Valley Highs

Valley Highs

When people talk about architecture south of San Francisco, they’re most likely talking about circuit boards or lines of software code. But while Silicon Valley will continue to do what it does best, design awareness has been percolating through the sea of concrete tilt-ups. When aesthetic considerations get filtered through the area’s deep-rooted ethos of functionality, what results are some very interesting design solutions.


The social networking company Facebook’s new headquarters in Palo Alto is an excellent example of how to create urban texture and personality in sedate suburbia—on the cheap. The interior overhaul of the 1960s building was on the frugal side, said architect Primo Orpilla of San Francisco’s Studio O+A: “It wasn’t about the flash.”

Where he could, he brought out the industrial past, stripping floors down to raw concrete and reclaiming the truck dock with its roll-up door as an outdoor gathering spot. To heighten a sense of history, original walls were left white, while walls that were added in the remodel were painted in bright colors. There are no enclosed offices anywhere. “The company’s selling point to new recruits is that it’s very democratic and transparent, and it’s hard to show that in an old office building,” Oprillo said.

The Internet veteran eBay, on the other hand, had the challenge of building new for the first time, but needed to play nice with the existing five buildings on their corporate campus in north San Jose. Call it contextual design for office parks. “We hated the idea of duplicating bad 1999 architecture,” said Joe Valerio of Chicago-based firm Valerio Dewalt Train. So the architects duplicated just one section of the older facades, which were opaque with punched windows, and placed it on a projecting bay of the new building, using glass walls on the rest of the exterior. “It’s lighthearted, but it doesn’t scream ‘Look at me!’” Valerio said.

Some potentially iconic buildings could also be heading to the area. Renderings of a new Google headquarters by SHoP Architects were submitted to the city of Mountain View at the end of 2008, but the company put the plans on hold when office rents plummeted.

Another much-anticipated project is Apple’s new campus in Cupertino, which has been on the radar since 2006, when the company announced the purchase of 50 acres; a master plan has yet to be developed. On a faster track is Yahoo!, which is working with RMW Architecture and Interiors on the design of an immense campus with 3 million square feet of office space. Santa Clara’s planning department is currently reviewing the draft EIR for the project.

Meanwhile, as the offices are getting livelier, housing options are also expanding. As elsewhere, some of the most architecturally innovative approaches have been appearing in the nonprofit sector, where architects are unfettered by the concerns of market-rate developers. The most ambitious project in the area has been the $270 million, 8-acre Taube Koret Campus for Jewish Life. A town-within-a-town, it combines 193 senior housing units with a family gym, community meeting spaces, and a performing-arts hall.

“Lots of people talk about mixed-use, but it’s usually 90 percent of this and 10 percent of that,” said architect Rob Steinberg. “This is really mixed-use, where we’ve taken elements that seemed at odds with one another to make a richer urban fabric.” The entire complex sits on top of a one-story parking garage and includes a winding pedestrian corridor that opens into public plazas.

Further south, the mysterious facade of sleek metal plates that appears along Highway 101 turns out to be the wall of an 84-unit affordable housing development, the Fairways at San Antonio Court. “This was a really difficult site,” said architect Jerome King.

Three other developers had tried to create housing on this 140-foot-deep strip, but couldn’t meet Title 24 sound requirements. King’s solution was to create a sound wall with an open-air corridor on the other side—imagine the walkways of a motel—that bridges five buildings interleaved by courtyards. Inside the units, separated from the freeway by the corridor and their own walls, “you can hear a pin drop,” according to King.

On the civic side, San Jose is currently working on a master plan for its Diridon transit station and the 500 acres around it. The station itself is intended to be a “showpiece of green, iconic architecture,” said city planner Jenny Nusbaum, which bodes well given the city’s last great gesture, which was to bring in Richard Meier to design its city hall in 2005.

According to Gail Price, the executive director of the Santa Clara Valley chapter of the AIA, “There’s gradually more attention in these communities to the value of intensifying development and making more public services available, desirable from both a fiscal and environmental point of view.” Price added, “We are on the cusp here between suburban and urban development.”