The Spell of Hot Desk

Be careful what you wish for.

A few years ago, I drove past the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, CA, and was supremely disappointed that it was not in the shape of a giant silver lozenge with a smooth black screen for windows. Instead, it was in an undistinguished 1980s speculative office development. Viewed from the standpoint of architecture, Apple’s naming its internal street “Infinite Loop” calls to mind less a virtuous cycle of innovation than a spinning beach ball of stagnation – maybe the smarties at Apple were just too busy inventing the future to care about what their buildings were like.

Flash forward three years or so, and Apple is granting my errant wish. The company has hired Sir Norman Foster, to the tune of $3 billion, then $5 billion, to build a 2.8 million square-foot circular headquarters building that could very easily double as an Apple product. And, much like an Apple product, the design is sleek and impenetrable, with custom fittings, tight engineering, and a suitable air of mystery. It’s an alien spacecraft lodged in the woods, humming and ominous with genius power. Touch it and you’ll void your warranty.

The exceptionalism of Silicon Valley has been extensively explored by writers such as Alexandra Lange in The Dot-Com City: Silicon Valley Urbanism and George Packer in the New Yorker. Founded in a hippie ethos of sharing and scalability, fond of words like “open” and “frictionless,” and flush with cash, the Valley seems like an ideal place for experimenting, not only with architectural form, but with new feats of boundary-smashing in terms of urbanism and social participation. But the pace of architectural innovation is at least 20 years behind the technology the region produces, and its relationship with the urban landscape, culture and social equity in its own backyard is…complex.

Too Much: The Magic Bus

On the one hand, the ongoing tech boom has produced a wave of gentrification that has scrubbed clean San Francisco’s formerly scruffy South of Market Area (SOMA), the Mission, and other areas in the city’s southeast that had formerly been derelict or low-income. On the other, this has meant even more astronomical rents than before, pushing out what’s left of the city’s poor to a few isolated districts.

This is one of the many places where the cognitive dissonance between the tech industry’s “open” and “sharing” philosophies emerges like a seismic fault in the landscape. The “thinking class” is considered so important, and their activities so proprietary, that its employers don’t want them to waste time driving or risk leaking secrets to the hoi polloi on the Caltrain. As such, their relationship with Silicon Valley is sealed off. There is little incentive to interact with their surroundings, where the working poor are also being increasingly edged out, invisible to their digital overlords in their commutes and daily lives, as street life is practically nonexistent.

Of course, they don’t have to live in the Valley at all – they can live in hip corners of San Francisco, where they don’t have to engage with the underclass in the street life of the city, because the underclass has been all but eliminated. According to Packer, blooms of even more inaccessible rents and gentrification emerge wherever a Google or Facebook bus stop is established.

This would be an open-and-shut case of corporate indifference, were it not for the nagging openness ethos of Silicon Valley, and the efforts of owners to invest millions in exploring new ways to “engineer serendipity” and increase the productivity resulting from random collisions on their campuses – by design. This second subject has been studied intensely by my friend and esteemed colleague Greg Lindsay, a New York University visiting scholar who has commented on the primitiveness of most companies’ attempts. It hasn’t stopped more from trying.

Casual Collisions

In recent months, Yahoo! banned working from home and Google unveiled a new, NBBJ-designed campus in Mountain View that it said was intended to maximize “casual collisions.”

Concurrently, Facebook announced that it had retained Frank Gehry to build its new headquarters expansion across from its current multi-building campus in Menlo Park. The Gehry design includes a 433,555 square-foot building, containing a one-mile-long continuous room.

The whole thing is to be festooned with plantings, such that it almost appears to be a hillside instead of a building. It will be an indoor version of the open “street” of the current Facebook campus, which was designed by BAR Architects for Sun Microsystems before that company was absorbed into Oracle.

Access from the Gehry idea-shooting gallery to the existing campus will be through a tunnel under the Bayfront Expressway. Sited on a small peninsula jutting into San Francisco Bay, the Sun campus is so insular and isolated that it was commonly referred to as “Sun Quentin.” And while Facebook has adorned Sun Quentin’s central plaza with the word “hack,” visible from the air, the lightning rod of over-sharing does not seem intent on making its substantial and growing Valley presence more “interactive.” Wired magazine, noting the unusual choice of one the world’s flashiest architects for a practically anonymous building, likened the planted shroud to Mark Zuckerberg’s hoodie.

Will Code for Pizza

The concern with the quality of the work environment is relatively new. For many years, Silicon Valley was not so much an “idea factory” as a place where machines were made – hard drives, servers, and superconductors – and it looked the part. Squat, tilt-up concrete, single-story office and light-industrial buildings filled the valley floor in the 1970s and 1980s. This was not due to distraction. This was the reflection of a deliberate policy, informed by something bordering superstition.


“There is this myth in Silicon Valley, that if you build a ‘vanity campus,’ you are destined to fail immediately,” says John Marx, principal of San Francisco architecture firm Form4, who has designed more than 6 million square feet in the Valley over the past three decades. “It is so prevalent. The companies all come back to the same thing - they want to be modest and hidden, they don’t want anyone to notice them or anything to be special in the exterior, or the environment. They want the inside to be pretty dull. Many of them are interested in productivity. They have an engineering focus and are very pragmatic.”

Now, the campuses of Facebook, Netflix, VMWare and Nvidia are being designed or re-designed as frothy, active spaces, with open plans, breakout rooms, and “hot desks” that are little more than Internet connection points for laptops. It’s a bit like the Mr. Show parody of the ‘90s startup ethos, GV Corporation, “where ideas can hang out, and do whatever!”

This was not always so.

“Back in the ‘80s, the developers would walk over to a door and slip pieces of paper through a slot,” Marx says. “They did not see or know who was on the other side. They had no idea if it went to India. That door never opened. They just shoved pizzas through there, and a few months later floppy discs would come out. They would take them, and that would be what they needed. These groups never met.”

The prevailing organizational attitude toward product development and the design meant to foster it, has changed drastically. Today, everything is about connectivity, fast iteration, collaboration and agility between executive, developer and engineer.

Let’s Hang Out / Don’t Look at Me

Yet even in Silicon Valley 3.0, serendipity engineering is often limited to stage-managing functional collisions within the walls of manicured, all-inclusive, and purposefully bland campuses. Leadership still has very little interest in encouraging serendipitous interactions with anyone who doesn’t already work at the company. The nerds won, and they don’t want to share.

At many companies, the vanity-campus superstition persists. At NVidia, the graphics-card producer, Form4’s initial design was rejected because the owners thought the building was “too nice,” Marx says. The implication was that an adventuresome building would drive investors and customers to think the company was blowing cash on decoration instead of optimizing the cost efficiency of its product. This paranoia is taken to such extremes that owners of high-end cars are asked to park well out of sight.

“Owners want the architecture to reinforce the notion that they will fail in 30 days if they come up with a brilliant idea and don’t do an incredible job,” Marx says. “Everyone wants to be lean and hungry. They all come from being a couple people in a garage. It’s this perpetual bootstrapping. You maybe hit the jackpot the fourth time out. That’s what makes them feel excited. It’s hard when you have 3,000 employees as opposed to 40, but that is the attitude they want to maintain.”

In the book, Wandering Through the Garden of Technology and Passion, Pierluigi Serraino notes on Form4’s design for NVidia:

“When the surroundings lack a sense of place, as in the case of virtually all Silicon Valley office parks, place-making becomes an inside-out design affair. It is the center of the project with controlled elevations and ground conditions that becomes the starting point to instilling in the users a sense of belonging.” 

But the sense of belonging is only for authorized users. Everyone else has to look at parking lots and strip planting.

Arrested Development

Sometimes, inattention plus an unwillingness to fight conservative local planning authorities wins the day. In Los Gatos, developments are persistently held to a neo-Tuscan look, making it hard to tell a Holiday Inn from a Maggiano’s from the town hall. Or in this case, Netflix.

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings apparently has no office, though one wonders whether his mobile chair has an “eject” button after the company’s recent streaming / DVD rental pricing debacle. The perpetrators of the rebooted, all-streaming Arrested Development lived up to the name when it came to dreaming up their new 500,000 square-foot campus. 

“They had us do buildings that looked almost exactly like their original ones,” Marx says. “Netflix had a whole bunch of money and didn’t care how much the buildings cost. Hastings did not necessarily have a sense of architecture. Everyone wondered what he wanted to do. He just said, ‘something like the ones we already have.’ That’s the only thing he ever said. Everyone was trying to run around and figure out what they meant by the three words they said. It’s maddening and not uncommon.” Even the glassy pizazz Form4 tried to inject into an inter-Tuscan bridge was too sexy for Netflix; a more conservative design was ultimately chosen.

“It’s a counterintuitive insight,” Marx says. “These companies are changing the world, but their architecture is conservative.”

I Want The Best – Whatever That Is

It’s not impossible to understand why Silicon Valley leaders seem only to want to work with starchitects who are willing to bow under to their vision.  When VMWare, the virtualization vendor, took over the Syntex / Roche campus in Palo Alto, it originally hired green-machine Bill McDonough to do the first crop of five new buildings. The veteran of the Gap headquarters building and poster-child for sustainability was booted for the next wave; apparently no one at VMWare wanted its buildings on the cover of Time. Form4 remained on the job for the next wave, advancing from shell-and-core to full building design, but working with VMWare so rankled Peter Walker, landscape architect responsible for the 9/11 Memorial and Constitution Gardens on the National Mall, that he bailed.


“The landscaping plan was very nice, but they value-engineered everything out of it,” Marx says. “Peter Walker dropped out in frustration a third of the way through. These facilities people don’t get out a lot. They say ‘we want the best campus in Silicon Valley,’ and they have no idea what that is. You tell them what it is in good faith, and they backtrack. They want stuff that is more like what they’re used to.”


He’s The Guru of the City / No One Told the Councilor

What do the communities want? If the Cupertino town planning meeting that played host to Apple’s unveiling of the spaceship / doughnut is any indication, civic leaders, after cleaning up the puddles of drool at the prospect that the Master would not abandon their tax jurisdiction, felt the most they could ask for was free Wi-Fi and an Apple store outlet (they’re getting neither).

The Apple campus isn’t all bad, of course – it is reducing the amount of surface parking on the site, adding trees, and potentially reducing motor traffic by consolidating locations. But it could be so much better, especially for a company that is so devoted to improving connectivity, and is so exacting about its intellectual property that it even patents its store designs. Or that doesn’t seem to want to pay Federal taxes that would help raise the boats for many more people than those who have the privilege and educational background to think apps can solve everything. We don’t expect to be allowed to wander through the offices at random, where the magic happens. We gladly accept that the devices and apps that dazzle us require a little privacy to develop. But is it too much to ask the richest and most dynamic companies left in the country to produce buildings that help make cities, instead of turning their backs on them?

Stand In the Place Where You Are

If communities are too cowed to ask for a better urban landscape than the one they have, from the companies that will use their utilities and services, then perhaps it is time to turn to the only party that strikes fear in the heart of our digital overlords: Shareholders.

Shareholders have aligned in the past to put pressure on companies to withdraw from questionable supply-chain, labor and environmental practices. Why not pile on companies to hold them accountable for the urban realm they inhabit?

If there ever is a shareholder revolt at Apple, I nominate Prof. Hillel Schocken, an architect from Israel who was so incensed and disappointed by the “spaceship” plan that he wrote a three-page letter to Steve Jobs and commissioned his students to design an “Apple City” that better accommodates its citizens – no matter who employs them.

“You might begin by looking at the surrounding roads with the intention to turn them into lively streets,” Prof. Schocken wrote. “These public spaces would be your anchors to Cupertino. Your exciting, state-of-the-art buildings, most probably built along these streets, could allow for commercial uses at ground level with mixed uses of offices and housing in the floors above. In order to encourage people to walk, you should examine the dimension of the street grid in the adjacent area and align new streets with those, so that people from the surrounding residential areas would be encouraged to walk across your site to other locations in the vicinity.”

I Liked It So Much, I Bought the City

If the shareholders can’t be driven to pit Jane Jacobs against the Jobs Juggernaut, there is at least one tech company with a an urban urge that is, to use a favorite industry term “disrupting” the prevailing inward-looking ethos of the tech giants. It’s happening in an even more desolate urban environment than Silicon Valley – Las Vegas.

As chronicled extensively in Next American City, Zappos, the online shoe retailer, is more or less single-handedly taking over downtown Las Vegas, under the leadership of CEO Tony Hsieh. The company has moved 1,200 staff from a suburban campus to a warren of underused buildings in the city center –including, as if its presence weren’t auspicious enough, the former City Hall. Hsieh is the sole shareholder of the Downtown Project, which aims to transform downtown Las Vegas into a proper high-density neighborhood that not only provides the urban life Zapponians left behind in San Francisco, but to make it a place that attracts others. To make good on that promise, the Downtown Project has already opened a co-working center. And there will also be a flaming grasshopper-bot, something every downtown will soon be unable to do without.

The theory, it seems, is that the much sought-after serendipity can be sourced from the street, as well as from company cafeterias with foos-ball tables. Whether ceding the entire downtown to an enterprising young executive and his urban-renewal plan is a formula for good architecture or a sustainable economy remains to be seen. “I own this town,” is something a fair number of real and fictive gangsters have said of Las Vegas. But even if the nominally benevolent Hsieh could say the same thing, could he be to Las Vegas in the 21st century what Rockefeller, McCormick and Chandler were to the civic realm in their respective cities previous two centuries?

It’s too early to say. But for an industry and a region that loves to talk about how much it “thinks different” and “thinks out of the box,” it’s potentially significant that one of its own had to go somewhere else to figure out how to perforate the box.