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Redefining the archi-TECH-ture of Silicon Valley

Queena Kim Apr 23, 2013

Redefining the archi-TECH-ture of Silicon Valley

Queena Kim Apr 23, 2013

Silicon Valley is known as the cradle of innovation, right? And you could make the case that Apple, Google and Facebook — all in Silicon Valley –– are some of the sexiest companies in business right now.

But here’’s the thing, when you drive around Silicon Valley its pretty boring –– just freeways and office parks.

Apple, Google and Facebook are aiming to change that. The tech companies are breaking ground on new corporate headquarters that promise to be architectural landmarks.

Apple’s “mothership”

Apple is building a gigantic, circular building made out of glass with room for 12,000 people.

“Some people have described it as the mothership that has landed. A place for some kind of harmonic convergence. Or as an iPod click wheel,” said Brian Schermer, a professor of architecture at the University of Wisconsin.

And like Apple’s most iconic products, the building will be a wonder of technology and design. It’ll generate its own electricity, with more than 700,000-square feet of solar panels. The center of the circle, which is a about a mile across, will be filled with Apple orchards and trails.

And the building itself will be sheathed in gigantic 40-foot-high panels of curved glass — something that’s never been tried before.

“I tend to think of the building as a philosophy and approach to the creation of objects and that’s seamless, timeless beautiful,” Schermer said.

The late Steve Jobs, with his usual modesty, presented plans for Apple’s new headquarters to the Cupertino City Council in 2011.

“I think we do have a shot of building the best office building in the world. I really do think architecture students will come here to see this,” Jobs said.

The new Apple headquarters will sit on the hallowed ground of Hewlett-Packard’s former headquarters — the company that started it all. But it couldn’t be a bigger break from Silicon Valley’s architectural tradition.

For all the glamour associated with tech these days, the architecture in Silicon Valley can be summed up in two words: office parks, said Louise Mozingo is a professor at UC Berkeley and the author of “Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes.”

“They’re kinda like the building and landscape version of khakis and polo shirts,” she said.

Not very sexy, but adaptable.

“Your company booms, you move outward. Your company shrinks, new innovators come in and take over,” Mozingo said.

With its new headquarters, Apple is changing that paradigm.

“This kind of move on the part of a corporation represents a company that’s matured and has an interest in being sort of seen as an institution,” Mozingo said.

“Bay View” (aka a whimsical office park for Google)

About 10 miles north in Mountain View, Google is putting forward a different vision with its new headquarters called “Bay View.” If Apple is about an eco-system, where the iPod, iPhone, iPad feed into each other in an endless circle, Google’s business is unpredictable.

“Our business is constantly changing,” said Anthony Ravitz, who works on Google’s real estate and workplace services team.

While Google makes most of its money off search, it’s also into smartphones, driverless cars, electronic wallets — and it’s set to release Google Glass, a wearable computer that sits on your face like glasses.

“In 50 years, what will our business look like and how can we evolve the space over time?” Ravitz said.

The answer is “Bay View,” which is made up of about a dozen buildings that look very much like… an “office park.” The “J”-shaped buildings fit together around a series of outdoor courtyards and the campus sits right on the southern shores of the San Francisco Bay. Google is restoring the wetlands around it and creating a natural habitat for its own workers. There will be paths along the water for jogging and bike riding and places for Googlers to practice yoga or ride scooters on the rooftop gardens.

“We definitely want this campus to be a reflection of our culture and whimsy is a part of that,” Ravitz said.

Google believes innovation can’t be planned, but it can be fostered by creating spaces where employees can run into each other and share ideas. And the San Francisco Bay is rarely out of view.

“There’s a lot of data out there showing that access to views impacts us physiologically,” Ravitz said.

Louise Mozingo, the UC Berkeley professor, says that Google’s new headquarters is iconic in its own way. It’s not about the building but the idea that you can actually create spaces that lead to innovation.

“Each one of these reflect a very different kind of corporate persona,” she said.

Mozingo says Apple and Google could cement Silicon Valley’s reputation as ground zero for technological and architectural innovation.

We’ll know in a few years if the tour buses start rolling by.

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