adding employees at a rate of 30 percent per
year, flexibility means undistinguished buildings with standardized
features and amenities. ''If you had a crystal ball and you could predict
that Cisco would go through this amount of growth and change, you'd
probably develop a system that's just plain vanilla--and, in fact, that's
what we did,'' says Thurman. ''We have intentionally provided spaces that
are flexible and fairly generic. There's not a lot of hierarchal
difference.'' For example, in Cisco-land there are two just standard
cubicle sizes for the company, instead of the more typical four to six.
''If you were to peel back the skin, you'd find the buildings have the
flexibility from electrical, mechanical and communications perspective to
accommodate virtually any group,'' says Thurman.
No other valley corporation has an exit-strategy tale quite as
hair-raising as the one that touched Novell, one of the world's largest
producers of business networking software. Through the mid-'90s, the
general perception within the software industry was that Novell was a
company that had lost its technological edge and faded from relevance. The
old plant around Lundy Avenue--10 dark, dingy tilt-ups spread out along
three busy intersections--seemed to be custom-built to reinforce this
In 1997, the company was finishing plans for a hulking brute of a
five-building campus on North First Street at Guadalupe Parkway in San Jose
when a reorganization shrunk Novell's local workforce from 1,150 positions
to fewer than 500. New CEO Eric Schmidt lopped one story off all but one of
the buildings. Two buildings that were planned at five stories became four
and two others that were to be four shrunk to three. Schmidt--using exit
strategy as an entrance strategy--decided to put all his troops in the two
front buildings on the property and lease out the rest.
''You know, Novell went through that period when everybody viewed us as
dying. Microsoft had eaten our lunch. We were on our way out,'' says Knox,
the company's vice president of California site operations and facilities.
''One thing we wanted to do here was create new life and excitement. And
that's one reason Eric drew everyone into these two buildings. He didn't
want a lot of empty offices around.''
''Nice'' does not begin to describe the creature comforts $130 million
can buy--from the lavish stone exteriors to elevator cabs that cost as much
as a new Lexus. But while the first impression may be one of opulence, the
deeper message here is one of reassurance. With every little touch (and
there are many) the buildings tell employees that the darkest and most
uncertain days for Novell are behind them. (Novell's stock, around $7 when
Schmidt took over, was recently trading at around $30.)
The new campus, which opened for business last November, signifies a new
life for Novell as a Net-centric company. Knox says the decision to build
with relatively expensive limestone and granite was one way to send the
message that Novell would endure. ''We wanted to project a stable image,
and we think stone does that,'' he says. ''We spent a lot of time, effort
and money designing our campus to be timeless and enduring. And we believe
this approach flies in the face of the reputation valley architecture
has--fast, fleeting and quickly dated.'' While the basic design of the
campus was set before CEO Eric Schmidt came onboard, Knox says Schmidt did
have a direct hand in the deciding the look and feel of the final campus,
right down to choosing the colors for the exterior stone and the interior
accents. ''He didn't want us cutting a lot of corners,'' says Knox. ''He
made a comment to me one day when we were talking about amenity areas: 'Why
would I want to make anybody leave the campus?'''
Knox doesn't deny that the company invested more than usual to show its
employees that they're valued: ''You know that lowball-everything
mentality? That was us--that was Novell under a previous CEO. Eric wants to
show [the employees] that this is a quality company and we're determined to
treat them like quality employees. We're going to raise the level of
performance by raising what we're giving them.''
The soul of a new building
The concentration of campuses in the Golden Triangle and along Highway
101 may well be the only architectural feature that sets Silicon Valley
apart from any other region. The very best of the new breed--the ones that
capture what it feels like to live and work in these go-go years when
Silicon Valley is the economic engine at the center of the wired world--may
someday come to be regarded as great works. But most of the architects and
planners behind the campuses are uncomfortable with the idea that their designs
will ultimately be judged in the larger context of valley culture as a
3Com's Darwish is typical in his ambivalence. He understands that his
campus is destined to be a landmark. He also knows that building landmarks
is an endeavor fundamentally at odds with a hyper-speed industry that
redefines itself every three months. ''To me this is Mecca. This is where
it's happening. The interesting thing in technology is that we're moving
too fast,'' he says. ''Nobody really wants to think about something of
permanence. It's almost counterintuitive.''
Given all the other corporate mandates, is it really the designer's
responsibility to make the campus something more than a good office,
something that brings--dare we say it?--real enjoyment to the lives of all
who see it?
''I like to think that we have an
obligation, from a design standpoint, to pay attention,'' Darwish says.
''We all have a responsibility as planners to create ... the soul. Anybody
can put a building together. But are you willing to do what it takes to add
that extra dimension?''
DESIGNING THE NEW CAMPUS
RESPONSIBLE for the beefy look of the new campuses? Real estate brokers,
architects and corporate planners agree that the greatest single factor
behind the behemoths is the high cost and relative scarcity of buildable
land in Silicon Valley's prime high-tech districts, particularly the Golden
According to veteran land broker Chip Macdonald, senior vice
president/principal of CPS, a commercial property services company, a
square foot of commercial land in North San Jose that sold for
approximately $20 five years ago now goes for $40. And the large parcels
that would accommodate major corporate headquarters are becoming
increasingly scarce. Macdonald says the Golden Triangle has been ''full''
for at least the last 18 months, with next to no major parcels on the
Because the dirt itself is so dear, companies are forced to maximize the
return on their land investment by building taller, denser campus
structures. The sprawling campus of one-story, ranch-style buildings
partially hidden from the road by verdant berms is about as practical today
as a 1,200-baud modem. ''We've gone from single-story to multi-story, all
because of land costs,'' says architect Bill Valentine, a senior partner in
the San Francisco office of the firm Hellmuth Obata + Kassabaum Inc. ''I'd
be interested if you can find a single person who's not planning for the
From a cost perspective, building up is good. But there is a limit to
how far up one may go before bumping into the municipal height and density
limits that keep the Triangle and other tech districts from turning into
Manhattan By The Bay. In most campus areas, density limits called
''floor-area ratios'' dictate that any 100 square feet of land can only
support between 35 and 50 square feet of office space. Given all the
requisite items at ground level--such as driveways, landscaping and
parking--architects say it's almost impossible to achieve the maximum
allowable density with a single, sprawling floor. Two- or three-story
designs, which were the exception 10 years ago, are now the rule. And where
local density caps are looser, four- or five-story designs are increasingly
The other primary force shaping the new-breed Silicon Valley corporate
campus is the need for efficient communication. Old-style office parks are
organizational islands, isolated from each other by seas of parking.
Campuses, by their very definition, are designed to eliminate that
isolation and encourage easy interaction between colleagues.
Until recently, most valley corporations lived in office parks that had
been designed to accommodate multiple tenants. But now, more companies are
taking control of their own land destiny and building campuses designed
with their specific organizational needs in mind.
The holy grail for campus designers is ''synergy'' -- the collegial
feeling that comes when individuals and groups are arranged for optimal
communication. Alas, unlike the unyielding math of floor-area ratios, synergy
is a slippery concept and the never-ending quest for it is as much a black
art as a science. While every architect invokes the S-word freely, no two
ever agree on which exact attributes define a communications-friendly
''It's one of the things that my profession does not do well,'' says
Eric Richert, a staff architect for Sun Microsystems. ''There's been a lot
of literature and research on how teams work from an organizational sense,
but very little work on how teams work with either physical space or
One of Richert's goals with the Sun Menlo Park campus was to find the
right scale buildings. ''We wanted buildings large enough so that large
research organizations could be cohesive on one hand--and on the other hand
not be so distant from each other that being in the same building became
meaningless,'' he says. ''People who are really working closely with each
other--solving problems and developing ideas, not just delivering
information--need to be together. If we could create a situation where
every team like that was in a 25,000-50,000-square-foot space on one floor,
that would be ideal. You get to 300,000 square feet on a floor and ...
there's nothing wrong with that, but it's silly to think that people on
that floor are all going to be interacting in an intimate way.''
There is a general consensus that two floors is a good scale for a tech
campus building, with lots of design flexibility, and that three floors is
the highest one can build without running into some breakdown in
interpersonal communications. But there is no industry benchmark for what
constitutes a correct scale for each floor. While Richert's ideal is
25,000-50,000 square feet, SGI decided the sweet spot for its new
Amphitheatre Technology Center in Mountain View would be an intimate 15,000
square feet per floor.