Rethinking Silicon Valley

Rethinking Silicon Valley

Times change, and so do tech campuses.

Only a few years ago these once-infamous, and isolated, corporate conglomerations consisted of banal tilt up buildings full of cubicles, lodged in a sea of parking on the edge of freeways. Back then Silicon Valley, and the tech world in general, represented the very worst of planning and architecture.

But while retaining its suburban roots—a counterpoint to tech’s well-documented adaptive reuse projects in urban cores—the campus is progressing into an oasis of urbanity. Competing for talent with these new urban headquarters, campuses are becoming mini-cities showcasing density, transit, sustainability, and a humane combination of buildings and landscape. They’re supplying urban perks while still embracing their pastoral possibilities, connecting employees with each other in common spaces inside and out to make them happier and promote interaction.

“To be disconnected at a tech company is a bad idea,” noted Jonathan Ward, a design partner at NBBJ, which is working on campuses for Samsung, Google, Amazon, and other companies worldwide. The firm recently convinced Samsung to convert its original plan for two faceless, and disconnected, glass boxes on the north end of San Jose into an integrated facility with open offices, easy access to natural light, outdoor courtyards, and spacious cantilevered terraces.

At Amazon, NBBJ is not only working to connect the campus’ three tall buildings with walkways and courtyards, but it has created three, five-story-tall “biodomes,” glass bubbles providing flex and brainstorming space for employees, and a home for trees and plantings. In China, the firm has connected a large new headquarters for search engine giant Alibaba with its rural surroundings, lifting and bending the building at strategic places to invite employees into a giant courtyard.


All this common space, both inside and out, encourages employees to make what office experts call “casual collisions”—informal meetings and exchanges that were lost in the cloistered cubicle culture. In addition to promoting interaction and socializing, common space can soften hard edges, unite scattered buildings, promote healthy workers, and simply make places more enjoyable. DLR Group’s Steven McKay, working on a campus addition for Google in Kirkland, Washington, said an emphasis on open space fits into Google’s healthy living initiatives, which include the best food program he has ever seen. “They seem to be getting more and more sophisticated and more advanced in the essence of space,” said McKay, who describes earlier Google campus design as gimmicky, not holistic. “It’s more connected to their overall mission,” he said.

The Kirkland campus—which includes the renovation of two existing buildings and one new one—is a redevelopment of a five-acre former brownfield site into a park that includes bike paths, bike lockers, dog walk areas, plazas, an amphitheater, and a pedestrian bridge connecting old and new structures. The new building will contain a large green roof, outdoor decks, and a ground level plaza.

Back in Silicon Valley, HOK’s new Central + Wolfe campus, a plan courting several big tech firms (part of a flexible phenomenon called “Spec for Tech”), will contain about nine acres of ground-level open space, two miles of outdoor trails, a 90,000-square-foot rooftop garden, and possible plans for another 208,000 square feet of rooftop green space. The design is challenging what developers see as leasable space, HOK’s Paul Wolford told AN last spring, with open and common spaces increasingly viewed as more desirable than projects built out to maximum capacity.



In Lehi City, Utah, WRNS and RAPT studio have created a new three-building, 680,000-square-foot campus for Adobe that connects indoors and outdoors. The campus’s heart is its “grand atrium,” a cavernous open area with an equally large glass facade that links every workplace while also connecting to the surreal landscape (highlighted by views of the Wasatch and Oquirrh mountain ranges). The atrium contains facilities for meetings, and contemplation, and is surrounded by zones for working, eating, and exercising. Outside is a campus green, equally suitable for all types of activities, from meetings to Hacky Sack.

More examples abound. Gensler’s upcoming buildings for Nvidia will be triangular, to minimize travel distances and unlock open space. Inside, holes are cut between floors while platform-like stairs encourage impromptu meetings. “We’ve learned not to be curatorial and allow things to evolve,” said Peter Weingarten, Gensler’s director of architecture for the northwest region. “We’re just setting the groundwork.” The firm also designed a campus for Facebook at the old Sun Microsystems in Menlo Park, which includes urban rooms and a central outdoor spine.

While Apple’s new plan by Foster + Partners has been chided by some for turning its back on its context, the design still nurtures open space and sustainability. The ring-shaped building, naturally lit via glass walls and skylights, will contain expansive green spaces throughout—especially inside its central ring. Last year Apple announced that it was adding more bike paths and walkways to its campus and installing a transit center for buses and shuttles, a trend that’s changing the car-oriented culture at tech companies throughout Silicon Valley.

Still, with space at a premium, the greenest method of campus development is adaptive reuse. In Playa Vista, on LA’s West Side, a team led by Brenda Levin and EPT Design has renovated the badly deteriorated Hercules Campus, where Howard Hughes’ company, Hughes Aircraft, developed, among other things, the famous Spruce Goose. The campus is now a tech playground for the likes of YouTube, Konami, and advertising agency 72 and Sunny.



The architects and landscape architects not only painstakingly restored the steel and wood buildings into light-filled, open-planned environments, they stitched it together and enlivened it with courtyards, walkways, bioswales, mounds, fountains, and boardwalks. Employees regularly work and hold meetings outside and YouTube especially holds large events outdoors, where their front yard incorporates a natural amphitheater and exercise areas. “It really is a campus,” said Nord Eriksson, a principal at EPT. “These types of places were once about isolating people from the street and ushering them into contained space. Now everyone is ok walking through gardens to get to the front door.”

But if they want to build campuses in big cities tech companies will need to consider going up, not out. A few new buildings here are adopting the vertical model, with rooftop spaces, interconnected floors, and large balconies. But the most ambitious models are taking shape in Asia.

In Shenzen, China, NBBJ convinced emerging tech company Ten Cent to scrap plans for a Silicon Valley–style complex in favor of three new highrise buildings connected with massive bridges, forming a sort of city in the sky. And LA firm Jerde has worked on developments for several Asian tech companies combining office space with hotels, retail, and more. “I think this is the direction that a lot of these companies are headed, said Matt Heller, a spokesman for Jerde. “They understand the desire of their employees to be in these integrated environments within an urban setting.”